The Hope Center’s 2023 Federal Policy Priorities

Released April 3, 2023 


As the United States continues to recover from the economic and public health crises of the past three years, it is more important than ever for federal policymakers to support and invest in family financial stability and postsecondary student success. Doing so will allow more students to pursue their dreams through education, resulting in a more prosperous, equitable, civic-minded, and healthy society. Yet we will only succeed at these goals by ensuring that all students enrolled in higher education can meet their basic needs. Today, three in five college students do not have enough to eat or a stable place to live, with far higher rates for Black, Native, and Indigenous students, parenting students, LGBTQ+ students, and other groups of students that have been systemically marginalized by policymakers and institutions. Students cannot be expected to focus on working toward a degree or credential if they are worried about where their next meal will come from, if they can afford rent or essential utilities, or whether they have access to child care.  

The pandemic has laid bare—and exacerbated—staggering inequities in students’ basic needs security. Recognizing this, federal policymakers enacted a sweeping set of measures after the onset of the public health crisis to provide direct financial support to students and families, and ease bureaucratic hurdles that prevent students from accessing vital supports that could address their basic needs. 

Unfortunately, many of these supports were temporary, and the end of pandemic-era support and cash assistance is already reigniting longstanding financial challenges among families with low and middle incomes. This has created economic instability and threatens student success nationwide. Federal policymakers must act swiftly. 

Higher education is now out of reach for millions of families because of rising prices, insufficient financial aid, low wages, and a growing racial wealth gap. These pressures have created disproportionate structural disadvantages for Black and Brown students, Indigenous students, immigrants, LGBTQ+ students, and students with low incomes.  

Today, most students must work through college while relying on inadequate support from federal, state, and institutional sources to finance the full price of college—a price that comprises far more than tuition and fees. Students are also forced to shoulder the cost of food, housing, child care, physical and mental health care, technology, transportation, and other necessities. For some, these costs prove insurmountable to completing an education. For others, they result in a decades-long student debt trap that contributes to a wealth gap in which the typical white household has $8 in unearned wealth for every $1 held by the typical Black household. An alarming number of families are just one unexpected expense away from shattered dreams. 

Too often, federal policy has stood in the way of students meeting their basic needs rather than supporting them. The purchasing power of federal financial aid has fallen to its lowest level in a half century. Congress has largely looked the other way as states have divested from public colleges and passed costs on to students and their families. Many students have also been excluded from federal grants and loans through harmful eligibility restrictions on enrollment intensity, academic progress, time-to-degree, citizenship, and administrative burdens of the financial aid process. Public benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) counterproductively shut out many—if not most—college students experiencing basic needs insecurity through complex, outdated, and short-sighted eligibility and work requirements. 

These policy failures are reflected in the persistent, predictable, and unconscionable rates of basic needs insecurity across our higher education system. In addition, rates of anxiety, depression, and mental health challenges have risen dramatically and students face new barriers to accessing essential reproductive health services. It is time for structural change to secure students’ basic needs and allow them to thrive. 

The federal government deserves credit for stepping up with unprecedented support for students and families during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic—including nearly $40 billion for the first-ever federal investment in emergency aid grants. Unfortunately, much of that support has now expired or is set to expire in the coming months. Letting flexibilities in public benefits like SNAP and Medicaid expire will likely push many families over a financial cliff and damage the country’s progress in improving student success and workforce outcomes. 

The Hope Center urges the federal government to treat students as humans first by helping them afford the full cost of higher education. We call for: major reforms to financial aid and public benefits to focus on students’ basic needs, significant increases in federal funding for public institutions and grant programs that support students’ basic needs, better outreach to students about available resources, and more equitable design and implementation of federal financial aid programs.  

Priorities for the 118th Congress 

The following priorities for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in 2023-24 include both authorizing and appropriations requests. To view the Hope Center’s Fiscal Year 2024 appropriations priorities, click here. Members of Congress are encouraged to use these funding requests to guide their own appropriations requests. 

Fund the social safety net.

Congress needs to act this year to raise the national “debt ceiling” to pay the nation’s bills—expenditures that have already been authorized by law. Policymakers must avoid cutting an already threadbare social safety net, including the SNAP and Medicaid programs, which help students meet their basic needs. Congress should also avoid unnecessary brinksmanship with this routine budgetary requirement, as market instability leads to rising prices and financial harm for consumers. Students and their families are already struggling to afford everyday expenses. Our grim reality should not be exacerbated by politics in Washington. 

Remove barriers to SNAP for students.

More than one in three (34%) college students report low or very low levels of food security and an additional 13% report only marginal food security. Yet, fewer than one in five (18%) students who report experiencing basic needs insecurity are enrolled in SNAP. As Congress works to reauthorize the farm bill this year, it must seize the opportunity to remove barriers to SNAP for college students.  For example, most students with low incomes only qualify for SNAP by working 20-hours per week on top of their coursework—a rule that Congressional leaders and Administration have acknowledged is “out of date.”   

The SNAP program’s dizzying maze of student rules creates significant administrative burdens, confuses students, worsens food insecurity, and harms the country’s workforce development efforts. The Government Accountability Office estimates that 57% of students who are likely food insecure and potentially income-eligible for SNAP (representing more than 1.8 million students) do not receive benefits. The Hope Center’s data find that fewer than one in five (18%) students who report experiencing basic needs insecurity were enrolled in SNAP. 

During the farm bill reauthorization, Congress should address student food insecurity by overhauling and simplifying SNAP eligibility rules, including removing the work requirement for students in higher education. The Student Food Security Act and Enhance Access to SNAP (EATS) Act serve as models for streamlining eligibility and providing essential SNAP flexibility for students. Additionally, the farm bill should promote access to nutritious meals to students who are already at risk of food insecurity, including expanding options for students to use SNAP benefits on campus. The Food for Thought Act would create a pilot within the National School Lunch Program to allow community colleges to serve free or low-cost meals to students. 

While the farm bill reauthorization process is underway, Congress should also act to maintain SNAP flexibilities put in place under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. (CRRSAA), which temporarily waived work requirements for students who have a $0 expected family contribution (EFC) or are eligible for work-study, thereby allowing up to 3 million students with low incomes and their children or households to receive up to $700 per month for food. Allowing these flexibilities to expire before the farm bill can be reauthorized will create an unnecessary hunger cliff for millions of students and their families. Combined with the expiration of pandemic-era emergency allotments to SNAP, campus and community food assistance will be overwhelmed and fall far short of meeting students’ urgent needs. Congress should extend the CRRSAA flexibilities as soon as possible. 

As Congress works to remove SNAP work requirements, it should also remove the substantial restrictions for students in the TANF program, such as work requirements, time limits, and program-of-study limitations, which all limit the pursuit of education that leads to family-supporting jobs. The Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) should be updated to ensure that all states provide parenting students with low incomes access to subsidies to afford child care.

Make federal emergency aid grants permanent.

Over the course of two years during the height of the pandemic, Congress provided nearly $40 billion for emergency aid for students to help them survive and stay enrolled in college. These grants were essential to helping students meet their basic needs. More than three in five recipients say they used emergency funds to purchase food, and around half of students used these funds for housing. Unfortunately, nearly all of these historic federal emergency aid grant funds have now been exhausted, leaving many students once again unable to cover unexpected or basic expenses. Congress should pass the Emergency Grant Aid for College Students Act, which would establish a permanent emergency aid program for students—and they should robustly fund it.  

Further, Congress should consider reforming campus-based aid programs to deliver more emergency aid to students. The Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) program has been allowed to function as emergency aid under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act during the public health emergency period and shortly thereafter. Congress should extend this SEOG flexibility immediately.  

The campus-based aid programs also need an overhaul. During the pandemic, the CARES Act allowed the transfer of Federal Work-Study (FWS) funds into SEOG, thereby alleviating a work requirement for some aid. Financial aid administrators should be given the authority to approve a conversion of FWS into a grant on at least a case-by-case basis when a student is struggling to meet basic needs while balancing work and academic responsibilities. FWS can also be reformed to better incentivize community service activities that reduce basic needs insecurity, such as working in peer support roles at on-campus basic needs hubs or food pantries. Congress should also reform the inequitable allocation formula for SEOG and FWS to support the colleges where students with low incomes enroll. 

Expand comprehensive approaches to basic needs security.

There is growing evidence that comprehensive approaches to addressing student basic needs insecurity are the most promising for student success. While more siloed efforts to provide direct services at the institutional level such as food pantries and transportation subsidies are often vital, students who experience basic needs insecurity are usually experiencing multiple interrelated financial challenges. Federal grants should incentivize colleges to leverage public benefits, tax benefits, and community resources to assist students and to take steps to centralize these resources into one accessible location for students (e.g. basic needs hubs or one-stop centers) just as several states (e.g. California, Illinois, and Oregon) have mandated for their public colleges.  

For example, Congress should substantially increase funding for the Basic Needs for Postsecondary Students Program (“Basic Needs Grants”), which provides competitive funding for community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) to build programs that comprehensively address basic needs insecurity. This program has already been created on a temporary basis, but Congress should pass the BASIC Act to codify the Basic Needs Grant program for colleges and ensure its continued success.  

Support parenting students through on-campus child care.

More than one in five undergraduates, and nearly one in three graduate and professional students, are raising children while enrolled in college. Parenting students experience basic needs insecurity at substantially higher rates than non-parenting students (70% vs 55%) and parents of color struggle even more. Congress should dramatically increase funding for programs like Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS)—the only federal program dedicated to helping parenting students. While recent federal funding increases for the program are laudable, it remains funded far below the amount to support parenting students. And, the number of colleges with on-campus child care facilities has declined from 59% to 43% between the 2004-05 and 2021-22 school years. Congress should also pass the CCAMPIS Reauthorization Act, which would help federal investments in CCAMPIS reach more students, improve wrap-around services for parenting students, and reduce burdens on grant recipients.   

Congress should also reinstate the successful monthly Child Tax Credit, which dramatically reduced child poverty before it was allowed to expire. Many parenting students benefitted from the financial support of the Child Tax Credit, lowering food insecurity for themselves and their children and allowing them to seek education and training opportunities. to seek out education and training opportunities. 

Invest in student mental health.

Inadequate nutrition, hunger, and food insecurity can directly lead to poor physical health, anxiety, stress, and depression. In addition, untreated mental health disorders can result in students’ experiencing basic needs insecurity. The Hope Center’s Basic Needs Survey data show that one in three students report experiencing depression, and another third experience anxiety. These findings are consistent with the 2021-22 Healthy Minds Survey, which finds that nearly half (44%) of all college students are struggling with clinically significant anxiety or depression, but only 48% of students with positive depression or anxiety screens have had mental health counseling and/or therapy in the past year. While the pandemic worsened these trends, students were already struggling with escalating mental and behavioral health issues, undoubtedly—at least in part—caused by and resulting in basic needs insecurity. According to a 2022 survey on the mental health crisis in higher education by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation, more than 40% of students currently enrolled in an undergraduate degree program had considered dropping out in the past six months, up from 34% in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Congress should robustly fund and update the Garrett Lee Smith (GLS) Campus Suicide Prevention Grant program, the only federal program currently available to directly support college students' mental and behavioral health services. Congress should also reform GLS to remove barriers to participation for under-resourced institutions, as suggested by Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Reauthorization Act. In addition, Congress should update the Higher Education Act to require colleges to provide information to their students on affordable mental health resources and refer struggling students to public benefits to help them address contributing factors to their mental health. 

Further simplify and expand access to federal financial aid.

Congress passed the bipartisan Fostering Undergraduate Talent by Unlocking Resources for Education (FUTURE) Act and FAFSA Simplification Act in 2019 and 2020, respectively, which together hold the promise of significantly simplifying the federal financial aid process for many students who disproportionately experience basic needs insecurity. Students not in contact with their parents, students experiencing homelessness, former foster youth, and single parenting students all stand to benefit from this overhaul.  

Congress should continue to remove eligibility restrictions from financial aid programs and simplify the FAFSA. Congress should allow students receiving means-tested benefits to automatically qualify for the maximum Pell Grant and make undocumented students, including Dreamers, eligible for federal financial aid. Congress should pass the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act to substantially increase the maximum Pell Grant, allow students more time to use their federal aid, and reform inequitable Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) policies. It is also critical to robustly fund the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid so that they have the resources needed to swiftly implement the FUTURE Act, FAFSA Simplification Act, and other related improvements to the financial aid process., and other related improvements to the financial aid process. 

Reduce housing insecurity and homelessness for students.

Since 2005, HUD public and assisted housing programs and the LIHTC have had severe restrictions that prevent nearly all college students under age 24 from receiving support because of the false and outdated assumption that all college students have access to on-campus housing or are otherwise financially supported by their family. Congress should pass the Housing for Homeless Students Act, which would allow students to live in LIHTC housing if they’ve experienced homelessness within the last seven years. 

Additionally, financial aid received by students for non-tuition costs is generally counted as “income” for determining a family’s HUD program eligibility, which significantly and unfairly disincentivizes students in supported families from seeking higher education. Congress should remove these restrictions in HUD programs and exclude all financial aid from being counted as income. 

Students experiencing homelessness or students at risk of becoming homeless are more likely to stop out of college. Former foster youth also struggle to afford college without family resources, with as few as 14% of former foster youth being able to complete college. Congress should pass the Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act and Fostering Success in Higher Education Act to simplify the financial aid process for these students and ensure they receive in-state tuition. Congress should also revive funding for emergency rental assistance through the appropriations process, modeled off the Treasury Department’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). 

Create a federal-state partnership to make college more affordable.

To guarantee college affordability for the next generation, Congress should create a federal partnership with states to waive tuition and fees at public colleges and universities—starting with community colleges, HBCUs, TCUs, and other MSIs. Any federal-state partnership must encourage states to reinvest in public higher education and financial aid to benefit all students, while connecting students with resources to ensure that they can also pay for nontuition expenses without going into debt. The Debt-Free College Act, America’s College Promise Act, and the College for All Act serve as important models to achieve this goal. 

Funding to states or institutions should use formulas that prioritize part-time students. Federal funding formulas have often relied on full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment, which inaccurately assumes that part-time students require fewer resources to educate or that they require lower levels of basic needs support. Congress should ensure that direct funding to states or institutions uses a formula based on total headcount, and not FTEs, to reduce inequities for students and colleges. 

Stop taxing Pell Grants and other financial aid.

Today, nontuition expenses make up the majority of the price of public college. Yet, any student who receives a Pell Grant, or any other grant or scholarship aid, is taxed on the amount of the grant that exceeds tuition and fees. The portion of the grant a student uses to cover their basic needs like food and housing can trigger a surprise tax bill. This is particularly harmful to community college students, where unmet need is often high due to costs other than tuition and fees. Congress should pass the Tax-Free Pell Grant Act.  

Congress should also remove tax liability from state and institutional financial aid, scholarships, and any other grant aid. Further, Congress should introduce legislation to reform and enhance education tax benefits like the American Opportunity Tax Credit and Lifetime Learning Credit, which are rarely claimed by students with low incomes and disproportionately favor wealthier tax filers. 

Guarantee students’ access to reproductive health care.

Reproductive health is a fundamental right and essential to ensuring students can thrive while enrolled in higher education. In addition to providing additional funding for emergency aid to be used for essential health services and transportation as necessary, Congress must also work to protect the reproductive rights of students and their families. Congress should pass the Ensuring Women’s Right to Reproductive Freedom Act and Women’s Health Protection Act to codify reproductive rights into law and reaffirm the rights of students and families traveling across state lines to receive reproductive care. 

Priorities for the Biden-Harris Administration 

The following priorities are applicable to federal agencies and the White House for 2023-24. 

Act to prevent a basic needs crisis as the public health emergency expires.

Unacceptably high levels of basic needs insecurity are likely to get much worse—and soon. The end of the public health emergency (PHE) declaration and provisions from the FY 2023 omnibus funding bill will financially harm students and their families. Expiring flexibilities and funding for programs like SNAP and Medicaid will leave those who are struggling with few options, as community service providers will be overwhelmed and unable to meet demand.  

Given the underutilization of SNAP by college students, and a conspicuous lack of state outreach to students around SNAP eligibility, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) should issue further guidance to states to ensure all current exemptions outside of the 20-hour work rule are being fully and routinely utilized. FNS should also require states to post disaggregated data on the enrollment of college students in SNAP. FNS must also ensure that all states have robust plans to screen students for potential eligibility for SNAP exemptions so that they are not inadvertently denied food assistance. In addition, FNS should issue guidance clarifying that many students with low incomes—including: students approved for federal or state work study, regardless of whether a position has been secured or funded; students enrolled in community college and other career-focused programs that result in high employability—and students with disabilities are not required to satisfy any work requirements to access SNAP benefits if they otherwise meet income requirements. 

Notify students about public benefits on a regular basis.

The Administration should establish data-sharing agreements between the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and all federal agencies that administer public benefits programs to regularly identify students who could be eligible for support, especially in programs where restrictions are complicated or student take-up is low, such as SNAP and tax benefits. These data-sharing agreements are authorized by the FAFSA Simplification Act, and ED should also codify their continued existence in regulation. ED has already helpfully reminded institutions of their ability to leverage FAFSA data to communicate the availability of public benefits and help students verify their eligibility for these programs. Additionally, ED should proactively, automatically, and regularly notify all students who apply for federal financial aid of their potential eligibility for public benefits programs, as authorized by the FAFSA Simplification Act. 

Ensure regulations leverage improvements to meet students’ basic needs.

As ED conducts negotiated rulemaking throughout 2023, it must ensure that students’ basic needs are considered in all aspects of affordability and accountability improvements. First, ED should ensure “administrative capability” regulations—and any other regulations governing financial aid processes—require institutions to provide information on public benefits and emergency aid programs and make options for students to appeal their financial aid package transparent and easily accessible. Additionally, ED should adopt regulations to end the practice of “transcript ransoms” or “transcript withholding” which block students from accessing a record of their completed coursework when they have an outstanding balance—even a small one—from their institution. Many of these balances are the direct result of basic needs insecurity and high college prices. Students who completed coursework need access to these records to continue their education and, frequently, to obtain gainful employment. 

Reform Satisfactory Academic Progress.

Most of the federal financial aid programs have inequitable eligibility requirements that closely resemble merit aid. For example, students are generally stripped of federal financial aid, and often state and institutional aid, if their academic performance falls below the federal SAP thresholds: Grade Point Average (GPA) below 2.0 or a course completion rate below 67%. These restrictions disproportionately harm Black, Latine, and Native, and Indigenous students, as well as those involved in the foster care system. Students may experience academic difficulties or take fewer classes simply because they struggle with basic needs insecurity, eventually failing SAP standards and rendering them ineligible for the very financial aid they need to stay enrolled in college. It is important for ED to reform SAP by issuing guidance to ensure that students who stop out can have their financial aid eligibility restored no later than two years after leaving, establish more flexibility for students to appeal SAP triggers based on extenuating circumstances, and enhance the amount of information and warnings students receive about SAP requirements before they lose aid. These policies should also be cemented in revisions to SAP regulations.

Implement the FAFSA Simplification Act to reduce student basic needs insecurity.

As ED works to implement the FUTURE Act and FAFSA Simplification Act, it must seize all opportunities to support students’ basic needs security. As previously mentioned, ED should establish data-sharing agreements with other federal agencies to expand access to public benefits. ED should also use the Secretary’s authority to designate any additional means-tested programs that can support students’ basic needs, including the Affordable Connectivity Program, as eligible programs to qualify students for the lowest Student Aid Index (SAI). States and colleges can then use this data to provide customized information to students about public benefits they may be eligible for, and to assist them in the process of enrolling in such programs. 

ED should also issue additional guidance and conduct rulemaking on “cost of attendance” rules to ensure colleges’ estimates of food, housing, textbooks, child care, and other costs accurately reflect the amount students pay. It is also essential for ED to ensure that the new negative SAI can be used to leverage additional federal, state, and institutional aid for students most in need of support—and avoid restricting aid for students to only the published cost of attendance when students likely face costs far beyond amounts established by the college (for example, due to caregiving responsibilities or medical expenses). Finally, ED should work with states to encourage them to reform their financial aid programs in equitable ways that support non-tuition costs at the same time those states are already making updates to their state-based financial aid programs and eligibility rules. The Hope Center looks forward to working with ED to provide robust feedback on the draft 2024-25 FAFSA and during the consumer testing process. 

Advance broad-based student debt relief.

Student debt relief and cancellation helps to ensure students and their families can return to school, claim public benefits, and avoid harmful wage garnishment. A substantial portion of outstanding student loan debt was incurred to pay for non-tuition expenses and basic needs, and primarily harms Black, low-income, and female borrowers. The Administration’s plan to cancel $10,000 of student debt for most borrowers, and $20,000 for those who received a Pell Grant, begins to address the fundamental racial and economic injustice embedded in our student loan program. The Administration should continue to pursue it using all statutory authorities. In addition, the current pause on student loan payments has been a lifeline to current students who struggle with basic needs and a major investment in their college affordability. The payment pause also helps recent students who have had to temporarily stop out of college and borrowers who support their families. Finally, the Administration’s announcement to create a “fresh start” for borrowers in default will allow more students, especially those with debt and no degree, to return to higher education and complete a credential. The Administration should continue the pause on student loan payments until current or future litigation around its cancellation program is resolved and it can fully implement major reforms to the broken student loan system. The Administration should also continue to halt all collections of tax benefits like the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit for borrowers who enter default.  

Provide additional housing support to students experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development should explore opportunities to encourage both Moving to Work (MTW) and non-MTW public housing authorities to partner with community colleges, HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs to provide housing support to students experiencing homelessness or who are at-risk of homelessness. These efforts should implement best practices learned from previous evaluations of college housing initiatives, including the need to reduce application barriers, partner with local nonprofits that have expertise in housing policies, and combat discrimination against voucher holders. 

Protect students’ reproductive rights, including access to abortion.

ED must use all its regulatory tools to safeguard abortion access for students, including those in states that have severely restricted or banned abortion rights in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling. In implementing the Cost of Attendance rules as revised by the FAFSA Simplification Act, ED should interpret allowances for “miscellaneous personal expenses” and “transportation” to include traveling out of state for abortion care, including purchasing medication abortion and contraceptives, and other family planning needs. In addition, Professional Judgment rules allow for cost of attendance or student aid index adjustments for “medical, dental, or nursing home expenses not covered by insurance,” which ED should affirm includes abortion care. 

ED should also issue further guidance clarifying that emergency grant aid, including funds that remain from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), SEOG, or funding through the grant programs within the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), can be used for a range of student health services and expenses, including reproductive care, contraceptives, and family planning. Finally, ED should continue to review all Title IX guidance to ensure that students are not required to submit unnecessary or unobtainable approval or documentation from a physician or other source to access leave for pregnancy or the termination of a pregnancy. 

Concluding remarks box

Suggested cite: The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. (2023, April). The Hope Center’s 2023 Federal Policy Priorities.  

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