PSU becomes first four-year university in the nation to receive a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program grant for low-income students
Author: Stefanie Knowlton
Posted: October 15, 2019
 An increasing number of college students around the country struggle to meet their basic needs, but a new program at Portland State University will help lead the way in offering solutions. 

The university is the first four-year institution in the nation to receive a grant from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Training and Education Program, which is designed to promote self-sufficiency for those who receive food stamp benefits. The award is $277,000. 

Some of the university’s most vulnerable students are now eligible for additional support including case management, resource referral and expense reimbursements to attend career and technical programs at PSU to help students stay in school and cover basic needs.

The program will also help eligible students apply for federal food assistance benefits. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that almost 2 million at-risk students across the country were potentially eligible for benefits but did not receive them in 2016, according to the report “Better Information Could Help Eligible College Students Access Federal Food Assistance Benefits.”   

“PSU has been a key partner in the development of innovative solutions to help students meet basic needs. Together, we have an opportunity to invest in these students today so that they are more likely to excel, resulting in a reduced risk of their children becoming food, housing and financially insecure in the future,” said Dan Haun, director for Self-Sufficiency Programs at Oregon Department of Human Services, which manages the grant in Oregon.

The SNAP Training and Education Program (STEP) grant has helped students at the community-college level around the country. The State of Washington has used its grant to serve nearly 90,000 students since 2005. The Community College STEP Consortia in Oregon plans to serve as many as 1,130 students in 2019. 

"Portland State is honored to lead the way in offering this program at the university level as part of its ongoing commitment to make college accessible for all,” said PSU Interim President Stephen Percy.

PSU actively recruits and serves low-income, first-generation and nontraditional students. It was ranked the top school in Oregon for graduating students who received federal Pell Grants, awards based on extreme financial need, by U.S. News Best Colleges report. 

Brian Paez, case manager for Coordination Assessment Response Education at PSU, sees the growing need for services everyday. 

“We have students who are not only supporting themselves but also supporting their children or other folks in their families,” he said, “which creates a lot of  challenges in regards to going to school.” 

He worked with nearly 1,000 students last year, and about one in seven struggled with food, housing or financial insecurity. That’s twice as many as the year before. Paez believes that the university has a unique obligation to these students.

“If, as an institution, we want to bring in students who have unique challenges,” he said, “we have a responsibility to have the resources to help them succeed and meet their academic needs.”

Paez is excited to roll out the STEP program as a much-needed addition to what the university community is already doing. 

The campus community, mostly through volunteers, operates a food pantry, assists students in signing up for food stamps, offers free meal vouchers for students and runs a monthly free food market where students can get free produce. Many of these efforts stem from the Committee for Improving Student Food Security, a volunteer group of faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members. Its programs reach hundreds of students each year. 

The STEP program would allow the university to also offer:

  • A new, full-time case manager to handle student outreach, to work with students to develop individual progress plans and to connect vulnerable students to additional resources.
  • A new, half-time administrative assistant to assist with enrollment and reporting. 
  • Reimbursements to attend career and technical programs at PSU for eligible students, including tuition and fees, books, clothing and tools, childcare and transportation.

“It’s very exciting news that Portland State University is the first 4-year university in the nation to receive the SNAP Training and Education Program grant, which will provide critical food, housing, and financial assistance for low-income students—helping students thrive in their programs and putting them on a path to achieve their dreams,” said Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley.

The university hopes to offer wrap-around supports to about 50 students in the first year and expand outreach efforts to even more, including assisting students with food stamp applications. 

“In the wealthiest country in the world, no one should go hungry,” said Oregon’s U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer. “Last year, I met with a group of Portland State students and I was moved to hear their stories of their struggles with food insecurity. We have a responsibility to do our part to provide them with the resources they need.”

PSU is also looking into how best to support students with basic needs overall. It established the Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative last year, a research center that aims to help reduce homelessness and its negative impacts on individuals, families and communities, including at PSU. The center was key in securing the STEP grant at PSU.

This fall the center launched a survey of students and employees to better understand homelessness, and housing and food insecurity. The university will use its findings to tailor support in the future. 

"We must understand how hunger and homelessness impact our campus community if we hope to find solutions for the future," Percy said.