Alternative Discount Mechanisms

The primary measure for determining Schools and Libraries (E-Rate) program discounts is the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunches under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

Students from households whose income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty guideline are eligible for the NSLP.

Income Eligibility Guidelines for NSLP eligibility are available on the web page of the United States Department of Agriculture Child Nutrition Programs by following the links for “National School Lunch Program” and “Income Eligibility.”

The FCC also allows for the use of other mechanisms to determine a school’s level of need, as long as those mechanisms are based on – or do not exceed – the same measure of poverty used by NSLP.

Collecting Data for Discounts: Surveys

A school may design a survey that provides the necessary information that measures a family’s level of need. Surveys must be based on the following guidelines:

  • The survey must be sent to all families whose children attend the school.
  • The survey must, at a minimum, contain the following information:
    • Name of family and students;
    • Size of the family; and
    • Income level of the family.

Income data (or eligibility data based on income) from a survey used to support a discount level for a funding request cannot be older than two years before the start of the funding year (FY).

For example, the data gathered from an income survey done in September 2016 can be used for funding requests for FY2017 and FY2018, but not for FY2019. Therefore, surveys must be done at least every other year.

Beginning in FY2015, applicants may use NSLP applications as their survey instrument.

The results of a survey may not be extrapolated and must be based on the actual number of students whose survey responses demonstrate that they meet the NSLP criteria.

Here is a sample survey for your reference.

Survey Retention Documentation

Applicants should maintain a record of the survey documentation collected to assist in responding to PIA inquiries. Such records must be maintained for a period of at least 10 years after the last day of delivery of the discounted services.

Collecting Income Data

Income data used to support the discount level for a funding request should be collected based on income received by the household during the month before the month in which the survey is conducted. However, the monthly income of a household containing one or more seasonal workers, self-employed workers, or other workers whose income varies from month to month may not accurately represent the actual circumstances of the household. Such a household can project its annual rate of income for the current year based on the income data that is available.

Applications are distributed at the beginning of the school year. The income data gathered is used to determine eligibility for the twelve-month school year (July 1 to the following June 30) in which the survey is conducted.

Information on the definition of income under NSLP, other income guidelines of the program, and the “Eligibility Guidance for School Meals Manual” can be obtained from the National School Lunch Program website.

Collecting Alternative Measures of Poverty

Participation in one or more of the following programs is currently acceptable as an alternative to NSLP eligibility. Questions on eligibility for these programs can also be included in a survey:

  • Medicaid
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly Food stamps
  • Supplementary Security Income (SSI)
  • Federal public housing assistance or Section 8
  • Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)

Participation in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is not an acceptable alternative measure of poverty since the participation guidelines are not always equal to or below the level of the income eligibility guidelines (IEGs) for NSLP. Participation in need-based tuition assistance programs is acceptable only if the household income of participants is at or below the IEGs for NSLP.

Other Ways to Collect Data

Existing Sources

Schools may also use existing sources of data that measure levels of poverty, such as need-based tuition assistance programs. However, these measures are acceptable for E-Rate program purposes only if the income eligibility guidelines are equal to or below the IEGs for NSLP.

Matching Siblings

If a school has established that the household income of one of its students is at or below the IEGs for NSLP, the siblings of that student may also be counted as eligible for NSLP.

For example, an elementary school has established, through a survey, that a student’s household income is at or below the IEGs for NSLP. That student’s household also has a brother and a sister who attend the local high school.

The high school may use the status of the elementary school sibling to count his high school siblings as eligible for NSLP, without collecting its own data on that household.

Combining Data

Data used to support a particular discount level must be collected and verifiable on an individual student basis. However, data from multiple sources can be combined to complete the count of students eligible for NSLP.

For example, a school with 100 students sent a survey to the 100 households of these students, and 40 of those households returned the survey. The school finds the income of 20 of those 40 households, each of which has one student in the school, are at or below the IEGs for NSLP.

The school has also matched 10 students not represented in the survey responses with siblings who are eligible for NSLP, and the school has verified that 15 additional students not represented in the survey responses participate in a need-based tuition assistance program that requires the household income of participants to be below the IEGs for NSLP.

The school can combine the individual results from these three sources to conclude that 45 percent of the total enrollment, or 45 (20+10+15) of the 100 students in the school, are eligible for NSLP. The school must be able to verify that it has counted each eligible student only once.

Provision 1, 2, or 3 Schools

The National School Lunch Act incorporates three alternative provisions to the normal requirements for annual determinations of eligibility for free and reduced price school meals.

For schools that meet the requirements of one of these provisions, annual notification of program availability and certification of children eligible for free meals may be reduced to once every two consecutive school years or less. USAC defers to these reporting requirements and does not require more documentation than is required under these provisions.

Schools participating in one of these three provisions can use the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunches acceptable under that provision to determine the discount they use on their FCC Form 471.

However, such schools must be able to produce the documentation required under that provision if requested. Specifically, a Provision 2 or Provision 3 school must have copies of its site application, approval letter from its state to participate in that provision, base year statistics, and the state letter approving an extension (if applicable).

Community Eligibility Provision

Beginning with FY2015, schools and school districts participating in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) use their approved direct certification percentage to determine their NSLP percentage.

For each of its individual schools that participate in CEP, a school district will maintain the correct direct certification percentage (rather than the number of students eligible for NSLP) and the total student population of the school. The percentage of directly certified students will be multiplied by the CEP national multiplier (currently 1.6) to calculate the effective number of students eligible for NSLP. This calculation is capped at 100 percent of the student population for the purposes of determining the discount.

Schools in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands

The Code of Federal Regulations contains special provisions for determining NSLP eligibility for schools in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. All students in these territories are provided with a free lunch regardless of actual income.

However, a survey must be conducted to determine the socio-economic level of the territory and the applicable reimbursement rate for the NSLP, and it is that reimbursement rate that determines the E-Rate program discount.

USAC will work with the relevant territorial agencies to determine the eligibility numbers approved by the US Department of Agriculture for each territory. This determination is applicable to public schools and libraries.

Non-public schools are not automatically eligible to receive the same discount rate.

Unacceptable Ways to Collect NSLP Data

The following alternative measures of poverty are not acceptable for determining discounts:

  • Feeder school method. This method projects the number of low-income students in a middle or high school based on the average poverty rate of the elementary school(s) that “feeds” students to the middle or high school.
  • Proportional method. This method projects the number of low-income students in a school using an estimate of local poverty.
  • Extrapolation. Extrapolation is no longer an allowable method, whether more than 50 percent of surveys are returned or a non-random sample of students is chosen to derive the percentage of poverty in a school, such as those families personally know by the principal (“Principal’s method”) or the families of students who apply for financial aid (a non-random sample).
  • Title 1 eligibility. This method uses eligibility for Title 1 funds as the criterion for estimating the level of poverty in a particular school. Some measures of poverty eligible under Title 1 are indirect estimates of poverty and cannot be used to support the discount rate in the E-Rate program.