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For many college students and their families, rising tuition costs and a tough economy are presenting new challenges. Gloria Hillard reports on a little-known but growing population of financially stressed students who are facing hunger and sometimes even homelessness.

GLORIA HILLARD: It's not surprising that the UCLA sweatshirt Diego Sepulveda is wearing in his favorite.

Mr. DIEGO SEPULVEDA (Student, UCLA): I'm the first member of my family to come to the university, and that's why it's so surreal for me to be here. And that's why my parents are so proud.

HILLARD: The 22-year-old political science major transferred to UCLA from a community college last fall. He's showing me around.

Mr. SEPULVEDA: Where we're going next is the library.

HILLARD: But before we go inside, a little more about the tall, thin student with a buzz cut. He comes from a blue-collar, working-class family and has always had a job - sometimes holding down two to help pay for his education.

Mr. SEPULVEDA: You're always thinking, how am I going to pay for next quarter? How am I going to get through the rest of the days here at UCLA?

HILLARD: His full-time Subway job wasn't quite cutting it, and then he lost that job. And that brings us back to the library.

Mr. SEPULVEDA: I would sit, like, at all these tables and I would basically, like, try to do my work.

HILLARD: Nearby sofas offered a few hours of sleep. He'd rotate - a night at the library, the next two nights on friends' couches. His other part-time home was the Student Activities Center, where there's a pool, a locker room and showers.

Mr. SEPULVEDA: And that's basically where I would shower, and it would just give me at least, like, some sense of being clean.

HILLARD: The university first started hearing stories like Sepulveda's in the fall of 2008 - a student who lost a job...

Mr. ANTONIO SANDOVAL (Community Programs Office, UCLA): Or the family who used to be middle class, and now they're stuck without - parents without a job, parents fighting, and homes being lost.

HILLARD: Antonio Sandoval heads UCLA's Community Programs Office. He says he doesn't have the exact number of students experiencing the day-to-day hardship of food and shelter because they often keep it hidden.

Mr. SANDOVAL: It's very affluent here. It's Westwood, Bel Air, Beverly Hills. Students come to UCLA, want to fit the norm here, so they're not going to tell you they're homeless, or they're not going to tell you they're hungry.

HILLARD: Just down the hall from Sandoval's office is an unmarked door. Inside is a converted utility closet filled with food. There's a refrigerator stocked with fruit cups, yogurt, juices and milk. Next to the fridge is a pantry.

Mr. ABDALLAH JADALLAH (Engineering Student, UCLA): It has a lot of soups, and the main meal they cook is macaroni and cheese.

HILLARD: Abdallah Jadallah is a 22-year-old engineering student. He says he got the idea for the food closet after noticing a number of students were going hungry. It's been open since January. All of the food is donated, and sometimes students leave comments in a notebook for Jadallah to read.

Mr. JADALLAH: Thank you so much for the food and small items like soap and shampoo. It really does make a difference in my life. God bless you all.

HILLARD: There's a definite increase in the numbers of homeless students nationwide. That's according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. But nobody has firm numbers.

Dr. MICHELLE ASHA-COOPER (Institute for Higher Education Policy): We hear from the college presidents and leadership that more and more students are struggling.

HILLARD: That's Dr. Michelle Asha-Cooper, of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C.

Dr. ASHA-COOPER: Some are taking out pretty large amounts of student loans to finance their education as well as living costs. Some are enrolling part time. Some of them are even dropping out.

HILLARD: UCLA has put in place an economic-crisis response team to try to identify financially strapped students, to help keep them in school. Diego Sepulveda has another year before he graduates.

Mr. SEPULVEDA: Nothing's going to stop me and - which I'm going to reach my goals no matter what people say.

HILLARD: Friends recently offered him a place to stay. His parents help as much as they are able, and he's looking for a part-time job.

For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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