DAVID GREENE, HOST:
One of the biggest issues facing this country is the enormous cost of college and the debt that leaves people with. But for plenty of students who are not necessarily struggling to pay their tuition, they're still struggling just to get by. And NPR's Tamara Keith has been looking into this. She joins us now. Hey, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey.
GREENE: You have been looking into some of these issues because we've been doing this series called Politics in Real Life, I mean, looking at things that are facing Americans, then talking about what the presidential candidates are saying about it. So what exactly are you looking at here? These are people who are not necessarily facing student loan debt but just the sheer financial pressure of going to school.
KEITH: Yeah, students are missing meals, and they are working such long hours that it affects their performance in class. And those are students who have grants and loans to cover the basic cost of tuition.
GREENE: Let's get some anecdotes here. I know you spoke to some students, right?
KEITH: Yeah, I recently visited the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. And compared to other four-year public colleges, it's actually very affordable. Tuition and fees are about $7,000 a year, and a full third of the students get something called the Lottery Scholarship, which covers almost all of their tuition costs. And yet students like Monica Nezzer, who I met there, are struggling to cover their basic expenses. Here's what she told me.
MONICA NEZZER: Good chunk of tuition that's left over on top of paying rent, on top of paying for books, school supplies, things like that, commuting costs...
KEITH: So she takes out student loans to cover her housing. And then she works to pay for the rest of her living expenses.
NEZZER: Over here is the entire engineering corner of campus...
KEITH: Nezzer, is among other things, a campus tour guide.
NEZZER: ...I would point out the engineering library, but I can't because it's actually underground. It goes three stories underground for some reason.
GREENE: So she's giving these tours, which is a lot work - I mean in addition to studying and everything. How often is she doing this?
KEITH: Well, in addition to that, she's also working in an office on campus. And she told me that she tries to work as close to 30 hours a week as possible when she's in school.
GREENE: It's interesting. You think of college students finding the time to study. She actually worries more about finding enough time to work to make money.
KEITH: And imagine how hard it is then to actually study on top of all of that.
KEITH: It's totally a struggle.
NEZZER: At least once a semester, I face a time where I'm like, I am broke. I am stressed. I am exhausted. And I don't know how I'm going to make it through the rest of the semester.
KEITH: At the same time I was talking to her, I was also talking to her co-worker Patrick Arite. And he was like, that is the exact same experience I have.
PATRICK ARITE: They come. And they're like, all right, you have X amount of debt. And you have to pay that off, or else you get dropped from your classes.
KEITH: And he's turned to some - I would call them surprising - ways to make up the cash.
ARITE: Pick up, like, some odd jobs. So I do, like, farm work during the summer, stuff like that. Once in a while, I've done the - sell plasma. That's a classic college option.
KEITH: He does it somewhat regularly when he feels like there are bills he just can't pay and he needs a quick infusion of cash.
GREENE: You're literally scraping for money in any way you possibly can.
KEITH: Yeah, and there are students who are literally choosing between food and books here. And at UNM, they actually have a mobile food pantry that shows up once a month. And this isn't just the University of New Mexico. There's this nationwide consortium of food banks. They say that about 10 percent of the adults they serve nationwide are currently in college.
And that works out to about 3 million college students a year who are going to food pantries so they don't go hungry. And then students are just working more than they should. And I talked to Corine Gonzales. She works at UNM as a retention specialist. And what she's doing is she's looking for students who are at risk of losing their scholarships or at risk of dropping out. And she told me about one student who she found slipping below the threshold for her scholarship.
CORINE GONZALES: She was working the graveyard shift at Wal-Mart. And I was like, God, this poor girl. She works all night, gets off at 7, comes to class at 9 - 'til whatever, 12 - and then, you know, probably dead tired.
KEITH: And that student was able to turn things around and keep her scholarship. But there are students who just can't turn it around. And then they have the debt, but they don't have a degree. A 2015 survey of college students found that 34 percent of first-year students and 38 percent of seniors said economic concerns affected their academic performance. And a survey from Ohio State researchers found 60 percent said that they were concerned they wouldn't be able to continue paying for school.
GREENE: You know, we've - we're having this conversation - we've had others - because we've been looking at how issues like this affecting people are being addressed by the people running for president. And, you know, we've heard a lot about paying for college in this campaign. But, I mean, tell us how what we hear on the campaign trail relates to all of this.
KEITH: Yeah, let's start with Bernie Sanders. He, of course, has this plan for free public college. He would eliminate all tuition and fees at public colleges and universities. And what that would do is free up things like the Pell Grant, which is a federal grant for students who need help, to cover some of the other costs. Critics argue that his plan would be hugely expensive and that it would also help wealthy families that don't need the help. And it also relies on the cooperation of states that wouldn't necessarily cooperate.
GREENE: And Hillary Clinton has the thing that she calls the debt-free college plan. What exactly does that mean, and how is it different?
KEITH: Well, she puts more of an emphasis on bringing down the cost of college so that students wouldn't have to go into debt to afford it. But she also wants students to work - not as much of the students in our story - but maybe 10 hours a week. And she wants families that can afford to pay for it to pay for tuition.
But there's also a similar idea to what Sanders is talking about, which is that if students aren't having to get into debt to pay for their tuition, then their Pell Grants would be able to pay for other living expenses. And her campaign aides argue that the investment that she would make in public colleges and universities would be so great that those universities may even have enough money left over to lower some of these other outside costs. But, again, critics say that her plan would also be too expensive and also maybe too convoluted.
GREENE: And then what might all this be like under a Trump presidency?
KEITH: He hasn't addressed this concern directly. In fact, his website doesn't address higher education issues at all in either its issues section or its positions section. An adviser of his, Sam Clovis, was quoted in a piece - in the publication Inside Higher Ed - saying that Trump's campaign would fight against the Clinton and Sanders plans and that he would also reject President Obama's push for free community college. It's not entirely clear whether Sam Clovis speaks for the campaign. And when I contacted a spokeswoman for the campaign, she didn't respond.
GREENE: All right, that's NPR's Tamara Keith and our latest look at Politics in Real Life this campaign year. Tam, thanks a lot.
KEITH: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.