SLIPPERY ROCK -- Like a lot of students at Slippery Rock University in the rural north of Butler County, Nicholas Marts is used to driving to his classes on the 600-acre campus. As these are not usual times -- with the price of gas, food and education climbing -- he has been forced to change.
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"I walk everywhere now. Like yesterday -- I was on campus from 8 in the morning until 8 at night because I don't want to drive my car whatsoever," said Mr. Marts, a 20-year-old sophomore from North Versailles.
"Everyone always talks about [gas prices], all the time. All the students talk about that. We always complain. ... I know some purposefully plan out which classes they want to skip just so they can save on gas."
In election-year interviews with college students in different parts of the state, young voters repeatedly said the economy is their leading concern about the country right now, largely because it hits so many facets of their lives, from worries about paying for school to finding a post-college job.
The cost of college "discourages a lot of people from pursuing higher education," said Pitt junior Melvin Goins, an accounting major from Philadelphia, who cobbles together four sets of grants and scholarships to pay for school. "I'm worried about my [final] year -- I don't know where the money is going to come from."
Students said worries about the economy affect not only spending on education, gas or other staples, but also spill over into paying for health care. Point Park University stage management major Melanie Paglia, 23, said she can't afford health care due to more pressing concerns about her student loans.
"As a student of the arts, I don't foresee paying [the loans] off very soon," she said wryly.
"It's hard to get good quality health care at a reasonable price," said Slippery Rock senior Jeff Reese, a Plum native studying to be a physician's assistant, who bought into a low-price health plan offered by the university.
"You go to the doctor and you get a thing in the mail justifying why you went to the doctor, and they deny a lot [of coverage]. I really feel it's time [presidential candidates] addressed that," he said.
Students across the political spectrum faulted President Bush for his handling of economic issues.
"I don't like how President Bush isn't admitting how bad it's going and it bugs me how it will be harder for me to get a job," said Margaux Francois, a 19-year-old freshman at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Northampton County. "It makes me not as driven to work hard," the Democrat joked.
Point Park senior Anthony Pignetti, 21 -- a registered Independent who often votes Republican -- said because of the battered economy, "I'm not a fan of Bush at all. Either Democrat I would not have a problem with."
The talks with Pennsylvania students track the results of a nationwide young voter survey in February by Rock The Vote. The four biggest concerns from those ages 18 to 29 were, in order: jobs and the economy; health care and prescription drugs; the war in Iraq; and education and the cost of college.
Iraq regularly comes up in student talks, no matter how they stand on the war, or if they support presumptive Republican nominee John McCain or Democratic candidates Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama.
Talking to a reporter the day after the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, Slippery Rock sophomore Chad Baker, 20, an Army Reserve Officers Training Corps student, said he may be deployed to the country at some point; one of his roommates already has been.
"You see all across the country everybody coming out against the war and things. I don't see that as support. ... They do have a right to protest in America, so I can't say anything against that," the Freedom, Beaver County, native said.
Mr. Reese, the Slippery Rock senior, called the war "the most important issue right now."
"Although I kind of lean toward the Democratic side, I do think that now that we are there, [the U.S. should] finish what we started, and make sure they can stand on their own two feet. But they need to get it done in a timely fashion," he said.
Mr. Bush had "good intentions" in invading Iraq, said Slippery Rock junior Tony Diemidio -- who just registered to vote for the first time, as a Republican -- but changes have to be made. "Somebody who has a different ideal might have some better ideas on what to do now, because we're kind of in a tight spot," the 21-year-old said.
Carl Hauck, 20, a junior at the University of Illinois visiting his sister at Pitt, agreed.
"I don't think any candidate is being open about how long it's going to take" to get out of Iraq, he said.
Melinda Widek, 24, a Slippery Rock senior from Freedom, also wants candidates to address benefits for Iraq war veterans. There are problems with "the lack of funding for the veteran hospitals, and lack of funding for veterans living at home that have disabilities," she said.
"I know quite a few. Many of them have died ... because they don't have support, or were too proud to get it."
"The U.S. as it's run right now has terrible relations with other countries. We need someone who's going to steer the right course," said Point Park sophomore James Acklin, 20, a broadcasting major from White Oak. "I think McCain has the experience, the military experience, that I think you look for. I'm not sure about the other two. Pretty quickly they'll show their colors."
The war, Mr. Acklin continued, is "the overarching issue. If we don't deal with that first, there won't be money, student loans and things like that to worry about."
College being what it is, many students admitted the election is not a major topic on most of their campuses.
Students are "not really" talking about the race, said Mr. Goins, the Pitt accounting major. Pitt Chinese major Jennifer Hirsch, 18, has been watching CNN election coverage at her honors dorm but said many others have not been paying attention.
"At least I'm registered -- half the people in my dorm aren't," she said.
At Lehigh, 18-year-old freshman Alex Huttle -- the daughter of a Democratic New Jersey assemblywoman -- paused from studying to talk about environmental issues in the campaign. Asked if she knew other students who wanted to talk politics, she pushed her textbook away and laughed.
"No, no. Sorry," she said.
Tim McNulty can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1581.