Thousands of students are being forced to survive below the poverty line, the National Union of Students said this week.
Releasing new figures to coincide with Wednesday's national demonstration in London against student hardship, president Owain James said NUS members were expected to live on an average £29 a week after paying rent.
Mr James said: "This is £13 per week less than they would get on the dole and it is incredible that in the 21st century students are being treated as second-class citizens - they would be better off on benefits."
Claire Sturman, 24, a second-year politics student at the University of the West of England, described her financial circumstances as "diabolical". Ms Sturman was one of the thousands of students at Wednesday's demonstration.
"I am not sure if this month's rent will get paid and I know my grades have suffered badly because of the stress of trying to hold everything together," she said.
Ms Sturman, who has a five-year-old daughter, is struggling with debts of £9,000 after using up her full student loan entitlement and £4,000 overdraft limit.
She dropped out of a nursing degree because of the long hours and transferred to what she thought would be a more manageable social science programme. But the switch meant she was no longer exempt from fees.
She does bar work on Friday and Saturday nights because her parents are not able to help out financially and she has to pay her own fees, which are, she says, the final straw.
Ms Sturman said: "It's incredibly stressful and I am constantly tired but I have to work just to survive. I worry constantly about the future - what mortgage company in their right mind is going to lend me money?"
The NUS claims that its latest hardship figures show a growing disparity between the "haves" and the "have-nots".
Based on figures from the recent Unite report, the NUS said that the amount students from poorer backgrounds owe has increased by three times as much as the average amount owed by richer students. The union said that unless the government acted swiftly to provide support for students in need, the university experience would be limited to students with affluent parents.
Mr James said: "The government claims it wants to widen participation, yet it refuses to remove the financial barriers that force thousands of students to drop out, and prevent many more from even applying.
"The NUS is urging the government to listen to its own party in Scotland and in Wales where improvements have already been made and to listen to the groundswell of public opinion and all the independent evidence."