Students say the prospect of debt has been the reason for deciding against starting a degree at a conventional university. Surveys have shown that the average student can clock up debts of £12,000 by the end of a traditional three-year course.
An Open University (OU) course costs about £500 a year. Students can also earn money from full-time employment while they study at home.
The latest figures from the OU, obtained by The Independent, show that the number of students aged 18 to 25 has trebled in the past decade from 3,887 to 11,525. The rise has prompted the OU to join the clearing system, designed to mop up A-level students without a university place after receiving their results, for the first time.
The number of school-leavers opting to work and study is now so high that the OU - Britain's biggest university - is mounting an advertising campaign aimed at school-leavers.
Professor Brenda Gourley, vice-chancellor of the OU, said: "A lot of students aren't actually sure what they want to do. They find that the prospect of having had so much work experience by the age of 23 when they complete their degree will mean they have more to offer than someone who had been to a university. They are pretty savvy youngsters."
Professor Gourley said the OU was giving more support to students aged 18 to 25 because they were not as used to working on their own as older mature students.
The increasing cost of a conventional degree course is likely to fuel demand. Universities will introduce top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year from next September.
Emma Rogers, 21, who switched from a traditional university to the OU, said: "I went to university in York studying film, theatre and TV but after my first year I decided the course wasn't for me.
"I didn't know whether there would be a job at the end of the day."
The OU beckoned. She said: "It was a cheaper option; it costs about £500 a year. When I was at York I racked up a lot of debt in one year. Now I've been able to buy a new car."
Ms Rogers is now working as an accounts executive and has already completed a child development psychology course with the OU. She has just been promoted at work and put her studies on hold - but plans to go back to the OU later.
The figures, to be released officially within days, show the biggest percentage rise in the OU's intake is among those under 21. The number of women between 18 and 21 studying through the OU has shot up by almost 500 per cent since 1996.
Officials are expecting an even bigger increase in young people next year, because the OU is not being allowed to introduce top-up fees. At present, students say course fees are about the same as the national tuition fee of £1,175 a year, but students can determine how long they take to finish their course and therefore when they make their payments. In addition, they can take a full-time job and arrange their studies around their work.
The OU has 210,000 students, making it Europe's largest university.
n Four out of 10 holidaymakers going abroad will overspend this summer because of problems with currency calculations, a study shows.
A survey of 1,000 adults by ICM Research found men (49 per cent) were more likely to overspend than women (42 per cent). Most put it down to a lack of maths skills in making currency calculations.
Carol Smillie, the former BBC Holiday programme presenter is a supporter of the Department for Education and Skills' "Get On" campaign, which commissioned the research and aims to persuade adults to update their skills in the three R's. She said: "Many of us take for granted being able to do currency conversions and the varying rates, there are still many people who struggle with these everyday activities."
Gemma Davey, 22, student and finance officer: 'It was the best decision I have ever made'
Gemma Davey had enough money to celebrate her birthday yesterday, thanks to her decision to quit a traditional three-year university degree course.
Miss Davey, who is 22, gave up her course at Sussex University to study with the Open University.
As a result, she got a full-time job while she studied and found she could afford to buy herself things including like a new car and clothes while taking her degree.
Miss Davey is one of the 11,887 students aged between 18 and 25 who have decided that scrimping and saving to get your way through higher education is not for them.
Instead, at first she took a part-time job while she transferred degree courses.
Miss Davey, who began by studying English at Sussex, gave up at the end of her first year. She said: "Basically, I wasn't enjoying the actual course material. I decided if I went with the Open University, I'd be able to get work experience while I studied.
"I was living at home so I didn't have any of those student debts that other people have but - studying with the Open University - I've been able to buy new clothes when I want to and get a new car."
Miss Davey set aside evenings and weekends for her studies while she worked first part-time and then full-time as a finance officer.
She still managed to squeeze in some time for social life by juggling around her studying time, despite having to devote about 30 hours a week to her degree studies. She took a business studies and an economics course with the OU and then topped them up with studying for an accountancy qualification.
She is now a trainee accountant with Southern Water.
"It's probably something I wouldn't have thought of going in for if I hadn't transferred," she said. "I'm sure I made the right decision.
"The work I was doing was really relevant to the career I want to pursue. It was the best decision I ever made."Reuse content