They are being forced to look to universities close to where they live in order to save on the pounds 5,000-a-year cost of undergraduate study.
A survey carried out by the Institute for Employment Studies found that half of all sixth-formers applying to university had considered changing their choice of college because of cost and 40 per cent had thought about changing to a course with better employment prospects. One in five students had considered not applying to university at all.
But cost was a much bigger deterrent among older age groups. Nearly a third of 21- to 24-year-olds had thought about not applying, and nearly 40 per cent of the over-25s considered abandoning their studies before they arrived at university.
The study, carried out for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, is one of Britain's biggest surveys of student opinion. Researchers talked to 20,000 applicants for full-time undergraduate courses and nearly 2,000 GCSE students. They found that many were ill informed about the real cost of going to university.
The study did not address the effects of tuition fees, although most people were aware of the pounds 1,000-a-year fees imposed by the Government last year.
But 74 per cent thought that their annual living costs at university would be between pounds 2,000 and pounds 5,000. Estimates suggest that students need around pounds 5,000 a year to live.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that students are increasingly unwilling to move far from home. And, while applications among the under-21s have been unaffected by tuition fees and the decision to abolish student grants, there has been a fall in the number of mature students making applications.
Yesterday Andrew Pakes, the president of the National Union of Students, warned that the essence of university life was under threat. He said: "Students are spending time in the bar, but they are working.
"They are not being given space to think. When they go into tutorials they are one among 20. Liberal education is teetering on the edge if it is not already dead."
The report, to be published on Tuesday at a conference sponsored by the Independent, calls for universities to provide better guidance on finance for students and to provide more detailed information on courses.
It says: "While they were not confused or overloaded by the large and growing volume of information available, many students found the choice process complex and difficult. They did not want more general information from institutions, rather better information that was more focused and less one-sided about specific courses, institutions and aspects of student life."
The survey found that all students rated the availability of the right course as the most important factor when choosing a university. Black and Asian students, along with mature applicants and those from Scotland, tended to rate teaching reputation and employment prospects highly. But the under-21s, the traditional group entering university for the first time, were more likely to look at a university's image and the prospects of a good social life.
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