The report, commissioned by BP, says that the decision to go straight into the job market may often be perfectly rational - a finding which raises serious doubts about the Government's ambition of persuading more teenagers to stay on.
The researchers conclude that, while public policy has concentrated on increasing the supply of further education places, the main problem is actually one of demand.
'Britain's education and training system is an inefficient and confusing mess,' they say. The system should be treated as a whole, with a single government department running education and training, and equal financial incentives for young people to seek academic and vocational qualifications.
One of the most 'serious and deep-seated' problems, they suggest, is that children with less skilled and less well-educated parents may be badly misinformed about the benefits of going on into further and higher education. In other words, barriers to working-class participation in higher education remain, despite the increase in available places.
Rates of return vary enormously. A young man with unskilled parents may typically add nothing to his lifetime earnings by staying on to take A-levels. But if he then goes on to university and gains a degree, the return is far higher than average: he can expect to add about 25 per cent to his expected lifetime earnings compared with a contemporary who left after A-levels.
Going on to gain a degree or higher education qualification certainly does improve lifetime earnings - although not as much as the Government thinks. Graduates tend to see their incomes rising well into their forties.
By contrast, staying on at college merely to acquire low-level vocational qualifications does not bring enough reward to make up for the earnings lost. That is mainly because British employers pay higher wages to unskilled school leavers than employers abroad.
For men and women, GCSEs alone promise higher lifetime earnings than equivalent vocational qualifications. For many young men who are not going on to university, even staying on to obtain A-levels may provide 'only a modest return' compared with going into a job at 16.
Women who gain A-levels but go no further stand to add about 10 per cent to their lifetime earnings - considerably more than men who leave school after A- levels (6 per cent, on average). Men who go on into higher education can expect returns 7 per cent better than A-level leavers; for women, the return is 6 per cent. That makes higher education a valuable lifetime investment for almost anyone able to benefit. Jeremy Nicholls, BP's education adviser, said the study showed 'how some people, who would appear to have so much to gain from further and higher education, fail to seize the opportunity, and how others, doubtless well- motivated and patiently encouraged, strive for vocational qualifications which turn out to offer little or no return'.
The numbers staying on have improved recently - to just over 60 per cent last year - but that may be caused by rising unemployment in the present recession. And Britain still lags well behind its competitors.
Learning Should Pay; BP Educational Services, PO Box 934, Poole, Dorset BH17 7BR; free.Reuse content