The Association of Colleges stepped in to promote opportunities on part-time courses, as students absorbed the impact of ministers' climbdown over the so-called gap trap. In an announcement on the eve of A-level results, it became clear that students who defer university entry until next year will still benefit from free tuition.
Meanwhile principals set out the virtues of two-year Higher National Diploma and Certificate courses as alternatives to the traditional three-year degree.
Roger Ward, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "Colleges of further education HNC courses are part-time and so allow students to continue in employment while studying. The earn-to-learn route is even more advantageous where the young person's employer is prepared to sponsor their study."
But there were warnings that university tuition fees, due to be imposed for from 1998, would deter people hoping to use FE college access courses as a springboard to higher education.
Alan Biggin, marketing officer at Sheffield College, said the next month would show whether the fees were a deterrent.
Dick Evans, principal of Stockport College, said he hoped sub-degree courses like HNDs would gain greater acceptance.
He said: "I was very optimistic when Dearing was published. As long as these qualifications are seen to be a credible option it will be tremendous for colleges. Employers certainly love HNDs."
Jenny Shackleton, principal of Wirral Metropolitan College said students would find the sub-degree courses rewarding. She said: "I think the situation will be better this year in terms of recruitment. But if more young people decide to go for a two-year commitment, it is going to be good for the labour market. "
Colleges were delighted when Sir Ron Dearing recommended the cap on HND places should be lifted immediately in his report on higher education published last month.
The report argued that most expansion in higher education should take place in colleges and at HND level.
Terry Keen, principal of South Devon College, said that the sub-degree option should not be seen as second-best. "We feel that for many people a two-plus-two option including an HND is the right first choice for many students with high A-level point scores." South Devon enrols many students on degree programmes, which start with an HND at the college, and end with one or two years at a university to top up the HND to a full degree.
Steve Broomhead, principal of Warrington Collegiate Institute, and vice president of the Association of College Management, said applications to his college's degree courses were up 60 per cent this year. But he warned that many higher-level courses run by colleges were still in the shadow of universities. "We offer students places on HNDs, but they often end up on degree courses run by the newer universities," he said.