More than 40 per cent of colleges' full-time higher education students and 36 per cent of part-time HE students come from the most deprived parts of the country.
The figures are revealed in the first "state of the nation" report from the Scottish funding councils for further and higher education, which for the first time sets out in 177 pages, three maps and 118 tables and charts the two sectors' contributions side by side.
The funding councils believe that their planned series of reports, covering everything from participation and knowledge transfer to international students and graduate employment, will be the most comprehensive and authoritative account of a country's higher education system anywhere in the world.
Roger McClure, the funding councils' chief executive, said it was particularly important to include colleges, since they held a quarter of Scotland's higher education students.
Three of the 46 FE colleges account for more higher education students than a third of Scotland's 21 higher education institutions. Central College of Commerce in Glasgow has the greatest proportion of students on HE courses (34 per cent), followed by Glasgow College of Building and Printing (29 per cent) and Glasgow College of Nautical Studies (27 per cent).
In 2000-01, the new universities had increased their proportion of poorer students in the previous five years, to 32 per cent for full-time and 36 per cent of part-time students.
But the ancient universities suffered a slight drop in the number of disadvantaged students they took in from 1996-97. Only a fifth of full-time students at Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews universities are from the poorest areas - although even those universities are doing much better than England, Wales and Northern Ireland which together attract a mere 14 per cent of the most disadvantaged students.
There are twice as many higher education students from Scotland's richest areas as from the poorest ones, but Mr McClure said he was encouraged by a "small but noticeable trend" towards increased participation.
He stressed that access could not be widened by colleges and universities alone. A lot depended on what happened during children's formative years, and on parent expectations.
Alan Tripp, vice-chair of the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, said around 10 per cent of entrants to higher education institutions came from colleges and had Higher National Certificates and Diplomas. Colleges were often instrumental in building student self-esteem.
Internationally, Scotland's performance shows up well. Among 15 European countries, it has the fourth largest number of HE students (as a percentage of all students, only Finland, Spain and Greece have more).
Similar comparisons with overseas countries show Scotland in fifth place for graduation rates, coming third in the proportion of students on science and technology courses and fifth for HE students completing their courses.
The most impressive achievement is that Scotland boasts the largest number of academic papers published per 1,000 of the population among 15 countries, including the rest of the UK and the United States. It is third only to Finland and Canada in the proportion of public expenditure allocated to HE.
Olga Wojtas is Scottish editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement.