The Association of Colleges surveyed 150 colleges to find how much financial cushioning they were providing for students since local authorities cut transport and discretionary award budgets.
The survey found that nationally colleges are spending between pound;10 m and pound;15m on student support, on top of access funds. Colleges spent an average of pound;32,000 on assisting students, and used substantial amounts of European aid. The money was targeted at students with low incomes who otherwise might have to give up their course.
The AOC found that spending on discretionary awards for FE students had fallen from about pound;170m in 1992-93 to pound;76m in 1996-97 and was expected to decline even further. A considerable number of local authorities had effectively abolished discretionary awards.
"Many local authorities have introduced increasingly stringent policies on transport for those over 16, which in many cases has meant students are being called on to make a substantial contribution towards costs, or in some cases has resulted in support being withdrawn altogether," the survey said.
One college said: "The problem of support for 16 to 19-year-olds is considerable. Because of the small amount of funds to support students, many are forced to leave. For 16 to 19-year-olds it is almost impossible to get housing benefit or income support. This is only available if you give up your education and become unemployed - so this is what 16 to 19-year-olds in difficulty have to do."
A third said: "We spend approximately 2 per cent of our budget on subsidising transport for 16 to 19-year-old full-time students, without which we would lose around 200 students and destroy our viability."
The survey found that supported students were more likely to stay on courses. John Brennan, director of FE development, said: "If the Government's objective of widening participation among the more disadvantaged social groups is to be realised, the provision of assistance to overcome the financial barriers faced by students will become even more pressing."
Hardship survey, page 28