Alasdair Forsyth and Andy Furlong questioned more than 500 pupils in their final school year. They found that not only were those living in disadvantaged areas less likely to enter higher education, but around half of the sample still in school at 17 came from "middle-class" families.
The parents of those preparing for higher education were predominantly nurses, primary school teachers and sales assistants rather than more affluent professionals.
The researchers conclude: "The existence of pockets of relatively advantaged residents within disadvantaged school areas masks the true level of educational disadvantage experienced by less affluent young people in such communitis, most of whom have already left school by the age of 17."
Dr Forsyth and Professor Furlong, whose study was financed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, say that increasing quotas of pupils from deprived schools is unlikely to be effective, as it tends to reach only the more advantaged.
Disadvantaged young people often sought to minimise debt by enrolling in shorter, less advanced courses and shunning the more prestigious universities.
Abolition of tuition fees will not help them because they would not have had to pay anything anyway. They now regard the Executive's plans for repayment after graduation as a disincentive.
The researchers advocate help with travel and housing as well as non-repayable bursaries.
A summary of "Socio-economic disadvantage and access to higher education" is available at www.jrf.org.uk