Poor students at FE colleges find it more difficult to get into elite jobs and top universities than their counterparts in school sixth-forms, a new report claims.
A Royal Society of Arts (RSA) study argues the sector is undermined by "comparative under-funding, lack of policy attention and low status compared to higher education and school sixth-forms".
The report focuses on youngsters from low-income backgrounds and argues that they face "cultural, financial and institutional barriers compared to young people from higher-income groups".
"Our research adds to a considerable body of research which shows that cultural, economic and institutional capital - or lack of it - has a detrimental effect on young people from low-income backgrounds in the FE sector, and in their progression into education or the workplace," it adds.
Author Emma Norris found that many young people struggle to meet the "everyday costs" of going to college.
One FE practitioner in London said that his college extended students' working days in order to help them cut travel costs.
"Students that were timetabled for four days - they couldn't afford the bus fare for that many days. Now we bring them in on big long days, to save them the bus fare.
"The students want it squashing into two or three days so they can work alongside it. We're designing our timetables around their money concerns," he said.
Students also suffer because of the financial pressures on FE institutions, the author argues. "Whilst doing the best they can for their students, because of the sector's own lack of capital, FE colleges are currently unable to provide much of the advice, guidance and support that these young people need," the report says.
It blames colleges' predicament on "a range of institutional problems", including "poor careers advice" and an "image problem among prospective employers".
Young people from low-income backgrounds were largely "unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with" the importance of contacts, social networking and cultural capital, regarding this as "cheating", she added.
The report also calls for the Government to reconsider its decision to scrap the education maintenance allowance (EMA) and ensure that more information about financial support and hardship funds be made available to students.
"Working well," the report says, "the FE sector can support disadvantaged young people into fulfilling careers, perhaps via higher education. But at the moment the sector is constrained in this role due to its comparative underfunding, lack of policy attention and low status compared to higher education and school sixth-forms."
It adds that colleges should build relationships with organisations with "high social and cultural capital", which could assist with mentoring and advocacy schemes for students and teachers.
Joy Mercer, the Association of Colleges' director of education policy, said: "The RSA report acknowledges the comparative underfunding of further education compared with other sectors.
"However, this report does not give enough credit to colleges for the extent of their advice and guidance work with employers or the quality of their careers advice. Colleges currently provide 35 per cent of entrants to higher education and educate and train more than 3.3 million people each year."