Pupils who opt to go to further education college could hit a brick wall if they want to move on to higher education.
Extensive research, commissioned by Scotland's Colleges, has raised a major question mark over the policies of successive governments on lifelong learning. It concluded that students were likely to be held back because they feared being loaded with debt and many would even prefer financial hardship while studying, to taking out loans.
Sue Pinder, lead principal for Scotland's Colleges, said the findings lent weight to its "level playing field" campaign for the bursary support enjoyed by FE students to be extended to HE students in colleges who currently have to rely on loans.
The study, which consulted 1,054 students in 17 colleges, found that 72 per cent of FE students were considering progressing to HN certificate or diploma courses.
But, according to the Scottish Funding Council, only 15 per cent actually transfer from FE to HE courses - leaving four out of five denied their aspirations.
The research report stated that almost half of would-be students cited money as the key consideration as to whether they went to college or not. It reveals that half of the students who are considering studying for an HNC or HND do not know that the funding system changes dramatically from a college bursary to a student loan.
The researchers suggest that financial fear affects student decisions about moving from FE to HE, a key plank in the skills agenda as the economic crisis grips the country. "Given money is the deciding factor for many students, and that so many more students consider studying at HN level than actually go, the question of why students decide not to attend HE courses is worthy of investigation," the report states.
"One possible explanation is that students pursue their aim of getting an HN, only to be dissuaded once the true nature of the funding system and the debt they will accrue is revealed to them."
James Alexander, senior policy and public affairs officer at Scotland's Colleges, commented: "Debt is a huge deterrent for college students, who would far rather live in greater hardship than face mounting student loan debts. The report recommends an overhaul of the mechanisms of student support in colleges, starting with the removal of the debt burden from HNC and HND students and looking at ways to simplify the funding systems, making them easier to understand, less complex and more closely interlinked with the benefits system."
The research threw up some surprising findings such as that the youngest FE students were the most debt-averse, in contrast to other studies which suggest that mature students are the most reluctant to get into debt.