Most degree students at colleges have chosen it in preference to university because it is nearer, cheaper or selected by their employer, a survey has revealed.
Only 5 per cent of more than 800 students surveyed for a report commissioned by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) said that they had applied to a university but not been accepted.
Instead, the most common reason given by 18 to 20-year-olds when asked why they applied to their college was that it was near where they lived and easy to get to, with 53 per cent saying it was the main reason.
The second most common factor for full-time students was existing familiarity with the college, and for part-time students that their employer had mandated the course.
For 45 per cent of students it was also important that the course fees at college were lower than at university.
The research suggests that colleges have their own market of students who make a positive choice for higher education in FE rather than acting as a fallback option for unlucky university candidates.
HE minister David Willetts last month promoted colleges as an option for students who had missed out on a university place.
He said: "For them we've got the widest possible range of alternative options, including studying at the Open University, studying at an FE college (or) going into work with an apprenticeship."
But the survey results reveal that FE students have a markedly different profile to their HE peers and calls into question whether a college place would be appropriate for those shut out of universities.
Most of the respondents were studying part-time business or IT courses, often professional qualifications and usually foundation degrees. Only 14 per cent of college HE work surveyed was in traditional BA or BSc degrees. More than half of respondents were mature students.
Broad university-style experiences were not highly valued by these students.
"The predominant outcome they wish to achieve is related to employment - opening a wider range of career choices, getting a good job or a promotion," the report says.
"Of less importance to students is having time to think about what they want to do, or having the experience of being a student."
College creches, which have become a victim of cuts at some institutions, were not a decisive factor for many: just 0.6 per cent said childcare facilities had been important to their choice.
The LSIS report, Strategic Options, Operational Challenges, also states that college staff note that in some subjects nearly 100 per cent of students who study at A-level equivalent level progress to degree courses in the same institution.
But it concludes: "HE in FE occupies a valuable niche that does not set out to compete with either the research-intensive universities or the more narrowly focused private providers of HE.
"It is characterised by being work-related if not work-based and often leads on from vocational qualifications, including apprenticeships, rather than academic (ones)."