The majority of high-achieving A-level students at comprehensive schools and colleges do not apply to top universities, often due to a lack of confidence in their academic abilities, a major government-commissioned report suggests.
Good students who choose less prestigious institutions are also often concerned about the cost of living, distance from home and the job prospects associated with a course, the study found.
Researchers analysed the university applications of nearly 13,500 pupils predicted at least three B grades at A level, and interviewed a sample to find out their motivations. Only four in 10 comprehensive pupils applied to research-intensive Russell Group and 1994 Group universities. The report revealed that pupils who had not applied to top institutions because of a lack of confidence in their abilities often came to regret their decision.
The study highlighted a large gap between the university choices of high-achieving comprehensive pupils and their private school counterparts, nearly three-quarters of who applied to the most selective institutions. Less than a quarter of the best students from further education colleges applied to the most selective universities, the lowest rate of any A-level students.
The report said that some high-achieving applicants who opted for less prestigious institutions were "less confident, less competitive, less assertive" than their more ambitious peers.
The findings of the research by university admissions service Ucas, which was commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Sutton Trust, suggest that efforts to widen participation still have some distance to travel. Research in 2004 found that about 3,000 comprehensives students who gained the A-level grades necessary to get into the 13 most selective universities either did not apply or failed to win places.
A common complaint from Oxbridge admissions officials struggling to boost state school intake is that the best comprehensive students do not apply, despite having the right results. However, this year the University of Cambridge said that 63 per cent of its undergraduate intake was from state schools - a 30-year high.
In response to the report, Tracking the Decision-Making Processes of High-Achieving Applicants, universities minister David Willetts said it was vital that where a child was born should "never be a deterrent to going to the best university". Earlier this week, he said that GCSE data should be used to target pupils who get good results but fail to go on to good universities.
Sir Peter Lampl, chair of social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, said: "This research delves behind the raw data showing that thousands of young people don't choose the best university for them, and reveals a group of bright students who need extra support and encouragement to make the right decisions.
"It is vital that universities work more closely with schools and colleges so that talented young people from non-privileged backgrounds at comprehensive schools and colleges study the right subjects and gain the same level of confidence as those at independent and grammar schools."
But Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was important that university was not seen as the only valid route for the most able students. "There are extremely good employment-based routes that don't mean students get into debt," he said. "The creative and technology industries and financial services are crying out for talented school-leavers."
Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of universities, said the group was "fully committed" to recruiting more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. "Students deserve high-quality advice that fosters ambition and we are doing our best to provide as much information as we can."
The choices gap
Proportion of pupils predicted three B grades at A level who apply to at least two of the most selective universities:
73% - The proportion from independent schools.
53% - The proportion from grammar schools.
42% - The proportion from non-selective state schools.