Students are already graduating from some universities up to #163;10, 000 in debt - even before the impact of tuition fees and the abolition of maintenance grants are felt.
A new guide to university courses suggests the #163;1,000-a-year charges to be introduced this October will be yet another burden on students already hamstrung by overdrafts and loans.
Debts are being compounded by university and private landlords who last year put rents up by 22 per cent - equivalent to #163;500 over three terms, a rise not matched by growth in grants or loans.
The statistics feature in the 1999 PUSH Guide to Which University, due to be published on Monday. They also reveal 19 per cent of students who started in 1994 dropped out or failed their finals, with numbers highest in the former polytechnics. At one, the "flunk rate" was almost 40 per cent.
Figures released this week by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show applications for vocational courses are soaring, showing students increasingly have an eye on jobs that will help them pay off their debts.
The Government faces an acid test over fees. Although applications are up this year - disproving gloomy predictions of opponents - admissions chiefs will be watching closely to see if every applicant with a place takes it up in October. They will also monitor the numbers who enter clearing after the A-level results come out next Thursday.
"The next few months are the real test," National Union of Students' president Andrew Pakes said. "We don't think students will take up places in the numbers they normally do once the reality of fees hits home.
"We think the drop-out rate will also get worse. Sixth-formers understand they need to get a degree, and they're prepared to put themselves in that position. But it's different once they get there."
Student debts last year averaged #163;1,732 per year - or #163;5,196 over a three year course, PUSH 99 says. But at four universities they topped #163;3,000 a year. At Goldsmiths College in London, the average student ran up a staggering #163;3,950-a-year debt.
PUSH 99 editor Johnny Rich said: "Such discrepancies are extremely important for students. If the difference can be as much as #163;8, 000 between colleges, tuition fees pale into insignificance."
Rent rises were roughly the same for private and university accommodation.Mr Rich said private landlords could blame rising mortgage rates, but college bosses were using the increase in private rents as an excuse to boost their own income.