Colleges are wrong to believe that poverty and personal problems are major reasons students drop out, according to research carried out for Sir Ron Dearing's review of 16 to 19 qualifications.
Poor teaching and the lack of student support are far more damaging, says the study by the Further Education Development Agency. It gives the first hard analysis of the causes of student disaffection.
It says that those who stay the course suffer equally from cash problems, the need to get a job, poor housing or other problems.
And Caroline Mager, the research officer who collated the evidence, said that some evidence even suggested that those staying the course had worse problems.
Tutors who relied on schemes which monitor and track college drop-outs were getting unreliable evidence, she warned.
FEDA used independent analysts to interview and investigate the personal, social and educational needs of students who stay and those who drop out. Their conclusions support anecdotal evidence from a National Youth Agency study last year.
"There is no statistically significant difference between the groups," Caroline Mager's report says. She added: "However right you get the qualifications framework, success depends on the skills and qualities of teachers and the motivation of students."
The FEDA research endorses Sir Ron's pleas (analysed on pages 6-13) for better guidance, more attention to basics, a broader curriculum and options for all A-level and general national vocational qualification students to switch course mid-stream without losing credit for work done.
The researchers studied three colleges in London and the Isle of Wight and showed that the most common reason given by students for quitting was that "the college did not care". Financial and social problems only became significant when coupled with poor quality teaching and learning support.
The perceptions of independent researchers differed from those of teachers. Ms Mager concluded: "Students may not give the true reason, understandably, when they have to convey it via a teacher with whom they may be disenchanted. "
Her study suggests that most colleges must rethink their methods of monitoring success and failure. Student drop-outs had a significantly lower opinion of the college and the helpfulness of teachers.
The need for more accurate data on students' motivation and educational needs is stressed throughout Sir Ron's review. He calls for a national award giving equal status to academic and vocational qualifications, more emphasis on key skills such as communications and numeracy and wants GNVQs renamed "applied A-levels".
Ruth Gee, chief executive of the Association for Colleges, said proposals in the Dearing report to break down GNVQs and A-levels into manageable, standard-sized units would help deter drop-outs.
She said: "The further a credit-based curriculum is developed the better it will be for students."
The AFC, whose curriculum steering group was closely involved in Sir Ron's review, gave a broad welcome to the report. Ms Gee praised the move to bring the three "pathways" to qualifications under one umbrella. Though the association would like to see full modularisation, allowing students to mix and match the pathways, it sees the report's recommendations as a step in the right direction.
However, the Joint Associations' Curriculum Group, which represents all the key providers of 16 to 19 education, expressed disappointment that the three pathways would remain distinct and called for more work to create opportunities for transfer.