A jump in demand for access-to-higher-education courses could be threatened by changes that will see students seeking a second chance in education paying five times more in fees.
The number starting access-to-HE courses increased by more than 20 per cent in the last academic year to 44,235, the highest for more than five years, according to figures from the Quality Assurance Agency.
It prompted the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to announce in the HE white paper that it would examine why interest in the courses, which are mostly run by colleges, had increased.
But from 2013, students aiming at a second chance in HE - 70 per cent of whom are women and 27 per cent of whom are from an ethnic minority - will face two sets of fees and loans.
At Bournemouth and Poole College, for instance, access students who are over 24 are warned that they will lose about pound;3,000 of Government subsidy and face fees of about pound;3,750 instead of a current maximum of pound;750.
More than half of the total students on access courses are over 24 and will be expected to pay using loans on the same terms as those for higher education. Once they gain a place in university, they will face a further three years of pound;9,000 fees.
Students on access courses will also face the new, tougher rules on fee remission, which come into force before the loans system is available.
Free courses will only be available to those on jobseekers' allowance or people on disability benefit who are looking for work - with an additional exception for those who move straight into a level 3 access course without having the equivalent of five good GCSEs.
Alan Tuckett, chief executive of adult education body Niace, said that the growth in access courses was put at risk by the fee changes.
He said: "There is a certain car crash in 201213 for lone parents and women at home with children who don't receive active benefits, and who will then be priced out of a return to the labour market through education."
But, despite a withdrawal of support for many students on benefits until the loan system comes in, the HE white paper is banking on an increase in the numbers entering university with qualifications other than A- levels.
"We will examine why interest in access-to-higher-education courses has recently increased," the HE white paper said. "There may be opportunities to develop even more flexible routes for progression from further to higher education, including work-based options."
BIS said that the acceptance rate into HE for students on access courses "compared well" with other courses at 69-73 per cent, despite almost a third of access students coming from deprived backgrounds.
The QAA figures found nearly a third of access-to-HE students were taking courses in health, public services, care or nursing, with a further 13 per cent studying a general and combined studies course.