Colleges will struggle to hit their growth targets despite the largest number of school leavers for more than a decade, senior managers have warned.
After 12 years of decline, numbers rose by 42,000 this year and are set to peak at 1.95 million in 1998, figures from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys reveal.
This gives colleges 169,000 more potential recruits in the age group, compared with when they became independent of local education authority control in 1993.
But spending cuts, a drop in stay-on rates and increased competition with schools could still leave colleges struggling to hit growth targets, according to the Further Education Funding Council and Association for Colleges findings.
Colleges plan to widen their catchment areas and offer travel passes to lure more students and fend off competition from schools.
John Brennan, policy director for the AFC, said: "The trend in recent years has been for colleges to increase their share of the 16-18 market. Whether competition will reverse that, we will have to see."
Last year, 36.7 per cent of 16-year-olds were at FE colleges compared with 34.8 per cent in schools. For 17-year-olds, the figures were 32.1 per cent and 26.1 per cent respectively. Three-quarters of all full-time college students are in this age group.
FEFC studies show that if colleges keep their market share, growth should mean the sector expands by 5 per cent over two years. But it will not be enough to meet Government targets and they must recruit more adults.
The AFC predicted that colleges will at least retain their share of 16 to 18-year-olds and expand into new markets. But the popularity of general national vocational qualifications in schools and the threat posed by new sixth forms has clouded the picture.
Schools and colleges in West Berkshire have a tradition of co-operating over student recruitment. All 16-year-olds are handed common application forms for a choice between Newbury College and three 11-18 schools. Careers information is also distributed through a consortium.
But the spirit of co-operation will be tested in September when a further secondary school, Park House in Newbury, opens a new sixth form. Gordon Bull, principal of Newbury College, said the number of 16 to 18-year-olds had risen by 9 per cent last year and was expected to increase by a further 2 to 3 per cent over the next few years.
The college had retained its market share and hoped not to lose many students to Park House. Consortium arrangements have not prevented marketing by institutions in the past, but now it could become more intense. More players in the market might mean more competition but it would also lead to reduced choice among existing providers, he said.
Brockenhurst College has already fought off competition from three new school sixth forms in the New Forest area. A fourth is expected to open in September. The Hampshire college has 1,839 full-time students on roll, nearly all of whom are 16 to 18-year-olds, compared with 1,687 in 199495, before the next sixth forms were opened.
Principal Mike Snell said marketing strategies which the college planned prior to the opening of the sixth forms, including widening its catchment area and introducing more modular courses, had proved successful.