All young people will have the right to top up their education under plans due in Labour's forthcoming Education Bill.
The plans could force employers to give under-18s a day off a week to let them attend college, according to a consultation document circulated to college and business leaders.
Around 100,000 16 and 17-year-olds would be affected by the new rules, designed to help Britain hit elusive long-term education and training targets.
Only 70 per cent of young people achieve the equivalent of five good GCSE passes by the age of 19, and this falls well short of the 85 per cent target for the year 2000.
A letter to college and employer groups says ministers want to build on the good business practice which already exists "to enable every 16 and 17-year-old to be on the road to a proper qualification.
"Ministers want to include this entitlement in the forthcoming Education Bill, but are very keen to seek the views of those who will be most directly involved in operating this entitlement on how it can best be made to work in practice. "
The plans follow Labour's manifesto commitment to give all employed young people the right to a college education. Officials are now consulting on a range of possible ways to implement the policy.
Points open for discussion include whether young people should be offered work-based training or some form of day-release teaching at college.
Ministers are also considering whether firms should be obliged to give people a certain amount of time off work to complete their studies.
And there are questions about the best way of enforcing the scheme to make sure opportunities are available to all those who want them.
Other points include the question of the best way of offering young people advice about training and education.
John Brennan, policy director of the Association of Colleges, welcomed the move, but warned that cash needed to be available to make adequate provision for young people.