Most people resent the unemployed getting free courses while the low-paid are forced to pay full fees, research carried out exclusively for The TES has revealed.
There is a consensus in favour of radical action from the Government to bring about fairer college fees for all.
What is currently simmering resentment may boil over if ministers fail to find a remedy as the Welfare to Work initiatives start.
A means-tested sliding scale of fees with options on monthly payments was suggested by members of the public who took part in eight focus groups canvassed by Lancaster University school of independent studies.
The findings, nevertheless, offer a considerable fillip to the Education and Employment Secretary, David Blunkett, as they broadly back his policies on more collaboration and partnerships post-16. But if the Government is to retain support, it must guarantee reform of grants for students in FE, at least as far-reaching as those proposed by the Education Secretary's advisory group on student support.
The group, headed by Graham Lane, education chairman of the Local Government Association, will press next week for a pound;1 billion fund created through a switch of cash from child benefit payments to education (details on page 7).
The TES\Lancaster University focus groups - set up to gauge public opinion of further education five years after incorporation - revealed almost unanimous support for provision of grants to be extended to cover all students regardless of age.
Eight groups of six were selected as representative of people throughout the UK. Focus groups have now become the main engine for political parties and research think tanks to road-test policies.
The resentment over the plight of low-paid students was summed up by a 25-year-old waitress in Lancashire. It was not just a problem of finding pound;80-100 for the course, she said. "Then you've got to sort out everything else. . .buying things to help you with the course and childcare."
A 30-year-old man seeking a return to college said: "On low income, you have to pay the full cost of the course, no matter what you do and regardless of income."
Childcare was the next biggest obstacle after fees for people seeking a return to learn, the research showed. In many cases the two were inextricably linked.
The survey gave clear confirmation of the success colleges have had in raising their profile with the public.
John Brennan, director of policy for the Association of Colleges, said the results echoed his organisation's findings. "This is something we can appreciate. It is good that the colleges are very widely-known and that people know about the enormous range of things they do.
"I think that we are sometimes schizophrenic about this. On the one hand we feel neglected and misunderstood but on the other hand local people do know their local college, know people who have been there, know what the college does."
Mr Brennan said that the AOC was aware of the barriers to greater take-up of further education that the focus groups had identified. He added: "An issue of concern is that of the lower paid being worse off than those on benefit. This is an expression of the poverty trap and something we are very conscious of. Simply setting a threshold does not address the needs of those just above the threshold."
SURVEY RESULTS, PAGES IIamp;III BARONESS BLACKSTONE, PAGE VIII