New evidence published today by the Sutton Trust shows that fear of debt and cost concerns could be deterring significant numbers of young people from going to university, or choosing the most appropriate place to study.

Ipsos MORI polling for the Sutton Trust has found that while four in five 11-16 year-olds aspire to enter higher education, children from single parent families are nearly three times as likely to say their family couldn’t afford for them to be a student as those living in two parent homes. Youngsters also start to worry more about student debt as they get older.

The polling also shows that many potential students expect to pay more to attend elite universities – such as Oxford, Cambridge, Durham or Bristol – than other universities.  This is despite the fact that almost all universities are now charging close to the £9000 maximum for their courses.

A report by the Independent Commission on Fees in August showed that around one person in 20 who would have been expected to apply to university in 2012 if the recent trend of increasing application rates among 18-years-olds in England was maintained did not do so. This equates to approximately 15,000 ‘missing’ young applicants.

Key findings in the Sutton Trust/Ipsos MORI poll of 2,750 11-16 year olds include:

  • 36% of students from single parent households say they are unlikely to go into HE because my family couldn’t afford for me to be a student compared with 13% of those in two-parent homes.
  • Older pupils are more likely to cite worries over getting into debt as a reason for saying they are unlikely to continue into higher education. 29% of those in Year 10 and 11 cite debt as a barrier, around three times the proportion of Year 7 pupils citing debt as a barrier (10%).
  • 63% of pupils think that elite universities are more expensive for students than other universities, and 52% think they are mainly attended by those from wealthy backgrounds. 27% think that elite universities are not for people like me. 
  • 81% of all 11-16 year olds feel they are ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ likely to enter higher education, but this falls to 74% for those from the least affluent families [1].

Sir Peter Lampl said today:

“Money worries are forcing many young people to think twice about going to university. It is a real concern if those with the ability for higher education feel are being deterred by debt.“It is particularly worrying that our leading universities are perceived as being more expensive than other universities. Even before the recent increase in fees, we estimated that 3,000 students a year with good enough A levels in the right subjects to get in were missing out on top universities, often because they failed to apply.

“The Government should think again about its fees and loans package. There is increasing evidence that the new fees are seen as too high, particularly by those on modest means. Ministers should consider means testing fees, so that merit not money is the key consideration in a young person’s decision.”


  1. The Sutton Trust added questions to Ipsos MORI’s 2012 Young People Omnibus.  The findings are based on data from a representative sample of 2,757 11-16 year olds attending maintained schools in England and Wales. The research was conducted in a sample of schools, with pupils filling out paper self-completion questionnaires under supervision by Ipsos MORI’s interviewers. Fieldwork was conducted in February and March 2012.
  2. The Independent Commission on Fees was set up in January 2012 to monitor the impact of increased university fees in England over the next three years. The five members of the panel are: Will Hutton (Chair), Principal of Hertford College, Oxford University, and Chair of the Big Innovation Centre; Tanith Dodge, HR director at Marks & Spencer; Sir Peter Lampl, Chair of the Sutton Trust and Chair of the Education Endowment Foundation; Stephen Machin, Professor of Economics at University College London and Research Director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics; and Libby Purves, writer, radio broadcaster and Times chief theatre critic. Its reports can be found

[1] Families’ affluence was classified using the Family Affluence Scale.  The Family Affluence scale uses a set of questions about family resources – such as computer and car ownership, and frequency of taking holidays – to group respondents into low, medium or high affluence groups.  More detail can be found here:

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