Fears higher education will become the preserve of the rich gathered steam yesterday as new figures showed fees are putting off a disproportionate number of poorer students.
Over a third of students from single-parent households thought university fees were prohibitive, compared with just 13 per cent from two-parent homes.
The Ipsos Mori poll found nearly 30 per cent of those in Years 10 and 11 see debt as a barrier, three times more than Year Seven pupils.
The survey confirmed perceptions that elite universities are inaccessible too. 63 per cent thought Oxford and Cambridge are more expensive than other universities and 27 per cent said elite universities "are not for people like me."
Education charity The Sutton Trust, which commissioned the poll, said if recent trends had persisted around one in 20 young people who would have been expected to apply to university this academic year did not do so.
This equated to about 15,000 "missing" young applicants.
The University and College Union (UCU) said the findings added further weight to its concerns that financial factors, particularly for the poorest pupils, were the biggest influence on young people's choices.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "Students' university choices should not be dictated by money. That is no way to ensure the best and brightest can develop their talents and fulfil their potential.
"It's not right that wealthy students can pick and choose what and where to study, while others are forced to look around for something within budget or not even go at all."
NUT general secretary Christine Blower said: "The tripling of tuition fees and severe cuts to the Education Maintenance Allowance are both retrograde steps.
"It is not at all surprising that so many young people are deterred from continuing their studies. If higher education becomes the preserve of the wealthy it will be to the detriment of society."