Government policy aimed at widening participation has had the opposite effect. Instead of raising poorer youngsters' aspirations, it has deepened their reluctance to consider studying for a degree, according to research.
Liz Thomas, director of the Institute for Access Studies at Staffordshire University, has spent two years studying almost 500 year-nine pupils.
Her study blames government and universities for increasing the gap between learners and non-learners by offering new students opportunities that fail them and further entrenching them as non-participants.
Dr Thomas will tell next week's conference of the British Educational Research Association that her study found most attempts to widen participation have been of limited benefit and some have exacerbated disparities among pupils.
She found initiatives aiming to get poorer youngsters into universities enabled their middle-class counterparts to consolidate their advantage.
The pupils in the study, aged 13 and 14, were involved in a project designed to raise aspirations under the government's £150 million Excellence Challenge, which was launched in April.
The selection process was found to be full of weaknesses. Pupils who were already successful were the ones who tended to put themselves forward.
And when pupils were selected by staff for the programme, they were usually the ones who could be relied on to behave well and promote a positive image of the school.
"The scheme offered formal equality in that everyone is offered the same chance to participate," Dr Thomas says. "But it does not achieve equality of results because of pre-existing inequality and disadvantage."
Dr Thomas concludes that the government's Excellence Challenge suffers from "a distinct danger that the limited number of places will be inadvertently allocated to pupils who already plan to participate".
The problems seemed to stem from sets of untested and often inaccurate assumptions. "The reasons for non-participation are complex," Dr Thomas says.
But institutions and policy-makers tend to favour a one-solution-fits-all approach. "The education system, the labour market and social and cultural factors all shape the ability of people to benefit from opportunities, hence formal equality is insufficient," Dr Thomas says.