Influencing decisions made at 16, at the point where education ceases to be compulsory, is key to widening participation, says the first long-term study into the results of an access scheme.
Maggie McLinden, who carried out the research for the Four Counties Group of Higher Education Institutions, has concluded that children should be told the benefits of university with the information tailored to their age.
Pupils' concerns and attitudes to higher education changed as they grew up, the research found.
Ms McLinden said: "We'd assumed we would be focusing primarily on post-18 choices. But the findings show young people are concerned with their next major decision. In year 11, being 18 is a world away. So now the scheme delivers in the context of getting to that point."
The Children into University scheme followed 219 students from seven schools in the east of England from year 8 (age 12-13) to year 11 (GCSEs).
None had prior family history of higher education.
The students were invited, with their parents, to spend a couple of days at a further education college and then to visit a university campus. Their visits were followed up with questionnaires and interviews. Parents were seen to be very influential in the decisions made, but a negative family experience of higher education did not hold back potential students.
Peer pressure was unlikely to make a difference, but students who took part "covertly expressed that being part of the scheme was not always positive", the research found. Ms McLinden concluded that giving students the message that "this could be you" was vital, but it had to be given again and again and tailored to their age. A final survey will be carried out in autumn when students will have decided whether to go into higher education post-16.
Traditionally, the east of England has had a low participation rate in higher education. This has been attributed partly to the geography of the region.