Further education improves students' self-esteem and skills and creates social networks, according to a report from the Institute of Education.
"Interactions between students were thought to be central in the formation of tolerant attitudes and active citizenship," says The Wider Benefits of Further Education: Practitioner Views .
It concludes: "Colleges are a critical hub of civic, cultural and political activity within the local area."
Cathie Hammond, co-author, said: "The focus has recently been on qualifications achieved by students. What this report shows is what staff have known all along - there are many other benefits."
The report, commissioned by the Learning and Skills Development Agency, included 35 colleges employing an estimated 11,500 lecturers and managers. Two prison education units were included.
Older and full-time staff were more cynical about benefits. "Practitioners may become more aware of the limitations of learning in delivering benefits, given structural constraints of student class, gender and ethnicity," the report says.
John Preston, co-author, said: "Existing research has indicated that further education lecturers tend to become demotivated over time."
The report also found variations across subjects. Staff involved with health courses felt their students benefited in a wide range of ways, from better self-esteem to better physical health. Those involved with access courses felt their students benefited most in terms of "efficacy" - the development of skills and knowledge that equip students to deal successfully with their lives.
There was no significant difference in the results when ethnicity was taken into account, challenging the idea that ethnic minority students may be particular beneficiaries of further education.
The report recommends that: the diversity of further education be preserved; students should be integrated to generate tolerance; curricula that generate wider benefits such as health, humanities and access courses should be promoted; colleges should have a physical as well as virtual presence; and more research is needed on student views.