Almost a quarter of all students have changed their thinking on where to attend university owing to higher tuition fees, according to a new study of applicants.
That proportion rose to more than a third of those from poorer backgrounds with lower predicted grades, a survey of prospective students by university marketing advisers OpinionPanel found.
However, fee levels themselves are still unlikely to be the deciding factor when students choose an institution, with a bigger shift towards the perceived "return on investment" to be gained by studying on a particular course.
The survey attempts to look at how the tripling of tuition fees has affected the decisions of those still planning to go into higher education.
Although recent figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service showed only a small downturn in the number of poorer applicants, the study suggests that such groups are more likely to have changed their approach, especially if they expect to get lower A-level grades.
According to the survey - for which about 500 prospective students were interviewed in November 2011 - 23 per cent reported changing their approach because of higher tuition fees, with the proportion far higher for those from a poorer background with lower predicted grades (38 per cent).
Such groups were much more likely to look for universities with lower fees, for universities that offer financial support packages such as bursaries, or to apply to institutions close to their family home.
However, the fee level is unlikely to influence the choice of applicants expecting to gain good A levels, whether they come from a lower-income background or not, the survey found.
The study also used a "trade-off analysis" to compare the importance of different factors in influencing student choices. It found that under higher fees, applicants still placed the greatest importance on course fit and the least priority on tuition fees, with reputation and employability somewhere in between. Taking out the other influential factors, the optimum tuition-fee level for students is £7,000 - with a lower fee perceived as a badge of deteriorating quality and higher charges gradually putting off applicants.
In addition, there was confusion about the new system: a significant minority of respondents (17 per cent) did not know at what salary level a student loan would have to be repaid, while even more (24 per cent) were unaware of the 30-year write-off period. A majority of applicants (63 per cent) also answered wrongly when asked what the monthly level of repayment would be when earning £25,000.
Kyla Steenhart, associate director, higher education, at OpinionPanel, said that although there would be greater competition among universities, "the key thing is not to lose sight of the fundamentals of applicant marketing. Course suitability, reputation, employability, facilities and social life still trump the cost of course tuition fees."