Loneliness rather than debt is the most likely cause of students dropping out of university soon after joining, according to new research.
Researchers at Staffordshire University found that students who could not make friends easily were more likely to quit early in their degree course than those in financial difficulties.
"Friendships are of paramount importance to the decisions students make about staying in or withdrawing from higher education," said Liz Thomas, director of the Institute for Access Studies, which carried out the research.
In her survey of 200 student dropouts, she found that just 20 per cent blamed finances for their non-completion. Dr Thomas, who will present the results of her study to the British Educational Research Association conference at Exeter University, said: "Recent studies in the UK have identified student finance as a barrier to completion. My research demonstrates that many students succeed in higher education despite acute financial pressures. It was their relationships with other students and with tutors and the extent to which they felt they 'belonged' that were central to their decisions."
These factors have tended to be neglected by researchers and policy-makers, Dr Thomas said.
Fear of not fitting in was in especially acute among students from families where university was not the norm, Dr Thomas found. A typical comment was:
"I was most worried first about making friends and second about the work."
Meanwhile, students who lived with their families commented on the difficulty of meeting people who lived in halls. Mature students, in particular, were unlikely to have visited the student bar.
Students with good social networks reported a more positive experience. "I've got a lot of really good friends here. I think that is one of the major things that will keep people here," one said.
Dr Thomas believes students find it easier to cope on a low income if they have friends in a similar position, partly because it removes the pressure to join in expensive leisure activities.
Students also emphasised the importance of getting on well with lecturers. "It makes a hell of a difference if you like your tutor," one said. "If someone cares about my work, I'll go out and do that extra bit of research."
Dr Thomas believes that if students feel they do not fit in, they will be more likely to leave university early. "The changing demography and lifestyles of the new student cohort are often ignored, and institutions are not changing to enable students to develop social networks," she said.