Data released by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills reveal that just 18 per cent of state school pupils who had been eligible for free school meals at the age of 15 were in education four years later in 2009-10, compared with 36 per cent of children who were not eligible for free meals.
The study also highlights large regional variations in progression to higher education for children from poorer families.
Only three per cent of children claiming free school meals in Swindon went into higher or further education, and just eight per cent progressed in Plymouth and Salford.
But participation was much higher in London boroughs, including Kensington and Chelsea (where 44 per cent of children from poorer families went on to higher education) and Westminster (52 per cent).
The data suggest that other factors beyond family income, such as a family's past educational attainment, ethnicity, proximity of higher education institutions and the quality of schools, played a large part in progression to higher education.
About 13 per cent of 15-year-old state school pupils received free school meals in 2005-06 - 78,215 in total - a rate that remained constant in the ensuing four years, the report says. Pupils from families on income support or earning less than £16,190 are eligible to claim free meals.
However, there was an increase in the number of such students entering higher or further education between 2005-06 and 2009-10, the report found.
In 2009-10, 18 per cent of children eligible for free school meals were still in education aged 19, up from 13 per cent in 2005-06.
The BIS report also found that students from private schools were more than twice as likely to be accepted into highly selective universities.
Sixty-five per cent of privately educated 17-year-olds were accepted at the most selective institutions in 2009-10, an increase of three percentage points on 2008-09.
That compared to 26 per cent of state school pupils who were accepted into highly competitive institutions - the same rate as in 2008-09.
Patrick McGhee, vice-chancellor of the University of East London and chairman of Million+, which represents post-1992 universities, criticised the study for focusing solely on younger students.
"One in three undergraduates enter university for the first time when they are over 21," said Professor McGhee. "The new measures fail to capture their achievements and those of the modern universities that educate them."