A means-tested further education maintenance allowance for adult FE students is urgently needed if government higher education and skills targets are to be met, a report has warned.
The Foyer Federation, which provides accommodation, education and training for 10,000 homeless 16 to 25-year-olds, estimates that about 41,000 people a year aged between 19 and 30 would sign up for two-year college courses if supported by an allowance of up to £4,700 per student.
In its report, Second Chances, which has been backed by the Association of Colleges and the Campaign for Learning and has won support from MPs and regional development agency heads, the federation argues that both widening participation in higher education and efforts to close the UK's skills gap will falter unless such an allowance is introduced.
The extra support is needed because under current regulations many of the people the government says it wants to target in its education and training initiatives lose the right to financial backing for full-time study when they reach 19, the report says.
Although 16 to 18-year-olds can study full-time while claiming benefits, most over-18s can claim only the Job Seekers Allowance and participate in the New Deal. This provides limited opportunities for learning, with the priority on seeking employment or attending short courses.
The result is a steep reduction in the number of young adults studying full time from the age of 19, leaving less than 2 per cent of all adults aged 21 to 24 engaged in full-time study at a further education college.
Carolyn Hayman, Foyer Federation chief executive, said: "The impact on these young people, once they hit 19, of being denied the opportunity to get the skills they need is both damaging for them as individuals and for the UK economy.
"The government's aim of increasing the number of young people getting the qualifications and training needed to either go to university or get skilled work is in real danger of faltering unless this is backed by some proper financial support such as a new further education maintenance allowance."
A survey of 400 Foyer residents from nine Foyers across the country revealed many cases of young people giving up a course mid-way because they had reached the age of 19 and were no longer entitled to maintenance support.
The federation estimates it would cost the government around £192 million a year to provide a further education maintenance allowance.
The average benefit to the economy of supporting those students who would otherwise drop out of college, it calculates, would be an average of £13,817 per student.