Pupils from deprived backgrounds who might otherwise discount the possibility of going on to higher education can benefit from a limited introduction to campus life, according to research from Humberside University.
"It was totally different to what I had expected - I can't wait to get there," was a typical response from a previously daunted teenager experiencing her first brief spell of university life.
For John Knowles of Humberside University the remark is frustrating. His research at six secondary schools in Humberside reveals that the vast majority of school leavers with no previous experience of higher education will never make it to university.
The study, to be reported for the first time at the British Educational Research Association in York next month, looks at schools serving disadvantaged communities where the progression to post-16 education is between 30 and 50 per cent. The national average is more than 70 per cent.
Mr Knowles found that pupils' aspirations towards a university education declined the lower the occupational status of their family. The link was so marked that 86 per cent of respondents with no friends or family at university were missing out on higher education.
"The main barrier is cultural," Mr Knowles said. "Once these pupils see that undergraduates are no different to them, that they could cope with the work, the idea of going to university becomes more accessible."
This is the objective of an innovative project at Humberside funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Relationships are established with year 11 pupils from disadvantaged communities who may receive an early conditional offer of a place. The offer, currently made to 100 pupils, enables them to accumulate credit in exchange for evidence of preparation to become undergraduates.
Mr Knowles finds government plans for students to take out substantial loans for their education "deeply worrying".
"If your only experience of credit is 30p per week towards the Littlewoods catalogue the notion of a large debt is an enormous barrier," he said. He also thought that means-testing would be unpalatable to many proud, working-class families.
Research at the University of Southampton with younger children has found that pupils are making important decisions about their futures in primary school as early as age ten.
Nick Foskett, senior lecturer in education who carried out the research, said his findings, also being aired at BERA, pointed to the need for more advice about universities at a much earlier stage.
Half of all year eight pupils (aged 12 to 13) in ten Hampshire primary schools could not distinguish between further and higher education and two years later one-third were still confused.