A poll of school leavers, conducted for the National Union of Students and HSBC, has found that those from lower socio-economic groups are the most likely to be motivated by earning potential and the least likely to study degrees "for the experience".
Social background also appears to be a factor when it comes to the choice of university, according to the study, which questioned a nationally representative sample of 300 school leavers.
Those in higher social groups are more likely to be influenced by universities' academic reputation, and those from lower social groups are more likely to opt for institutions closer to home.
Asked about their information needs, poorer students are more likely to say they would have liked more details on accommodation options and costs, as well as sources of financial support.
These students are also significantly more likely to be worried about the financial situation they will face at university, and about two-fifths are considering living with their parents during their courses in order to save money.
When school leavers were quizzed about their expectations of university teaching and learning, almost half say they expect to produce written work that would be marked by an academic at least once a week. Three-quarters believe that "most of the time at university there will be a lecturer or tutor available that I can go to for advice or information" and just under two-thirds expect to "see an academic tutor (or) lecturer regularly and really get to know them".
In an analysis of the findings, the report, NUS/HSBC School Leavers Research - Motivations and Expectations, warns that the higher levels of financial concern among students from lower socio-economic groups suggests that they might be "discouraged from applying to more prestigious universities" when they are allowed to charge higher fees.