Universities should take millions of pounds set aside for bursaries and tuition-fee discounts for poor students and use it to fund a new education allowance for teenagers, a report says.
The study by Alan Milburn, the government's social mobility adviser, also calls on higher education institutions to switch resources from such financial support for undergraduates to outreach projects in local schools.
Ideas put forward by the report include providing intensive training for teachers in state schools and summer schools for students from poor backgrounds, to help improve achievement at GCSE and A level.
But the study also suggests that cash allocated by institutions to bursaries, fee waivers and outreach - set to total £600 million by 2015 - could fund a new version of the education maintenance allowance, the means-tested payment to sixth-formers worth up to £30 a week that was scrapped by the coalition in 2010.
Mr Milburn, a former Labour Cabinet minister, told Times Higher Education: "Universities should not be expected to stump up the same amount as the EMA but a targeted scheme could make a real difference." The scheme would be more effective in encouraging young people to apply to university than bursaries and fee waivers, which had little effect on potential applicants, partly because each university has a different financial support package.
"At the moment, it's a complete lottery depending on which university you attend," Mr Milburn said. "And there is compelling evidence that fee waivers have a negligible or non-existent impact on access."
Universities will this year spend £290 million on bursaries and scholarships and only £78 million on outreach. Mr Milburn wants to see a "rebalancing" in favour of the latter.
He called for a "new national strategy" to coordinate access to university activities and criticised the government's closure in 2011 of Aimhigher, which organised outreach activities across the country on behalf of UK universities.
"The timing could hardly have been worse as tuition fees were being hiked - the post-Aimhigher landscape is very patchy," he said.
"The government and various mission groups need to come together and work a way through this. Universities are spending millions of pounds of public money with a limited evidence base about what actually works."
Institutions needed to work more closely with schools, he added, saying that they "have a responsibility to grow the pool of talent" from which they select their applicants.
The report also advocates the use of contextual data in admissions, whereby universities lower grade requirements for students from socially disadvantaged areas.
Mr Milburn believes that the furore over the practice, which critics argue discriminates against private-school applicants, had been overblown.
"Russell Group universities are no strangers to contextual data," he said. "Universities have never simply selected on A-level results alone. That's why there are interviews - most universities have some form of contextual data in their admissions."
His report also calls for extra cash for universities that admit high numbers of socially disadvantaged students as well as for the lifting of the cap on student numbers and for more funds for higher education.