The launch of the new national Individual Learning Account system this week has been marred by red tape, college heads say.
Would-be students trying to apply for an ILA to gain course fee discounts and Pounds 150 "starter incentives" have been unable to do so because of administrative hold-ups.
Computer systems needed to run the scheme were only ready this week, leaving colleges having to deal with applications from thousands of ILA students at the same time as regular enrolments.
The process has been further complicated by rules that prohibit retrospective applications for ILA entitlements. College officials have had to ensure students do not sign up for a course before their account has been confirmed.
College heads say the problems have arisen from delays during the summer at the Department for Education and Employment in deciding to award the contract for running the scheme to public sector consultants, Capita.
They could cause embarrassment for the government, which describes ILAs as "a major strand" in its lifelong learning programme. It has set a target for a million learners to be registered for an ILA by the end of the year.
About 100,000 have already signed up through pilot schemes over the past year.
The first million students to apply for an ILA can gain 20 per cent discount on course fees plus a Pounds 150 incentive grant for a wide range of programmes, including work-related courses higher education courses, and adult education. Students applying later get 20 per cent discount on course fees or an 80 per cent discount on a narrower range of IT and maths courses.
John Brennan, FE development director for the Association of Colleges, said: "It can be tricky trying to deal with these problems when you are trying to attract non-traditional learners."