Raising youngsters' aspirations is a more effective way of getting them into higher education than offering financial incentives, according to a US study.
The work by Nobel laureate James Heckman and his University of Chicago colleague Pedro Carneiro reanalysed existing data and interpretated new evidence.
The study argues that fewer than 8 per cent of young Americans' plans for higher education are affected by financial considerations and that 93 per cent of scholarship funds go to middle-class children who would attend school even without this kind of support.
A paper in this month's Economic Journal says: "Long-run family and environmental factors play a decisive role in shaping the ability and expectations of children. Families with higher levels of resources produce higher-quality children who are better able to perform in school and take advantage of the skills market.
"Government policy aimed at reducing the short-term borrowing constraints for the college expenses of (poor but motivated) children during their college years is unlikely to be effective. Policy that improves the environments that shape ability will be a more effective avenue for increasing college enrolment in the long run."
A spokeswoman for Universities UK said: "Raising aspirations in school and providing adequate student support are both vital to making progress towards the UK's widening participation targets.
"Widening participation is a long-term process of social and cultural change. There is no doubt that progress will be dependent on raising aspirations and improving standards in schools to provide suitably qualified applicants to university. Universities are committed to working with schools and colleges to help raise pupils' aspirations.
Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students, said: "It is vitally important that, from a young age, children understand the tangible benefits of higher education. But just raising aspiration is not enough.
"The government has finally recognised the link between student support and retention, and rolled out educational maintenance allowances across the country. It must now apply funding for higher education students as it is no good encouraging students to go to university if they find they cannot afford to go or have to drop out when they get there."