Young people rely on school friends for advice rather than on teachers or parents when choosing which university to attend, according to a survey.
Researchers, who quizzed 500 sixthformers in Manchester, also discovered "confusion and misunderstanding" about the financial arrangements that awaited them in higher education.
Project leader Susan McGrath, education liaison officer at Manchester Metropolitan University, described the findings as surprising and very worrying.
"The friends that almost half the pupils in our survey rely on are still at school or college," she said. "If students don't get places on the right course or at the right university, they will not be likely to finish their courses successfully."
Some 45 per cent of respondents said they relied on friends when choosing where to study, compared with 36 per cent who preferred to speak to form tutors. The advice of careers tutors and parents was sought by about one-third of the students.
The researchers found that the right advice was available in all four of the institutions from which the survey sample came, but significant numbers of students were failing to access it.
"Schools and colleges are striving to provide advice and guidance on progression to higher education - into which they are expected to encourage more of their students to progress," the report says. "But these students can only benefit from higher education if they continue beyond simple progression to a successful conclusion."
The survey found young people were very confused about student finance.
"Just 9 per cent of year 12 and 30 per cent of year 13 realised that top-up fees, due to come into effect in 2006, will not apply to them," Ms McGrath said.
She said that the research had found that money was a major factor in people's decisions not to enter higher education, even though many of them underestimated the cost of studying and living independently while at university.
While the researchers found that awareness of student loans was reassuring, the percentages expecting a grant of some form under the current support system were "worryingly high".
Of those students not intending to enter higher education, 44 per cent said they would rather get a job, while 39 per cent cited financial worries.
Some 37 per cent said they had had enough of studying.
The researchers recommend that advice about university study begin earlier and suggest that targeted liaison between schools and universities would benefit students significantly.
'I JUST HEARD YOU COULD HAVE A GOOD TIME THERE'
Krish Mondal studied business and economics at the University of East Anglia because his friend's brother had gone there.
"I had never heard of the university before, never mind visited it, but I had heard you could have a good time there," he said. "Looking back I could so easily have failed. It was an incredible gamble but, in my case, it paid off and worked out fine."
Norwich was a smaller town than he had imagined. When Mr Mondal arrived from his home in Sheffield, he was shocked to find he had been placed in accommodation a few miles off campus.
"I definitely should have sought advice before going to UEA, but what your friends say counts for more than teachers' advice at that age, doesn't it?"
Sian Harrison had decided quite early on to study drama or performing arts, but after speaking to her family she changed her mind and plumped for English.
"I was longing to get away from home in Hartlepool, so I visited one or two campuses. But looking back I should have seen more. Not that many people from Hartlepool had experience of higher education, and lots of students were going where their friends were going, but I was more interested in getting on to the right course.
"I ended up at Hull University - even though I had been determined not to go there as my mum had been a student in the city - because they followed me up when I didn't get the grades for my first choices.
"It turned out to be the right decision for me, as they let me change to English and music after the first year," she said.