Half of England's colleges have seen a drop in student numbers, with many blaming the abolition of a grant for poorer teenagers and tougher competition, research shows.
The Association of Colleges (AoC), which conducted the study, raised concerns that financial pressures are stopping students from doing the course they want at the institution of their choice. And poorer students could be at risk of dropping out, the AoC warned.
The survey questioned 182 sixth form, further education (FE) and specialist colleges about student numbers and funding. The findings show that 49% of colleges say they saw a decrease in student numbers this September, compared to the same time last year. Of these, nearly half (48%) have seen a drop of 5% or more, with one in five (22%) saying their numbers have fallen by 10% or more.
Colleges which saw a drop in students were asked to rank the main reason for the decrease. The most popular was the Government's decision to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) - a weekly payment of between £10 and £30 given to the poorest teenagers to help them stay in education.
The second most popular reason chosen was competition from other colleges, followed by poor careers advice and lack of available or affordable transport and then cuts in funding.
Half (51%) of the colleges questioned said the numbers had stayed the same, or increased, this year. Just under half of colleges say they will be topping up Government bursary funding this year, and a similar number said they will be spending more of their own money subsidising transport for students.
AoC chief executive Martin Doel said: "What is clear is that a significant number of member colleges are concerned that financial constraints are preventing some students from pursuing their preferred courses at their institution of choice, and that there is a risk of vulnerable groups becoming disengaged from education."
The figures refer to 16-19 education. Colleges teach two-thirds of all students who are in this age group and in education.
Toni Pearce, National Union of Students (NUS) vice-president (Further Education), said: "Ministers were warned over and over again by teachers, students, parents, economists and college leaders that scrapping EMA would harm participation in further education and now they are reaping what they sowed."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "The Government's failure to come up with a proper replacement for the EMA has left colleges scrabbling to find the funds to keep our poorest students in education."