Students are increasingly choosy about university amid concerns about high levels of debt, according to research.
The move to triple tuition fees has put more pressure on youngsters to make good decisions about higher education.
Many of them see going to university as requiring a significant cash investment and that it has to be "worth it", the Oxford University research concludes.
The study, which comes the day before A-level results are published, surveyed more than 700 sixth-formers in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire and conducted focus groups to examine attitudes towards the cost and benefits of higher education.
Students starting degree courses at English universities this autumn are the first to pay tuition fees of up to £9,000. Loans can be taken out to cover the fees, which are repayable when a graduate is earning £21,000 or more.
The findings show that two-fifths are either concerned or very concerned about debt. They also reveal that 24% of males and 23.1% of females expect to graduate with debt levels above £40,000.
Those who are the first in their family to go to university are more likely to have thought about the debt they would incur than those who have seen others in their family go on to higher education, the study says. It adds that the youngsters who are the first in their family to go are more likely to expect high levels of debt than others.
Evidence from the focus groups suggests that many students believe that the scale of expected debt on graduation is so large that they could not really grasp the idea of it, the researchers say. "Those applying to higher education were clear that they were making a significant investment and therefore that it was important for them only to undertake a course that was worth it," the study says.
One-fifth of sixth-formers do not expect to pay back all the debt accumulated from going to university. There were differences between the expectations of those whose first choice of university is a new institution and those hoping to attend older universities. Three in 10 (30.3%) who had given a post-1992 university as the first choice do not expect to pay back all of their debt. This "reflects the lower earnings expectations of these respondents", the research says.
Separate figures suggest that universities overseas may see an increase in applications from UK students. Maastricht University said it has increased its entry requirements in response to growing demand. The institution is asking UK applicants to achieve at least three Bs at A-level, up from a previous requirement of two A-levels at any grade. Maastricht, which charges around £1,500 a year for most of its courses, said it has had 592 UK applications for undergraduate degrees, up from 294.