Nearly half of young people were given a place at university this year with A-level grades lower than the advertised entry requirements, new figures show.
The admissions service, Ucas, says 49% of 18-year-olds in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, who sat at least three A-levels, were accepted with lower grades than those advertised.
Universities generally advertise grade requirements on their websites.
Disadvantaged students were more likely to take up places with lower grades.
In its end-of-cycle report for 2019, Ucas says that 60% of applicants from the fifth most disadvantaged backgrounds were accepted on to courses with A-level grades below the advertised requirements.
This may be due to "contextualised offers", where institutions take into account factors that can restrict a student's achievement at school.
"Findings from the 2019 cycle suggest that applicants should not be deterred from applying to courses with challenging entry requirements," the Ucas report says.
"Universities and colleges frequently accept applicants who perform below their entry requirements. Encouragingly, this is most often experienced by disadvantaged applicants."
Good time to apply to university
The Ucas report also says this is a good time to apply for a degree place, as the UK 18-year-old population is expected to fall to its lowest point in recent years in 2020.
"Consequently, now may be the best time ever to apply to higher education - particularly since this population is expected to grow again from 2021, reaching 2010's height by 2024," the report says.
It also shows:
- a record 541,240 students were accepted onto undergraduate courses this year
- the number of places being offered through Clearing has continued to rise - in 2019, over 34,000 18-year-olds (14% of all placed applicants) secured a place this way, the highest number on record
- nearly three in four (73.6%) of the UK's 18-year-olds who were accepted onto a course, got a place at their first-choice university.
Ucas says around one in six (17%) of the most disadvantaged students said they had received a contextual offer.
But the report raises concerns that many disadvantaged students are unaware that some UK universities will take account of their background when making offers, saying only 60% of the most disadvantaged applicants knew about these offers.
Ucas says that while disadvantaged students were 61% more likely to enter university now than 10 years ago, more needs to be done to raise awareness.
It says teachers and advisers should "familiarise themselves with the practice of contextualised admissions" so that they can offer "the best advice and support" and encourage "aspirational choices".
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that while the equality gap between the number of rich and poor students entering university had narrowed, it is still "far too wide".
Responding to Ucas's suggestions, Mr Barton said: "This is easier said than done. UCAS itself acknowledges that contextualised admissions practices vary substantially between higher education providers.
"And schools and colleges have suffered years of real-terms cuts, which means they are simply unable to provide the level of student support that they would like to be able to offer.
"They are struggling to keep the existing plates spinning, let alone adding new ones."
Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant said: "Today's report shows the unprecedented opportunity for anyone currently thinking of applying to university to be ambitious with their choices.
"The trends identified through our analysis are very likely to continue into this year, with universities, colleges and schools continuing to support students from a variety of backgrounds."
President of Universities UK, Professor Julia Buckingham, said universities were committed to widening access to higher education.
"It is fantastic to see that disadvantaged students are more likely to access a place at university than ten years ago.
"However, it is clear that a number of challenges and disparities remain, and there is a shared will in the sector to see gaps narrow further.
"Universities will continue to work to do this."