Poorer students in Lincolnshire are significantly less likely to go to university than their more affluent peers, figures show – though the gap has closed.
The Sutton Trust said the university access gap across England – which is as large now as it was 14 years ago – is evidence of "stubborn and ingrained inequalities" in the education system.
Data from the Department for Education shows that of 801 students in Lincolnshire who received free school meals at the age of 15, 149 (18.6%) were at university in 2019-20 – up from 15.6% the year before.
Of 7,080 other pupils in the area not on free school meals, 43.5% were studying in higher education at the age of 19, which was down from 43.9% in 2018-19.
This meant that the progression rate gap between poorer pupils and non-disadvantaged students was 24.9 percentage points last year, though this is down from 28.3 in 2018-19.
Across England, 26.6% of pupils who received free school meals at age 15 were participating in higher education in 2019-20, compared to 45.7% of those who did not receive meals.
At 19.1 percentage points, this gap is the widest it has been since 2005-06, and varies significantly throughout the country.
In Wokingham, in the South East, the difference was 40.9, compared to just 7.1 in the London borough of Westminster.
The Sutton Trust, which campaigns for equal access to high quality education, called for further Government funding to address the problem, as well as more support from universities for low-income students.
James Turner, chief executive of the charity, added: "The fact that the university access gap for children on free school meals has not closed at all in the past decade, shows just how stubborn and ingrained inequalities are in our system.
"The Covid-19 pandemic means that the divide between disadvantaged students and their classmates is likely to become even wider, but there is an urgency to act now to prevent the gaps widening still further.”
The gap between the numbers of disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students entering more selective universities also rose to 8.0 percentage points in 2019-20 in England.
In Lincolnshire, just 3.1% of pupils eligible for free school meals progressed to high-tariff institutions – universities with higher entry requirements – by the age of 19, compared with 11.8% of those not eligible.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "The educational attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers starts early in life and then continues to widen.
“Money is not the whole answer, but it is important nonetheless and there has to be more Government investment in early years education, schools and colleges, and in tackling child poverty.”
A DfE spokesman said a greater proportion of disadvantaged pupils are going to university than ever, but that there is more to do.
He added: “Ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to access a world-class education remains a top priority, and we expect universities to do all they can to help disadvantaged students.”