Although there has been much research into why young people choose whether to participate in higher education (HE), there has been far less insight into why they may choose perceived lower status institutions, even though approximately 10% of students attend HE courses in further education (FE) colleges in UK. Students from backgrounds not traditionally associated with HE participation are much more likely to attend such institutions. Explanations for this pattern of participation look to ‘barriers to participation’ such as academic ability, costs or identity which problematise the students’ attitudes to debt and HE. This research is based on interviews with 15 students who were studying HE qualifications at a further education college in England. It finds that although the barriers to participation have an effect, many students are making strategic and even rational decisions to attend the perceived lower status institutions. Their decisions suggest that there needs to be greater recognition of the differing role that HE plays in individual life plans and greater variety in what is on offer.