Kim Bielenberg on the huge variations in college payments
Students from Dublin and other city areas are losing out when it comes to receiving student grants.
Ninety per cent of first year students from Donegal get a grant, while only 31pc of Dublin students are eligible, according to official statistics.
Figures obtained by the Irish Independent show dramatic differences in the percentage of students who receive payments for fees and maintenance.
The county-by-county survey shows that students in rural counties are more likely to have their third level education funded by the government.
The figures are based on statistics from the CAO for final acceptances of places in college and figures on grants from the Department of Education.
Students in the West and North-West are the biggest recipients.
After Donegal, students from Roscommon (76pc) and Leitrim (71pc) are next when it comes to grant payouts, while counties with big urban populations such as Limerick, Cork, and Kildare joined Dublin at the bottom of the table.
The wide differences in the figures can largely be explained by variations in average family income in each county.
In order to get a full maintenance grant, a family with fewer than four children cannot earn more than €41,000.
The dominance of rural counties in the figures may reinforce the view that the system favours farmers and the self-employed.
The findings have prompted renewed calls for a change to the system of means testing. However, any attempt to include capital assets in the assessment will be bitterly opposed by farmers
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Labour TD for Dublin North-Central, said: "The low numbers getting a grant from Dublin shows that we need a fairer system.
"The means test should be based on ability to pay, rather than the ability of an accountant. The grants should be targeted at those who really need them and not those who are asset rich."
The figures are based on grants given to first year students in 2011/2012.
At that time the application process for first year students was carried out by 66 local authorities and VECs.
Different practices in local areas may account for some of the variation in figures.
Since these figures were compiled the system has now been centralised. This year first year applicants applied through a new body, SUSI (Student Universal Support Ireland).
The Government had hoped that this central body would streamline applications, but the new system has suffered teething problems, causing chronic delays. By the beginning of this month more than 50,000 students still had not had their grants processed.
The Donegal North-East TD Charlie McConalogue said he was not surprised that his county finished at the top of the table.
Mr McConalogue, who is Fianna Fáil spokesman on Education, said: "The county has a very high unemployment rate with 20,000 people out of work. There is also a very large number of medical cards in the county.''
The Government is currently considering whether to include capital assets in the means test. It will have to decide whether to include farm land, other types of property including holiday homes, savings and investments.
A spokesman for the Minister said: "An implementation group is looking at this matter, with officials from a range of departments. At a time of diminishing resources we want to ensure that grants are channelled in the right direction.
"We need to ensure that the grants to the self-employed are going to small farmers and those running small businesses."
According to the minister's spokesman, the cost of third-level grants has risen enormously from €264m in 2008 to €360m.
The Hunt report on Higher Education from last year supported the capital test.
It said: "The absence of any consideration of assets and wealth in the means-test model has limited the scope of the State to target scarce resources towards those students in most need of support.''
The means testing for college grants is potentially one of the most divisive issues facing the Fine Gael/Labour coalition.
Several backbench Fine Gael TD have pledged to fight tooth and nail against moves to include farm assets.
Forty per cent of farmers' children receive assistance for higher education from the state. That is close to the overall national average.
If he fails to introduce a capital assets test, Ruairi Quinn would not be the first minister to have such a scheme blown out of the water.
Nine years ago the then Minister Noel Dempsey called for land and assets to be included in the means test. But his plan never saw the light of day.