ONE in five children from professional families is getting a maintenance grant to go to college.
A new ESRI study also shows that over half of farmers' children get higher education grants.
The revelation is likely to provoke demands for long-promised reform of the grants scheme, which was set up to help less well-off families send their children to college.
Sources said that some farmers and professionals -- such as accountants, lawyers and engineers -- were able to use the rules to reduce their reckonable income to qualify for a grant for their children.
But this option is not available to hard-pressed PAYE taxpayers.
The study comes as applications for college jump 5,300 this year, with the CAO deadline looming on February 1.
By midnight on Monday, 52,747 applications had been lodged compared with 47,448 at the same time last year.
The increase will push up the points for many degree courses in the universities and put colleges under strain to take in additional students.
At present one in three students -- or around 52,000 a year -- are in receipt of a full or partial grant.
Under the grant system, families with three or fewer children and with income of below €41,100 get a full grant for a child in college.
A full grant is worth €3,420 for a student living away from home and €1,370 for a student living at home.
However, the ESRI says that grant payments have fallen behind jobseekers' allowances and industrial earnings levels with the result that the standard of living for students is likely to have fallen behind the rest of the population. Grant levels have been covering less of the cost of participating in college, it says.
The researchers found that the proportion of full-time students in receipt of grants dropped by nearly a third between 1992 and 2004.
The drop was across all social groups, but despite this more than half of farmers' children and a fifth of children of professionals were in receipt of grants.
One of the main researchers involved, Dr Selina Scott, said there seemed to have been little change in those proportions over the past five or six years.
The others ESRI researchers were Emma Calvert, Emer Smyth and Merike Darmody.
But USI president Peter Mannion said more information was needed on the size of the grants awarded to children of professionals and farmers.
It may be that many, if not most, qualified for only a quarter or half the maintenance award, instead of the full amount. A quarter of the grant is only €855 for those away from home and €345 for those at home.
The ESRI study was carried out for the Higher Education Authority (HEA), which said grants should be targeted at those most in need.
"The minister and the HEA have disadvantaged access to higher education as one of our top priorities. We expect that the forthcoming student support bill will assist in reform of the grant system," said a spokesperson for the HEA.