The scheme being operated by the seven universities, all teacher training colleges and Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), has previously been limited to students at about 300 schools.
But from November, anybody seeking a place in these colleges through the Central Applications Office (CAO) can apply to be included in the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR) scheme.
“The idea of opening it up to all schools is to reflect the fact that, even if a school is in an affluent area, there can still be some level of disadvantage among its students,” said Margaret Dunne, access project manager for the Irish Universities Association.
Previously, about 700 students a year have been admitted to most of the colleges involved through similar access programmes, qualifying them for additional academic, social and other supports. Almost half of them normally achieve the Leaving Certificate points needed for general entry to their course, but others would have been given extra credits if they attended one of about 300 disadvantaged schools linked to colleges.
“The programme is aimed at the lower socio-economic groups which are under- represented in third level, in line with government policy. The students will have the academic ability but they might not have a family tradition of going to college, or their study might have been limited, for example, by having to work part-time when they were at school,” Ms Dunne said.
Students filling in their CAO form online up to February 1, who want to be considered, must complete a separate section outlining their financial, social and cultural background, and family incomes must be under the cut-off for student grant eligibility. All supporting documentation must be sent to the CAO by April 1 and students should be notified if they are eligible around the time they sit the Leaving Certificate in June. Ms Dunne said eligible students may have 40 to 50 points added to their Leaving Certificate scores before the CAO and college admissions officers begin allocating places in the days after results issue in mid-August.
Institute of Guidance Counsellors president Eilis Coakley said HEAR provides a level playing pitch for students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. It helps them overcome a variety of obstacles by providing academic, personal and social supports in the participating colleges.
About 60,000 third level students qualify for grants every year and more than 44,000 of the 74,000 CAO applicants this year sat the Leaving Certificate in June.
* More details of the HEAR scheme are available from www.accesscollege.ie