High achieving A-level students face being turned away from universities this year amid mounting competition for degree courses.
Universities minister David Willetts said individuals with “good” grades were set to miss out despite an increase in the number of undergraduate places.
With less than a fortnight before A-level results are published, Mr Willetts suggested sixth-formers consider retaking exams or applying for apprenticeships.
More than 660,000 people had applied to start full-time undergraduate courses by the end of June - up nearly 12% on last year’s record-breaking figure.
Competition has been intensified by some 45,000 people reapplying after being rejected in 2009.
Experts believe the rise could leave some 170,000 would-be students disappointed.
Mr Willetts said the Government had made an extra 10,000 places available this year.
But he added: “It is going to be tough. There are young people who sadly are not going to get a place, including perhaps some young people who really have got good A-level grades, and for them there is a whole range of options.
“Obviously there is the opportunity of re-sitting their exams. They may wish to reapply next year, they may want to do things that strengthen their CV and make them stand out more to universities.”
Mr Willetts said he wanted people to consider college or apprenticeships as alternatives to higher education.
“I think we should get away from the mindset that there is only one option, which is at the age of 18 going away from home to university for three years,” he said.
“There are other ways of getting training. They can go into work and try to get training through apprenticeships, with 50,000 extra apprenticeship places, there are more places at further education colleges.”
Mr Willetts said he hoped the new A* grade for A-levels being introduced this year would help universities “discriminate” and identify the best candidates.
He also refused to be drawn on the prospects for a “graduate tax” to fund universities. Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable has expressed support for the idea, which is viewed as a potential fault line between the coalition partners.
Mr Willetts said he favoured a “graduate contribution” so when people “earn more then they pay more back”, but stressed that the Government would wait for the outcome of a review being carried out by Lord Browne.