But those who gain a degree from a top institution - including Oxford and Cambridge - are still likely to have the highest earnings, it suggests.
The study, published by the Sutton Trust, argues that a high-quality apprenticeship offers as much financial security as many undergraduate degrees, and warns that a cultural change is needed to raise the status of these vocational courses.
It calculates that youngsters who opt to study for a Level 5 higher apprenticeship - equivalent to a foundation degree - will earn around £1.44 million over their lifetime, almost £52,000 more than a student who studies at a non-Russell Group university - considered among the best institutions in the UK. These graduates can expect to take home around £1.39 million.
Students who graduate from a Russell Group university will earn around £1.6 million, the study shows - around £160,000 more than someone who does a higher apprenticeship and around £212,000 more than a student who did not attend a top university.
Those who gained a degree from Oxford and Cambridge have the highest earnings power, with average lifetime earnings of around £1.79 million. This is around £190,000 more than other Russell Group graduates, around £351,000 more than a higher apprenticeship and almost £403,000 more than someone who went to a non-Russell Group university.
The figures, by the Boston Consulting Group, take into account the cost of going to university, including average student debt levels, and the ability of apprentices to earn while they learn.
About 10,000 higher apprenticeships are undertaken each year, the report says, and are available at different levels, including foundation level, undergraduate degree and masters.
It goes on to say that in general, the majority of apprenticeships on offer are at Level 2 - equivalent to GCSEs, and that many of these "offer little value for the apprentice and only marginally better lifetime earnings than secondary school qualifications alone".
The report claims that according to the latest data, less than a third (32%) of apprenticeship starts have been by under 19-year-olds, while research suggests that the most elite apprenticeships are taken by those from wealthier backgrounds, rather than poorer youngsters.
A poll conducted as part of the study found that 80% of young people, who said they were more likely to go into higher education than start an apprenticeship, thought that getting a degree would be better for their career prospects.
In a foreword to the report, Sutton Trust chairman Sir Peter Lampl says that the culture around apprenticeships needs addressing.
"If undergraduate degrees are seen as a gold standard, these vocational qualifications are too often seen as 'second best', or a 'fall back option'.
"But some of the UK's most famous and successful entrepreneurs were formerly apprentices - from the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to the billionaire jeweller Lawrence Graff to the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen.
"Success can come through apprenticeships, but work is needed to boost their quantity and quality and change their public perception."
The Trust makes a series of recommendations, including providing more apprenticeships at Level 3 - equivalent to A-levels - and above and calling on government to launch an awareness campaign aimed at young people, parents and teachers.
A Business Department spokesman said: "A traditional university degree or apprenticeship are equally valid routes to rewarding careers. We are committed to delivering three million apprenticeships by 2020 and are increasing the number of Higher and Degree Apprenticeships within that so more young people can gain advanced technical skills employers want and need.
"Our ongoing reforms are driving up the quality of apprenticeships at all levels and incentivising teaching excellence in higher education to ensure whatever route young people choose, they have the highest quality skills that industry needs."
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