This article applies a capability approach to the problem of unequal participation for working-class, first-generation students at a South African university. Even though access to higher education institutions is increasing for historically excluded students, when race and class disaggregate completion rates, there are persistent patterns of unequal participation. In the first part of the article, the capability approach is used to conceptualise dimensions of equal participation, which include resources, agency, recognition and practical reason. In the second part of the paper, these four principles are applied to an empirical case study, which is drawn from a longitudinal research project that tracked the equality of participation of undergraduate university students at a South African university. The article makes the case for pedagogical and institutional arrangements that enable equal participation for students who are precariously positioned at higher education institutions.