Purpose The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the scholarship of diversity, equity and inclusivity in higher education. The focus is to advance an understanding of the issues concerning student admissions and access in higher education. The paper will contribute to the debate on student admissions and access in higher education. Among others, the author argues that in the context of higher education, access has different meanings. Design/methodology/approach This paper is conceptual in approach and draws from extant literature and the review was used in compiling the paper. Interpretivist approach was used in understanding the topic. Relying on capabilities approach (CA) as a lens in understanding student admissions and access the author argues that higher Education Institutions should consider opportunities (capabilities) for all students to live the lives that they have reason to value (valued functionings). CA works from the premise that human beings share universal capabilities and students’ life can be fulfilling if given the opportunity to exercise their capabilities by universities. Findings Universities can rely on students’ racial and ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic status and students’ disabilities in admitting them. Diversity characteristics can be used as a tool to ensure the heterogeneity of the student population or as an unfair advantage given to students who might otherwise be deemed inadmissible on the basis of their academic or test performance. Factors such as changing demographics, public policy, institutional practices and marketing techniques seem to have a subtle influence on the process of admission. Students may experience challenges because of the “invisibility” of their disabilities due to a breakdown in communication within higher education systems. Research limitations/implications The paper relied on literature review only and this is its limitation. Literature review may have been influenced by selection bias of the author and is likely to include only those sources that are most consistent with the author’s personal opinion. Selection bias can arise when the inclusion and exclusion criteria for the review are not clearly stated and that might bias the findings. Practical implications Admission officials in higher education institutions are expected to conduct a diversity needs assessment before admissions with the aim of using the data to identify student population. The needs assessment can look at aspects such as the students’ racial and ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic status and students’ disabilities to ensure access and success of all students. Social implications Inequities around access and admission for diverse groups of students in higher education are a reality worldwide. There is a worldwide trend within countries to see universities as contributors to economic growth, and many institutions are now increasingly attuned to the money economy. A student’s decision to apply on where to study may be influenced by the reputation of the institution. Originality/value This concept is relative and has different meanings depending on the nature of the work in question. The paper was compiled through literature review, all the sources used have been acknowledged, and the paper conveys the thoughts, interpretations and ideas of the author.

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