Abstract: Although participation in higher education (HE) has expanded in Europe, social inequalities remain a major political challenge. As HE expansion has not led to equal access and success, the mechanisms behind policies seeking to reduce inequalities need to be examined. Focusing on the widening participation agenda, this article investigates how universities translate political demands to their local contexts. The translation perspective is adopted to study the German HE system as an example characterized by high social exclusion. Based on policy document analysis, the study first explores the rationales underlying the discourse on widening participation. Second, a multiple case study design is used to investigate the organizational responses to the demand of widening participation. The findings indicate that the political discourse is dominated by two perspectives that regard widening participation as either a means to bring about social justice or to ensure a reliable pool of skilled labor. The study further reveals that different legitimizing strategies serve to link the policy of widening participation to local contexts. This study contributes to research on social inequalities in HE by introducing a translation perspective that permits analysis at both macro and organizational levels, while acknowledging institutional variations in organizational responses to political demands.