Students who spent time in state care as children, usually due to neglect or maltreatment, are a growing community within higher education in many countries. However, their participation rates generally remain below average and they are more likely to withdraw early, while their experiences have not yet been well-theorised. In this article, we synthesise and reconsider data from three national studies from the United Kingdom that collectively explored the lives of 461 care-experienced students using different methodologies. We use the lens of the capabilities approach – a normative social justice framework that seeks to identify ‘capabilities’ allowing people to live lives that they value, with the goal of alleviating ‘unfreedoms’ that prevent them from doing so. We argue that many care-experienced students have a precarious engagement with higher education for reasons directly or indirectly related to their early lives, concluding that the capabilities approach provides a useful praxis-based heuristic to review how policymakers, managers and practitioners can support care-experienced students to thrive. We use our data to propose amendments to the theoretical framework and suggest that its usefulness extends to other marginalised groups within higher education.