Research related to increasing equity participation in higher education has proliferated over the past decade. In Australia, substantial research has focused on the role of families and schools in shaping student aspirations for university, and some attention has been given to the aspirations of Indigenous students, first-in-family students, students from low-SES backgrounds and those in regional and remote areas. Relatively little research has investigated the role of local communities in influencing and increasing participation. In the UK, studies of student aspirations at a local level have shown notable differences between communities that belie broader patterns. Despite some Australian research on aspirations utilising concepts of place and community, few studies have made comparisons across community types or investigated community strategies to support university aspirations. Drawing on census data, surveys involving more than 8,000 school students, and interviews and focus groups with parents, teachers, students and key community members, we examined a range of contextual factors that shape students’ aspirations for and pathways to higher education across different types of communities. We used exploratory factor analysis to determine the key factors, derived from census variables, that explain variation among the Local Government Areas (LGAs) represented in our sample. Next, seven diverse LGAs were identified for case studies designed to provide rich, detailed and contextualised descriptions of the ways in which communities influence participation in higher education. The case studies highlight the emotional and material realities of students’ lives in different communities and how they shape students’ interest (or lack of interest) in university education. Our findings illustrate diversity among students within and between different community types and the complex community effects on aspirations. We argue equity initiatives must move beyond a sole focus on the individual to actively involve the community in aspirations, including more localised, targeted strategies that take into account the influence of communities.