Universities could get extra money for admitting more students from low income families, their funding council said.
First year students pay £3,000 in top-up fees for the first time
The Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) also wants universities to run summer schools to broaden their social mix.
Funds would come from a separate pot to that for research or teaching, Hefce's chief executive, David Eastwood, said.
Although ministers want more students from poorer backgrounds at university, their numbers fell last year.
Prof Eastwood said any extra funding for widening participation would come from a fund for "strategic interventions".
Recognition and support
Recently, £75m from this fund was used to help struggling science departments.
He said those universities that already do more than others to educate less advantaged students and make sure they do not drop out deserve recognition and financial support.
Leading universities had expressed fears in an article in the Times that changing the funding system would mean cuts to their research grants.
Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London and chairman of the Russell Group which represents the UK's top research universities, said: "While we applaud widening participation, it would seem sensible for Hefce to look at ways to allow our world-class universities to compete at an international level and not to tax research funding to cross-subsidise widening participation across the sector."
Focus on strengths
But Prof Eastwood said research funding would not be cut, nor would top universities which tend to admit more better-off students, lose out to those with a broader mix.
He said universities did need to focus on their strengths as a government spending review approached.
"But it certainly doesn't in any sense suggest that we are going to move research away from the most research effective universities, or that middle class kids will find it harder to get into university," he said.
Some 15,000 fewer students started university courses this year than in 2005, figures showed.
Numbers dropped as first year students were charged top-up fees of £3,000 for the first time.