Universities can ask applicants about their ethnicity and parents' education and occupations, under changes agreed by the admissions service, Ucas.
Ministers say the information can be used to assess students' potential
Its board agreed the Ucas form for 2008 entry can also ask whether an applicant has been in council care.
In principle, parental occupation and ethnicity should go to admissions tutors at the time of application.
Vice-chancellors say it all gives a more rounded picture of applicants but some people fear "social engineering".
The president of Universities UK, Drummond Bone, said its members placed a high priority on attracting students from families and communities with little or no previous experience of higher education.
"It is therefore useful for a university to have at its disposal a wide range of information to build up a full and rounded view of an applicant," Prof Bone said.
"It allows institutions to understand more about how the applicant got to where they are, and their potential."
The data would also allow them to identify and support applicants and new students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"There is no question of any university dropping standards," he added.
"There is no benefit for a university in taking on students who cannot profit from higher education, or setting them up to fail.
"At the same time, universities wish to build diverse environments and address under-representation."
In future, people will be apply to apply to a maximum of five institutions rather than six as at present.
Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell backed the changes.
"The government is committed to ensuring that people from all backgrounds should have the opportunity to access and benefit from higher education," he said.
"We also believe that admissions officers should have as much information as possible available, to help enable them to assess who has the potential to succeed.
"Ucas and the higher education sector will need to carefully consider which information should be provided, at what stage, and how that information should be used."
But concerns have been raised that the information might be used for "social engineering".
Head teachers of independent schools said that their pupils could be put at a disadvantage, having been privately educated themselves and having parents who had benefited from university educations.
The president of the Girls' Schools Association, Pat Langham, has said: "Favouring candidates whose parents didn't go on to higher education is artificial and amounts to social engineering.''
The general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, Jonathan Shephard, said there would be no problem if the information about parents' backgrounds was used solely for research.
"But this information is of no relevance to admissions tutors - who are looking at candidates, not at parents - and should not be disclosed to universities," he said.
The developments came as the Russell Group of research-led universities revealed that, across England, one in five students might not have got bursaries to which they were entitled.
Its chairman, Malcolm Grant, said: "Experience in the first year of the bursary scheme suggests that some students were not fully aware of the new arrangements.
"There is concern that some prospective students failed to tick 'data sharing' boxes in their original student loan application form to local authorities.
"In consequence they inadvertently excluded themselves from receiving key bursary information from the Student Loan Company.
"It is vital we overcome this as quickly as possible," he said.