The University of California has approved a controversial admissions policy to boost ethnic minority enrolment - but it will be implemented only if the university can afford it.
Effective from 2003, "dual admissions" will both guarantee entry for the top 12.5 per cent of pupils in every high school and retain the policy of ensuring places for the top 12.5 per cent of students statewide.
The university already admits the top 4 per cent of high school graduates. But dual admissions entrants, unlike their higher-achieving peers, must complete two years at a community college before taking up their UC place.
California, the most prestigious publicly funded university system in the US, became the first institution to ban consideration of race in admissions in 1995. Investment of $420 million (£294 million) has failed to return minority admissions to pre-ban levels.
While the 135,000-undergraduate university rescinded the statute underpinning the ban in May, the move was symbolic: admissions based on affirmative action remain outlawed by the state's constitution.
Officials calculate that 36 per cent of students qualifying for dual admissions will be African-American, Hispanic or Native-American. These groups make up 18.6 per cent of first-year UC students but 40 per cent of California's population. An influx of 3,500 students a year is expected under the plan.
The university's board of regents passed the new policy by a 14-3 majority at a stormy two-hour debate last week.
Ward Connerly, dual admissions' most vigorous critic, finally sided with the majority after earlier expressing concerns about eroding academic standards. "When you go from 4 to 12.5 per cent, there is an enormous effect."
Mr Connerly said the true cost of dual admissions would outstrip the budgeted $2.5 million a year. "Some students suffer a profound academic gap - you have to plough resources in to get them prepared and I don't know where the money is."
A commitment from administrators not to enact the policy without necessary funds overcame his reservations.
This was one of three caveats the regents put on their approval. They also insisted that UC reviews its minimum entrance requirements and ensures that those among the top 4 per cent of high schools pupils who lack the funds to attend university do not slip through the net.
The vote was a victory for UC chancellor Richard Atkinson, who has championed taking into account students' backgrounds to level the admissions playing field.