Unlike other United States universities, New York's City College has not charged tuition fees since it was established in 1847. It simply insists that its students - mainly the poor, minorities and immigrants - meet basic entry requirements and work hard.
The "poor man's Harvard", as it would come to be called, took in penniless but ambitious immigrants and turned out 11 Nobel prizewinners and graduates such as Jonas Salk, US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Intel founder Andrew Grove, General Colin Powell, Ira Gershwin and comedian Jerry Seinfeld. All they needed, according to the City College credo, was an opportunity.
So when City's parent institution, the City University of New York, this month shut out certain poor and minority students from its bachelor's degree programmes, the decision reverberated across US higher education. Not only is CUNY the nation's largest urban university and the third-largest public university of any kind in the US, but, in the words of founder Townsend Harris, it had always promised to "open the doors to all, and let the children of the rich and poor take seats together".
Yet CUNY has begun excluding from its bachelor's degree courses students who could not demonstrate that they are ready to begin college-level work in maths and English. Previously, such students were enrolled in remedial courses, as is commonly the case on most other US campuses.
What has happened at CUNY is the most significant outcome of a backlash against such so-called remedial education, which has become a target of politicians.
The criticism is that students should be grounded in the basics before they arrive at university and that universities should not have to waste their money re-educating them.
Herman Badillo, a former congressman and expected future candidate for mayor - and a CUNY graduate - says the system has been squandering its resources on weak students who never graduated.
Bernard Sohmer, head of the faculty senate, said Badillo's approach is that of "the guys who believe that anybody can do anything they want if they really wanted to, and instantly you have no obligation to these people".
Remedial education is also under siege elsewhere in the US but estimates have placed its national cost at below 1 per cent of the higher education budget. All but a fifth of US public, four-year colleges offer remedial courses, and about 30 per cent of all entering freshmen take at least one remedial class.
Ena Farley, a CUNY trustee who voted against cutting remedial programmes, said some students would now be forced to "beg and cringe and crawl" to get a higher education.
But Louise Mirrer, the vice-chancellor in charge of implementing the changes, said: "You have to have the confidence that you bring people in in a way that they have a chance to be suc-