California's 30-year-old policy of offering a college education to any state resident who could benefit appears on the verge of falling apart. There is mounting concern among experts that a tidal wave of new students will flood the system, even as public money is running short.
In 1960 California led the nation with an open-door policy enshrined in its master plan for higher education. Once again the state is setting precedents - but this time for shrinking access to college in an era of budget squeezes, stagnant family incomes and rising tuition fees.
Michael Shires of the Public Policy Institute of California said: "It's part of a new period in the state and the nation's history. We have to ask ourselves what do we want to accomplish, because the idea of providing everything to anyone is behind us."
The master plan was about the closest the US has seen to the British model of planned provision and free tuition. Its authors hoped that students who met certain minimum standards would have to pay only some incidental college costs.
It was adopted under Pat Brown, the Democratic governor often regarded as a father of modern California. He oversaw a state that believed in investing. The 1960s saw a huge building boom for freeways and other infrastructure, and an equally vast construction programme for schools and colleges. The aim was that the University of California, whose nine-campus system now includes the world-renowned research universities of the UC Berkeley and the UC San Diego, would be open to the top one-eighth of students, said Mr Shires.
The California State University would be open to the top one-third, and was designed to provide most of the undergraduate and teacher training education. A network of two-year community colleges, meanwhile, would provide vocational and supplementary education and also prepare students who wanted to go on to university.
By and large ambitions were realised. The public college system now includes the nine UC campuses, 22 CSU campuses and about 107 community colleges. It is backed up by a series of prestigious - and not so prestigious - private colleges.
But Mr Shires directed a recent study which showed that already 250,000 prospective students who qualify for a higher education under the master plan either cannot find places or cannot meet the cost.
The number excluded is likely to rise to one million by early next century, according to a study by the Rand Corporation. It confirmed results from a series of other surveys that California's public colleges will have to rethink their admissions and administrative strategies unless there is a huge injection of tax money.
In 1981 annual fees for state residents attending the University of California were just $781; now they are more than $4,000 a year, with some recent years seeing fee increases of 40 per cent. It mirrors a pattern across the country that has drawn the attention this year both of president Bill Clinton and Republican leaders. Immigration is partly responsible for a swelling California population that will push the student-age population to two million by the year 2000.
But on the other side of the equation, the tax-cutting Proposition 13 is also to blame for shrinking resources. New laws have protected the schools' share of the state budget, but not that of universities. And spending on prisons, with long sentences imposed by the new law, last year overtook higher education spending for the first time.
The UC, in particular, still does its best to ensure that deserving students can afford to complete college. State education in California is still regarded as a bargain by the standards of many other states. But experts are concerned that fees, rather than academic achievement, will increasingly be used to scale down the numbers of admissions.