For decades, the community college system in the US has educated millions of students who, for financial or academic reasons, are unable to enrol in traditional universities.
Now California, which has the country's largest community college system, is considering offering four-year bachelor's degree courses. The move, which would create a supply of skilled workers for the state's massive technology industry, could set off a chain reaction across the US.
So far, 21 states have allowed their community colleges to run bachelor's degree courses. But such a move by California - whose 112 colleges serve a third of the total US number of college students - could inspire many others to do the same.
A committee made up of college administrators, academic staff, students and university representatives began talks about the change in August. The legal process could begin as early as next year.
The trend for community colleges offering degrees was started by Florida and Texas because of a severe shortage of primary and secondary school teachers. University systems were not producing enough, so their legislatures allowed community colleges to offer those courses at bachelor's degree level to meet demand, with the first courses approved in 2003.
Nursing degrees followed to address a similar shortage, and then technical degrees. These proved to be in great demand from industry but were shunned by traditional universities for not being "academic" enough. Similar moves to allow further education colleges in England to offer degrees have proved popular in recent years, with dozens of courses now on offer.
A master plan for California's higher education system was drawn up in the 1960s, setting out strict "missions" for the three separate tiers of public institutions. The community colleges were to run associate degrees, the various campuses of California State University were to look after bachelor's and master's programmes, and the University of California was to offer doctoral programmes.
Dr George Boggs, a committee member and former leader of the American Association of Community Colleges, told TES that the master plan had started to "break down", with California State University also now offering doctoral degrees.
In addition to addressing skills shortages, he added that degrees at community colleges could help to ease the problem of a lack of space at the state's universities.
"A lot [of high-school students] have to move out of state to continue their education to get a bachelor's degree. They are going to Oregon and Arizona in particular," he said. "Community college students tend to be older; they have obligations such as work or family, so they can't move out of state. A local, community education is ideal for them but many would like the chance to do a bachelor's degree."
So far, California's universities have been quiet on the matter, but Dr Boggs said that if the plans were to advance to legislation, he would expect them to disagree with the move. "I think they would be against it because they would want to keep their mission. I wouldn't be surprised if they came out strongly opposed," he said.
The Academic Senate of California's community college system is also yet to take a position. Its president, Beth Smith, told TES that it was in the "exploratory stage" of discussions and would not comment until next spring.
Dr Boggs said that he was reserving judgement. "I've always been a little bit sceptical about this, but I'm beginning to understand that there's a need," he said.
"I just want to make sure that community colleges don't move away from their own mission. They are already having to turn away hundreds of thousands of students every year because they can't meet their basic mission. They need to address that before taking on another."
38m - Population of California
112 - Number of community colleges in the state
2.3m - Number of students enrolled in the state's community college system, a third of all such students in the US
83,488 - Number of staff employed in the California community college system in 2012
21 - Number of US states that have approved four-year degree courses at community colleges
Source: California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office.