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Success varies for U.S. colleges in Middle East

A look at Michigan State University's Dubai campus.

Kai Ryssdal: We tend to talk about the Middle East as if it's a single place -- the region, we say. But there are real differences depending on where you go in that region. The six countries that are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council -- Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, to name just three -- are richer. They're more interested in developing ties to the West. And, as a result, have become destinations for American businesses -- colleges, in particular.

More than a dozen American schools have exported their brands to the Gulf in the past decade. Marketplace's Sean Cole reports.


Sean Cole: When NYU opened up shop in Abu Dhabi, Michigan State University had just closed its undergraduate facility in Dubai. This was about a year after George Mason University pulled out of the nearby emirate of Ras al-Khaymah. And yet other branch campuses in the Gulf have persisted for six or eight or 12 years. So the question is: Why do some survive there and others don't? Let's start with one of the don'ts.

Kevin Dunseath: We could not have picked a worse time to start.

This is Dr. Kevin Dunseath.

Dunseath: I'm executive director of Michigan State University Dubai.

Dunseath: Uh, operations haven't closed in Dubai.

Cole: Oh!

MSU still runs a couple of grad programs there and a study abroad seminar. But the undergrad program is kaput. A lot of it was timing. The campus opened right at the cusp of the financial crisis. But part of it was also planning.

Dunseath: We probably misjudged the market for the kind of undergraduate programs that we offer.

That is, not enough students in the region met MSU's criteria. And if you let those students in anyway -- so goes industry wisdom -- you risk cheapening the brand. If you don't, you might not make your enrollment numbers. And MSU didn't. Funny thing is -- about six American campuses in Qatar just down the way -- are pretty much fishing in the same pool of would-be pupils. And they're doing great.

Dunseath: Well I'm interested in what you mean by doing great, Sean.

Cole: Well they still...

Dunseath: What do you mean by?

Cole: Well they still have undergraduate programs.

Dunseath: You mean they're still alive, they're still there.

Cole: Right.

Dunseath: OK.

The subtext being: You wanna know why they're still there? For the same reason they picked the Gulf in the first place.

Philip Altbach: The Gulf countries offer essentially a free ride.

Philip Altbach heads up the International Center for Higher Education at Boston College. He says local governments in the Gulf often subsidize these operations, paying for everything.

Altbach: The "successful" branches in Qatar say they're doing well. I have read also that almost none of them have the anticipated enrollments.

Just like MSU Dubai didn't. But it wasn't subsidized to the same degree. And Kevin Dunseath says MSU could never have offered students what NYU Abu Dhabi is offering.

Dunseath: If we'd been able to say to these students, we will give you a full scholarship. We will fly you in. We will even fly you in to have a look at our campus. We'll pay for your accommodation. We'll pay for your food. Don't you think those would be highly influential factors in those students making a decision about where they want to study?

I don't have to think. I have a telephone.

Joshua Shirley: Joshua Shirley speaking.

Joshua Shirley in one of the pioneering freshman at NYU's new campus.

Shirley: Hi Sean.

Cole: Hi!

He was one of the top two students at his high school in Brisbane, Australia.

Shirley: They flew me to Abu Dhabi. And I was interviewed. I met people on campus. I met lots of professors.

NYU only flew in a relative handful of Joshua Shirleys. And not everyone is getting the amenities mentioned earlier. But Joshua is, plus a flight home for the summer and $500 a semester just to spend. But he says he picked the school because it really feels like a global university with kids from all over the world. And with just 150 of them, the classes are really small. So while money was a factor, he says...

Shirley: It wasn't the decisive factor for me. Given that my education in Australia at a high-level institution with a degree I was really interested in would have been fully subsidized.

And that, says NYU, is one of the reasons it's fully subsidizing kids like Joshua. They would've gotten a free ride back home. The school also told me it's looking into alternative streams of funding down the road. For the moment though, the government of Abu Dhabi is footing the bill for everything.

I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace.


Check out a map of American schools in the Middle East.

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