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U.S. universities rush to go global

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Bill Radke: They already have the world’s tallest building and a giant indoor ski resort. The Middle Eastern city-state of Dubai also wanted to be a world leader in higher education. One of the key players in that vision: Michigan State University.

But MSU now says it is closing its undergraduate university in Dubai, putting an end to a money-losing experiment. It’s tough news for Michigan State, and 100 students who need to find a new place to go to school. But for American universities, the race to go global continues like never before.

Reporter Jeff Horwich has the story.

Jeff Horwich: On a New York University Facebook page, international students share their excitement about starting college. But they’re not headed to New York. They’re going to Abu Dhabi, where NYU is about to open a campus.

This is not about American students seeking an exotic semester abroad. Ben Wildavsky is the author of “The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World.” He says for schools like NYU, Michigan State and Georgetown, this is about taking a real western education to the people who want it — and are willing to pay for it.

Ben Wildavsky: A Georgetown degree from the School of Foreign Service in Doha, is exactly the same. I mean, the piece of paper does not say “Georgetown/(Doha).” It just says “Georgetown.”

The universities collaborate with the host government. In the case of Georgetown or NYU, the government simply pays for everything upfront — buildings, faculty salaries.

Karin Fischer of the Chronicle of Higher Education says some countries have been known to fund campus projects back in the States. But Fischer says when Michigan State went to Dubai in 2008, the struggling city-state made the school take on a chunk of the risk.

Karin Fischer: Basically, Dubai floated loans to foreign universities and said, “We expect that eventually you’re going to be able to pay us back.”

The bad economy hammered the school’s recruiting efforts. The Michigan State campus built for a thousand attracted only 100 students this year. The school lost millions, according to Dubai media accounts. It’s a blow for Dubai. But author Ben Wildavsky calls Michigan State’s failure a blip on the radar.

Wildavsky: What we have is what people want — they want American PhDs.

He says western universities have 160 branch campuses, with more in the works. Even as the Middle East cools, India and China are growing as places to earn a diploma that says “Made in the USA.”

I’m Jeff Horwich for Marketplace.

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