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Schools are rushing to open campuses abroad.

The American system of higher education, long the envy of the world, is becoming an important export as more universities take their programs overseas.

American universities are competing to set up outposts in countries with limited higher-education opportunities. They are starting, or expanding, hundreds of programs and partnerships in such booming markets as China, India and Singapore.

Many are now considering full-fledged foreign branch campuses, particularly in the Middle East.

Already, students in Qatar can attend an American university without the expense, culture shock or visa problems of traveling to America. At Education City in Qatar, they can study medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, international affairs at Georgetown, computer science and business at Carnegie Mellon, fine arts at Virginia Commonwealth, engineering at Texas A&M, and soon, journalism at Northwestern.

New York University plans to open a comprehensive liberal-arts branch campus in Abu Dhabi in 2010. NYU president John Sexton envisions a flow of professors and students between New York and Abu Dhabi, whose government is providing the funds.

Even public universities whose primary mission is to educate in-state students are trying to establish a global brand in an era of limited state financing. Kean University of New Jersey had hoped to be the first with a freestanding undergraduate campus in China. Two years ago, Kean announced its agreement to open a branch of the university in Wenzhou. Kean is still awaiting final approval from China, which prefers programs run through local universities.

George Mason, a public university in Fairfax, Va., arrived in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah in 2005 with a tiny language program intended to help students achieve college-level English skills and meet the university's admission standards for the degree programs that were beginning the next year.

Overseas programs can help American universities raise their profile, build international relationships, attract top research talent who, in turn, may attract grants and produce patents, and gain access to a new pool of tuition-paying students, just as the number of college-age Americans is about to decline.

"Where universities are heading now is toward becoming global universities," said Howard Rollins, the former director of international programs at Georgia Tech.