Top officials to scrutinize global undergraduate program

After more than a year of planning, administrators will consider next month whether to go through with a much-hyped global program that would split undergraduates’ four years across three continents.

The Columbian College of Arts and Sciences program, which would take students from D.C. to China and France, could elevate the University’s international reputation.

The University’s president and provost will weigh factors such as revenue projections, financial aid, housing and student interest in mid-April before moving forward – a flagship goal for dean Peg Barratt in her final year.

The program would launch in fall 2014. Some competitor schools have beaten GW in terms of international expansion by adding campuses across the continents.

Barratt, who will step down in June, said earlier this year that GW would recruit an initial cohort of up to 50 economics and political science majors for the Class of 2018 for the degree program. She has spent more than a year traveling, negotiating and planning the initiative.

The program’s future may be shaky because it puts GW close to the District-imposed student enrollment cap, Columbian College Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies Dan Ullman said Tuesday.

“It’s one of the things [to work around],” Ullman said. “We’re not launching anything we don’t think is going to work. We’re going to blend them into the campus, but we’ve got to do some planning for the caps.”

Students would spend two years in D.C., and then spend two years at Sciences Po in France and Renmin University in China, respectively.

Barratt has tried to lift the program over hurdles, traveling to China in November and December. But questions remain, she said in an interview last month.

“Part of it is financial,” Barratt said. “Can we make a go of it? Will it be the experience we want students to have? Can we figure out how to deal with the cap of not bringing more students into Foggy Bottom?”

One school has already executed how to launch a complicated, cross-continental program. University of Southern California, a peer school, will launch a business program next fall that will take students to Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Milan. Another peer school, New York University, has propped up campuses and programs in the United Arab Emirates and China.

And officials at GW are feeling the pressure to globalize. GW planned to double its number of foreign undergraduate students over the next decade in its near-final strategic plan this year.

“These programs are becoming commonplace at other universities so this is just GWU keeping up with the competition (which is what we should be doing) rather than a high-risk innovation,” economics professor Anthony Yezer said in an email.

But universities still face heavy challenges to set up these programs, said John Douglass, a senior research fellow at University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education.

He said administrators should make sure the program’s rewards match the work put into it, especially if it enrolls few students. He added that several international programs have lagged because of unsustainable funding models.

“There’s a lot of institutional energy and finances put into these efforts,” like coordinating faculty assignments, student marketing and building relationships internationally, he said. “There are some real positives to these kinds of programs, but they’re logistically significant and it’s not clear what the funding model is and their longevity.”

The University has adjusted the program over the past year and a half. Initially, the GW School of Business was going to launch it for its majors by fall 2013, but the Columbian College took the planning reins this fall and pitched it for economics majors, adding a political science component to broaden its appeal.

GW will look to hire a handful of French and Chinese professors to teach abroad and ask some current faculty to spend time in those countries, economics department chair Barry Chiswick said.

“The emphasis will be on meeting GW’s standards so that the courses will be of the same high quality as the courses in Foggy Bottom,” Chiswick said.

Students will learn in Foggy Bottom, though administrators initially considered housing them off campus or in Arlington, Va. classrooms.

“We came to realize that students would feel cheated in such a program and they would miss out on something GW students look forward to,” Ullman said.

In 2011, when GW launched a Master of Science in finance program that takes business students to China one year and D.C. the next, it opted to put the Chinese graduate students in Virginia-based classrooms.

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