Over the past decade, American universities have gone on a worldwide building spree, opening branch campuses everywhere from Accra (Webster University) to Dubai (Rochester Institute of Technology) to Seoul (George Mason University). New York University has been the most aggressive, establishing degree—granting outposts in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai as part of its strategy to become the first “global network university.” Such empire building has drawn protests from faculty and students, who object to diverted resources at home and unfair labor practices abroad.

But private universities aren’t the only ones trying to set up classrooms overseas. Dozens of community colleges, from Orange County to Orlando, are quietly pursuing international deals of their own, hoping to generate millions of dollars in revenue from foreign governments. The reason for the global gold rush is simple: Many state legislatures have slashed funding for two-year schools, forcing community colleges to search far and wide for new sources of cash.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the portion of all junior college revenues provided by the states has plunged by 16 percent since 2008. Students have been forced to make up most of the difference, through higher tuition. “There’s been a divestment in higher education, and in particular community colleges,” says Martha Parham, the AACC’s senior vice president of public relations. “We can barely afford to do our core classes, so colleges need to find other sources of revenue.”

But educators hoping to strike it rich abroad would do well to heed the lesson of Houston Community College. In 2010, HCC signed a five-year, $45 million deal with Qatar to set up the Gulf monarchy’s first American-style junior college, the Community College of Qatar. Under the agreement, HCC sent dozens of professors and administrators to Doha to teach English-language courses to CCQ’s students, who could then transfer to a four-year college in Qatar or abroad. For its part, HCC looked forward to a financial windfall: With Qatar footing all the bills, plus a 10 percent management fee, it stood to make $4.5 million in profit.

From the beginning, though, the partnership was plagued by misunderstandings and missteps. Houston faculty arriving in Doha discovered they were not allowed to leave the country without obtaining approval from the Qatari government. HCC’s contract called for co-educational classes, but at the last minute Qatar insisted on separating male and female students. Qatari students attracted by the promise of American academic credits soon found that HCC had failed to obtain the necessary accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Some textbooks weren’t available in time for the start of classes. And there were disputes over whether ultimate authority rested with administrators in Houston, or with Judith Hansen, the dean hand-picked by Qatar’s Supreme Education Council to lead the college. In 2011, Hansen left after a no-confidence vote from HCC faculty. “She was a disaster,” says John Moretta, an HCC faculty member. As such blunders mounted, CCQ became known in its home country as the Crazy College of Qatar.

“Frankly, the original agreement was very poorly written,” says Chase Untermeyer, a former American ambassador to Qatar who served as a consultant to HCC. “I think it’s fair to say that they wanted the agreement so much that they threw it together.”

Illustration by Sam Island

In 2011, Carroll Robinson, a professor of law at Texas Southern University, was elected to the HCC board of trustees. After hearing faculty complaints and learning that the contract with Qatar had never been vetted by HCC’s in-house lawyers, he began pushing to end the college’s presence in Qatar. Another new trustee, businessman Dave Wilson, argued that the partnership violated the Texas Education Code, which specifies that community colleges must “primarily [serve] their local taxing districts and service areas.”

To demonstrate what he considered wasteful spending, Wilson created a web site featuring documents that showed HCC administrators billing Qatar for tens of thousands of dollars in business-class airfares and luxury hotels. Board members were flown to a graduation ceremony in Qatar—complete with a two-day stopover in Paris on the way. “They were wined and dined, because they were ‘important,’ ” Wilson says. “That’s how it was played.”

Earlier this year, HCC quietly pulled the plug on its Qatari adventure, withdrawing its staff and downgrading its relationship with CCQ to a consulting role. The promised payoff never materialized: The college wound up making barely a third of its projected profit of $4.5 million. “From a financial standpoint, yielding about $300,000 to $400,000 a year in revenue, for the amount of effort that went into the relationship, just did not seem to be an adequate return on the investment,” says Cesar Maldonado, the college’s chancellor.

Still, other community colleges continue to look overseas for potential riches. In California, the Rancho Santiago Community College District recently signed an $85 million deal to create two vocational schools in Saudi Arabia, an arrangement the college hopes will net up to $8 million in profits. As with HCC, however, the deal sparked outrage from members of the board. “The problem I have is that there’s no direct student benefit to these programs,” says Phillip Yarbrough, a trustee who voted against the partnership. “Without a direct exchange of students or some student involvement, we’re going to lose our focus.”

And that focus remains as vital as ever. For the first time in history, according to a study by Georgetown University, American workers who have a four-year college degree outnumber those who don’t. Of the 11.6 million jobs gained during the economic recovery, nearly three-quarters went to people with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Community colleges, which offer an affordable bridge to four-year colleges, remain a primary engine of social mobility, which is why President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have proposed making them tuition-free. Instead of cutting funding for community colleges, states should be giving them even more support.

Leaders of community colleges, for their part, should stop jetting around the globe in search of revenue, and focus on the job at home. “It’s not our mandate to take our taxpayers’ money and gamble it on a scheme to make even more money,” Yarbrough argues. “If you want to go down that road, you could make a deal with Qatar or Saudi Arabia. Or you could also open a doughnut shop. But at some point you have to say, does this really help our students?”