On the outskirts of this sprawling city in one of India’s poorest states, the whitewashed columns and domes of Chanakya National Law University rise next to a deep and murky swamp. To get there, visitors bump along potholed streets lined with idle men sipping tea and cows rooting through piles of garbage.

Despite its inauspicious location, the four-year-old university has high aspirations.

“We’re in a position to be a leading national law school,” said Ravi Sarma, an assistant professor of property law.

The university is part of an ambitious plan to expand higher education to India’s most destitute corners, where the country’s vast population of young people is concentrated.

Of 1.2 billion Indians, one third are under the age of 14. Realizing that the youth bulge could be an asset in India’s drive to become a world power, or a disaster that drains its resources and fuels social unrest, the government has responded with an ambitious university building spree.

Billboards for universities and tutoring services line the streets of Patna. (PHOTO BY SARAH GARLAND/THE HECHINGER REPORT)

The effort could help India in its economic competition with China and the United States. While the United States may have enough colleges, President Obama has warned that its higher education system is falling behind. Poor graduation rates plague lower-tier schools with the vast majority of U.S. students, even as budget cuts and rising tuition make it more difficult to enter college and to graduate.

In India, dozens of new public universities are opening. Officials say 374 new “model” colleges, meant as demonstration projects, will be constructed in remote areas. The plan is to increase the postsecondary enrollment rate for 18- to 23-year-olds to 30 percent, from 18 percent, by 2017, said Ved Prakash, chairman of India’s University Grants Commission. The enrollment rate for 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States is 41 percent.

“It has never happened in the history of India, this massive expansion of higher education,” Prakash said.

The government estimated that India had 13.6 million postsecondary students in 2009, about 6 million fewer than the U.S. But if India reaches its goals, it could have nearly twice as many college students as does the United States by the end of the decade.

The construction boom is transforming Patna, a city of more than 5.7 million long written off as a poverty-stricken backwater, into a college town, and the state of Bihar, which borders Nepal, into a hub of higher education.

The government is doubling the number of its renowned and selective Indian Institutes of Technology to 16. IIT Patna opened in 2008 and is waiting to expand into a 500-acre campus in a nearby village.

A National Institute of Fashion Technology opened downtown in the same year, and in 2006, a state technical college opened an expansive new campus near the city’s airport.

The Central University of Bihar, one of 15 new government-sponsored universities that aims to compete with the global elite, opened in 2009 and has been allocated 1,000 acres on the edge of the city. Plans call for enrollment to grow over the next decade from 200 students to as many as 40,000.

Sixty miles south of Patna, down a two-lane highway clogged with rickshaws, motorcycles and idling trucks, plans are under way to open Nalanda International University. The campus will be located near the ruins of a Buddhist university that, in the 5th century, drew students from around the world. The hope is that the new school will do the same.

For some poor students in Bihar, the universities are turning farfetched dreams of higher education into reality.

Abhishek Ujjwal, 18, grew up in a small village in Bihar, where most people worked on farms and the roads out of town were unpaved. His father has a small business selling the milk of local cows and his mother is a housewife. Neither went to college. But in middle school, Ujjwal decided he would aim for admission to an IIT.

“It’s a very global brand,” he said. “You can go anywhere.”

A tutoring program for the poor called Super 30 helped him prepare for the entrance exam. Last summer, he qualified for IIT Bombay, a branch opened in 1961 with a stronger reputation than the one in Patna.

Ujjwal enrolled for the fall term in IIT Patna instead, because he wanted to be near his family as he embarked on the intensive course work. “They gave me moral support,” he said.

The founder of Super 30, Anand Kumar, said that for many in Bihar, the universities remain out of reach. One-room schoolhouses lacking basic amenities such as toilets are often the only option for children in slums and villages, even though the government is investing in elementary and secondary education. Many children drop out as early as age 10.

“With more and more institutions coming up, they will certainly increase access,” Kumar said. “For the poor students, however, it is tough as always to make the most of these opportunities.”

The new universities are also targeting the expanding middle class in an effort to keep talented students in India. More than 100,000 Indians study abroad, most of them in the United States.

Ravi Prakash, 22, a middle-class Patna native, might have chosen to study in Delhi or abroad. Instead, he opted for the Chanakya law school.

“Law is a means to bring social change, and I’m interested in developing my state,” he said.

Indian officials acknowledge that the rapid expansion of public colleges and universities will not come close to meeting the demand.

Privately run schools fill the gap through distance education, but often their offerings are of low quality, said Devesh Kapur, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. And corruption and nepotism are rife in the postsecondary system.

Pawan Agarwal, an adviser to the federal government’s planning commission on higher education, said that in 2012the Indian government will start to shift its attention “from rapid expansion to quality expansion,” although he acknowledges that solutions will be elusive.

India’s new institutions are fulfilling one mission already, however: They are raising the expectations of a new generation of Indians. “All the Biharis, now they are dreaming that ‘I will go for this institution,’ ” said Ujjwal, the IIT student. “We are imagining what we could be.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.