Drexel University yesterday announced plans to open a graduate studies program in Sacramento, Calif., the first of up to five new locations that the school's president hopes to start in growing cities around the United States over the next six years or so.

The program, which will open in January with about 100 students, was approved by the university's board of trustees on Wednesday and is separate from the university's interest in opening a four-year university in Placer County, just north of Sacramento, as announced in August.

The effort to create a Drexel network of graduate education campuses comes as the university tries to find new ways to expand its reach for students, tap into markets with growing populations, and build fund-raising among alumni.

Other cities that Drexel president Constantine Papadakis wants to target, if the Sacramento effort is successful, are Phoenix, Miami, Los Angeles, and Dallas or Houston.

A separate plan for the undergraduate campus on nearly two square miles of donated land in Placer County will proceed, but is expected to take from five to seven years, Papadakis said. Even if Placer County officials give a swift nod, there are likely to be legal challenges from environmental groups, he added.

Drexel's board of trustees, he said, had been discussing the Drexel network concept for at least a year before the prospect of the Placer County land emerged, he said.

"We wanted to establish a new model to deliver higher education," Papadakis said.

As colleges look to expand to new markets, the question is whether they can deliver the same quality program as at their home base, said Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute.

"To what extent will this be done by a new set of faculty located there, or will this be done heavily using distance learning technology that will make use of the existing faculty?" he asked. "Ultimately, the success of the program will hinge on ... those issues."

Carl Oxholm III, executive vice president and chief of staff at Drexel, said that on average, 60 percent of the education will be delivered in class and 40 percent online. Drexel's Philadelphia faculty will travel to Sacramento to teach, and new faculty also will be hired, he said.

The graduate campus will be run out of a 20,000-square-foot space in downtown Sacramento and will offer five programs at first: business administration, engineering management, higher education, information systems, and library and information science. Programs in human resources development, the science of instruction, contemporary nursing, and nursing leadership are to be added in September 2009.

The programs were selected based on Drexel's areas of strength and market studies over the last nine months of the region's needs, Papadakis said. Drexel also studied similar ventures by other schools, including a San Francisco campus opened by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in 2001 and a campus of Carnegie Mellon in the Silicon Valley since 2002.

The new site, 17 miles from the proposed Placer County plot, will allow the university to build up its name in Sacramento in preparation for an undergraduate campus, the president said. That project has not yet been presented to the Drexel board for approval.

Kyriakos Tsakopoulos, whose family would donate the Placer County site to Drexel, said the project is likely to come before the planning commission in 60 to 90 days.

"We have great confidence that working with the board of trustees, we will do things the right way and get things done in a time frame that is appropriate," he said in an interview from Sacramento.

Jim Holmes, chairman of the Placer County Board of Supervisors, said the project had generated support.

"We hear a lot of people excited about it," he said.

For the graduate program in Sacramento, Papadakis declined to reveal its budget or cost: "The bottom line will be good for us."

"We'll export our brand to many areas where we're not well-known, and therefore, we'll be able to recruit more students from those locations to Philadelphia," he said.

Papadakis credited news of the new campus with attracting 10 students from Sacramento to enroll at Drexel in Philadelphia for the fall.

Papadakis said Drexel would aim to grow the Sacramento program to 800 or 900 students within five years.

Other universities say expansions have worked well.

Penn's Wharton West campus, which offers an M.B.A. program for executives serving about 200 students, has been successful in giving faculty a look at how business is done elsewhere while making its education available to new clientele, officials said. Wharton professors travel to San Francisco to teach the courses, offered every other weekend.

A Wharton committee is studying whether to open other programs elsewhere, said Leonard Lodish, vice dean for Wharton West.

"We won't do anything anywhere unless we can provide the full-strength, unadulterated program that we now provide in Philadelphia and San Francisco," he said.

Carnegie Mellon's programs in software engineering, technology innovation and other areas serve 92 part-time students, up from 56 when they opened. The school plans to start a full-time program in the fall.

"It's a growing area for us, and that's why we're moving forward," said spokesman Ken Walters.

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.