I spent a week in November to catch up on campus visits to schools in the Baltimore-Washington area. American University was a school that I was anxious to visit. As Georgetown, George Washington (GW) and the University of Maryland-College Park, among others, have become more selective universities, American’s popularity is rising.
There are good reasons to choose American University, even for students who can get into one of these other schools. One is location. Some college students prefer to be near, rather than in a city, and they don’t want to go to a school as large as the University of Maryland. There are very few schools like that in the United States. Johns Hopkins, Emory, Tufts and Villanova are some examples. American is the only such place for those who want to come to school in Washington DC.
Unlike GW, which is smack in the heart of DC, American has a more suburban feel. This is the only DC-area campus where a student could actually bring a car, presuming that s/he could find a place to park it. You have to take a shuttle to the Tinley Park metro stop to get to an internship in town, but the rides are free and readily available. At American, you’re not surrounded by the noise of the city. You take it in on your work time or your own time. You can do this at Georgetown, too. But that campus has a more urban feel around it.
American has a true academic quad at its center, a true residential quad as well. The architecture does not stand out in any way compared to other colleges of this size, but that is not the reason to come here. The location and academics are. American has approximately 7,000 undergraduates, about the same as Villanova. It helps that the American does not border on a highway, as Villanova does; the DC campus feels far less crowded.
American University’s strengths are in Business, Communications and Public and International Affairs. There are some distinctive majors including one that combines coursework in Communications, Law and Society, Economics and Government into one called, in a city known for abbreviations, CLEG. The Communications-based programs include Public Relations and Strategic Communications. All of the communications programs require a second major, more likely in a liberal arts subject such as Political Science or Economics. The business school has a unique major called Business, Language and Culture that combines business, foreign language and international affairs courses. The International Studies aspects of American are very much like Georgetown’s. They combine foreign language, economics, international politics and foreign governments with cultural studies. There are also a set of eight Thematic Areas including Human Rights and Global Health, among others. Georgetown is more famous for International Affairs. But its hard to believe that American is seriously a “step down.”
The difference between American and the other DC area schools that offer these programs is that American does not try to be a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) school at the same time. American does not have a medical school, dental school or nursing school as Georgetown, GW, Maryland, and Howard do. It does not have a school of engineering as the others, excluding Georgetown, do.
American is a national research university. But it sticks to what it does best. That strategy appears to be working. Among the nearly 1,800 students who entered American University in 2014, just under 730, around 40 percent, entered through Early Decision. This is excellent for a private university. American is not a super-selective school, and it is test-optional. In 2014, the university accepted just under half (46 percent) of the more than 15,000 students who applied to join the freshman class. The university also wait listed more than 1,200. But the class filled to the point where only 24 were later offered admission.
Among those who submitted test scores, the middle 50 percent were between 1150 and 1340 (out of 1600). About a fifth did not submit scores. Those who might fall in the middle of the pool at Georgetown could find themselves at American with a merit award. American considers applicants who do not submit test scores for merit awards. It helps if they can write well; the school has some optional supplements. The largest award, the Frederick Douglass is a full-ride, but requires an extra essay to apply. Twenty other students may receive AU Honors awards that total $30,000 a year. That’s a very nice discount. There are also smaller awards.
American is not cheap. Tuition and fees for 2015-16 are just over $43,000. Room and board is over $15,000 with a double room and the second most-expensive meal plan. The good news if you cross-shop American against GW is that GW charges $4,000 more if you have to pay the full price, and the merit awards are harder to get. It is also fair to mention that GW has decided to go to test-optional admissions for the class that enters in 2016. Their admissions office must see American as more serious competition. In addition, GW has a fixed-tuition policy that holds the freshman-year tuition charges (but not the fees) for up to five years. Those who have a choice between American and GW might find that this policy negates a smaller school award from American when that reward gets renewed over four years.
American guarantees housing for two years, GW requires you to live on campus for three. Both have a fair percentage go Greek, about a third at GW, a quarter at American. But while GW has Greek organizations with houses, American’s Greek community does not. However, students considering both schools need to know that American is located in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in DC. There are cheaper places to live in the city. But you do not want to add the costs of commuting time and money to the costs of the education.
Around two thirds of American’s freshmen who entered in 2008 graduated on time, which is good. It is about the same rate as the University of Maryland-College Park, which has almost quadruple the number of students including many majoring in engineering and the “hard” sciences. Nearly 90 percent of American’s 2014 graduates left having at least one internship. It’s very easy to do more than one. They found work, too. However, 45 percent of those who found jobs earned less than $40,000 in their first position, though an equal percentage earned between $40,000 and $60,000. For families who can afford the school and are happy to see their graduate on their way to the career that they want, this is fine. For those who had to borrow more than the Stafford loans it’s not such a good deal.
American University did not report average student loan debt to the Project on Student Debt for the students who graduated in 2014. It makes me concerned when I see no student loan information for a school. I do not even know the percentage of students who had loans, which I can find for most other schools that I have visited. Worse, the financial aid information for the school was not available through its Common Data Set.
Checking on RateMyProfessors.com, I found that American students held their faculty in about the same regard as students at GW and Maryland held theirs. The student faculty ratio is smaller at American and GW, 12 to 1 versus 18 to 1 at Maryland, and you’re less likely to be taught by graduate students, even in the introductory courses. But if you have to struggle to cover the costs that should not sway you from the public school. That’s presuming you also get into Maryland versus a state school that is not near Washington DC. That task is becoming harder.
As someone who earned a Political Science degree and also considered majors in Business and Communications, I was impressed with the academics that American has to offer. I grew up in a suburb of a large city. I would have been more drawn to American over GW, if given the choice.
GW might “rank” higher in some media-developed rankings, But what matters more than where you come from is where you go from there. A degree from American will take you to the same places as one from Georgetown or GW for about $20,000 less over four years. There might be more savings from American University if you get into an accelerated program and leave with a masters degree.
I expect private schools to do better than larger public universities for the higher fees that they charge. I did not find a compelling reason to choose GW or Georgetown over American when American costs less.
But at the same time I would not turn down the University of Maryland to go to American University if costs were an issue and I still wanted to go to school in or immediately near DC.
Only a Douglass or AU Scholars would have a reason to go the other way.