The American University in Cairo?

What makes a foreign university “American”?

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the American University in Cairo today to give a speech on the spread of democracy. There are also prominent American universities in Athens, Armenia, Beirut, Bulgaria, London, Paris, and Rome. What makes a foreign university “American”?

Anyone can call their school American, but most respected institutions have a U.S.-based charter as a private, nonprofit institution and maintain an administrative office in the United States. An “American-style” education is also important. That means classes are taught in English, and students earn degrees by accruing credits. (In the standard European system, a student gets a degree after completing a full program of study, and all the exams are held until the very end.) American universities tend to have a liberal-arts focus, broad academic majors, and a certain degree of faculty self-governance.

In many cases, overseas American Universities seek accreditation from a regional American licensing organization. Since overseas colleges don’t fall under the purview of any of the six standard regions, the choice of an accrediting organization is somewhat arbitrary. Historically, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education has provided this service.

A student from an accredited school can more easily transfer credits to a university in the United States. Accredited schools also may be more likely to meet eligibility requirements for federal funding. (Overseas universities can sometimes get money from the Department of Education and the Department of State.)

For a school to get accredited, it must complete an internal review of academic standards and then invite U.S. officials for a site visit. Accreditation must be renewed every few years, which poses problems in countries undergoing political turmoil. The American University of Beirut, which has been around since 1866, lost its status when American officials were unable to visit during Lebanon’s civil war.

The school in Beirut began as a religious institution in the 19th century, as did its rival, Lebanese American University. Other American Universities spun off from domestic affiliates: The American University in Bulgaria, for example, was connected to the University of Maine, and the American University of Athens used to be an extension of Boston University.

The clientele for these schools varies by location. The American Universities of Beirut and Cairo tend to attract relatively few Americans. The American University of Paris attracts lots of American students on study-abroad programs and maintains a diverse student body in which no single nationality predominates.

In the past 10 years or so, new American Universities have popped up in Sharjah (in the United Arab Emirates), Dubai, Kuwait, and Kyrgyzstan. The newest overseas universities have gotten off the ground with the help of the U.S. government, various Soros foundations, and other private foundations.

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Explainer thanks Michael Kendrick of the Lebanese American University, Lynn Mahoney Calder of the American University of Beirut, and Andrea Leskes of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.