What is a Non-US ‘American University’?

What is a Non-US ‘American University’?

Laura Bridgestock

Updated February 21, 2023 Updated February 21

If you’ve started looking for possible study-abroad options, it’s likely that you’ll have come across at least one university, outside of the US, with the word ‘American’ in its title.

If you haven’t, then some examples include: the American University in Cairo, American University of Sharjah, American University of Beirut, American University of Paris and the American University in Dubai (pictured).

There are more, but you get the idea.

So, what exactly does it mean when a university calls itself an ‘American university’? Can you expect the majority of staff and students to be from the US, or that teaching will be conducted in American English? Will your degree be accredited in the US? Or just based on the North American system and style of teaching?

As you may have suspected, there’s no single answer to these questions – each ‘American university’ is different – but there are some general patterns and common elements.

American accreditation or affiliation

In some cases, ‘American universities’ are similar to branch campuses, with courses developed and delivered in partnership with a university in another country – in this case, the US.

For example, the American University of the Middle East (which is in Kuwait) is affiliated with Purdue University in the US, and also with the University of Calgary in Canada. Similarly, the American University of Kosovo has a partnership with the Rochester Institute of Technology in the US.

In other instances, ‘American universities’ are not partnered with a US institution, but they are accredited by a US higher education board.

The American University in Dubai (AUD) offers degrees accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) is accredited by the US New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

David Huwiler, AUBG’s president, says this means the university is “measured by the same criteria that apply to US institutions” – showing that it matches up to the high quality of higher education offered in the US.

American-style teaching

Alongside curriculum, teaching style is the factor most commonly identified as essential to being an ‘American university’. Huwiler explains: “Instead of the European approach, with large lecture halls and one-way communication, we offer small, interactive classes.”

Kyle Long, director of communications at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) makes a similar point. “Modern American course instruction, especially at the prestigious liberal arts colleges, is less reliant on traditional methods like the lecture. Focus is placed instead on student-centred conversation classes, which encourage questioning basic assumptions and conventional wisdom.” 

Long also highlights the use of “continuous assessment, which requires written and oral feedback on student performance at multiple stages throughout the course.”

Dr Lance de Masi, president of the American University in Dubai (AUD), adds to the list “accurate and persuasive self-expression”, and “an appreciation for life-long learning”.

This emphasis on critical and independent thinking has many benefits, Long says. “Our students have been forced to think for themselves, not to repeat what their teachers say. This gives them a comparative advantage against their peers from other institutions, allowing them to succeed in positions of leadership.”

Huwiler is in no doubt about the positive impact on students’ career prospects. “AUBG is ranked number one in the country when it comes to employment of our alumni, and our graduates’ salaries are, on average, more than three times higher than those of graduates of other universities in Bulgaria.”

But it’s not just a case of getting a well-paid job at the end; Huwiler believes the ‘American university’ teaching style is also more enjoyable and fulfilling. “Small classes and the opportunity to interact personally with faculty make the university experience more engaging, more personal. Faculty serve as mentors and friends, providing not just classroom instruction, but career and graduate school advice.”

He adds, “students form relationships with their tutors that last far beyond graduation.”

American university-style curriculum

As well as the style of teaching, course content and structure are often based on those universities in the US.

The most obvious feature here is the requirement for students to start off studying a range of different subjects, before selecting a specialization.

“Undergraduate students at any regionally accredited university in the US are required to pursue a course of study that includes broad training in the humanities, social sciences and physical and natural sciences, regardless of that student’s major field of study,” Long explains.

The advantage, he believes, is an introduction to a range of different “modes of knowing”, which “forces students outside of their comfort zones, rendering them more versatile and flexible.”

At AUD, Dr de Masi says many courses even use the same textbooks as those favoured by US institutions – all part of the American University in Dubai’s attempt to replicate the “recipe for success” that has made the US higher education “synonymous with quality”.

An ‘American university experience’

This one may sound rather strange; after all, how can it be possible to experience one country when in another? But many ‘American universities’ do promise to provide students with an ‘American university experience’.

In part, this refers to the style of teaching and learning outlined above, but it may also apply to the quantity and quality of facilities and social activities, and opportunities for students to have a say in how the university is run.

Huwiler says AUBG offers “the full array of services you would expect on an American university campus: sports, student clubs and activities, and student government.”

He adds, “We involve students in governance, including students as full members on every university standing committee. We treat students like full members of the community, who have a role in defining the policies that affect them.”

Long, likewise, highlights the range of different clubs and social opportunities available on campus, adding, “We have a vibrant social scene which allows students from all religious, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds to participate meaningfully.”

Teaching in English

Finally, most ‘American universities’ use English as the medium of instruction.

This has the advantage of making them accessible to students from all around the world – as English is such a commonly spoken language – while also helping students to improve their written and spoken English if necessary. All AUIS students, Long says, graduate as “proficient writers and speakers” of the language.

So what does ‘American university’ not mean?

While having clear views about what makes them ‘American universities’, most of these institutions are equally clear on what the American in their name should not be interpreted as meaning.

For example, Huwiler states: “The ‘American’ designation does not mean that we are associated with the US government or the State Department. It does not mean that most of our students are American. It does not mean that we receive financial support from the US government, and it most certainly does not mean that we promote or endorse the political views of the American government.”

For Dr de Masi, it’s more a question of pointing out that AUD is “mindful of the culture and traditions” of the United Arab Emirates, where the university is located, and that its curriculum incorporates issues and subjects of local relevance.

As a final note, returning to the point that one ‘American university’ is likely to differ significantly to another, Long advises against making assumptions. The names may be similar, but the universities are independent institutions – not all part of one huge organization!

This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in January 2020

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The former editor of TopUniversities.com, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'