High school senior Mitch Vargason should hear soon from the admissions teams at his No. 1 college pick.

Although many of his fellow students expect to attend area universities, Vargason, who hails from Athens, Pa., hopes he’ll spend the next four years in the Middle East, attending the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, better known as AUB.
"AUB is definitely affordable compared to most state schools in the U.S.," says Vargason, 17. "[It is] a lot less expensive than my second choice which is a small private school…If accepted, I definitely plan to attend [AUB] this fall.”

Studying abroad doesn’t just have to be for a semester. Some students are considering going for all four years, both as way to save money and to stay competitive in a global marketplace.

As part of MainStreet's Higher Ed. Hidden Gems series, we bring you a closer look at AUB, which was founded as the Syrian Protestant College with 16 students in 1866 by an American missionary. In 1920, the name changed to the American University of Beirut.

This co-ed English language university is becoming a more popular consideration for prospective American college students, thanks to its relative affordability, academic prestige and vast global network of influential alumni, including U.N. ambassadors, political leaders, architects and engineers. According to a UAB spokesperson, American enrollment “[is] increasing due to interest in the region.” U.S. freshman applications are up 35% since the 2006-2007 academic year to more than 200, and total American enrollment is up 40% over the same time period (to a total American undergraduate student body of 400).

Affordable, But Is It Safe?
Although Beirut is hailed as the Paris of the Middle East for its cosmopolitan vibe, it also has a history of violence that may make some travelers wary. From 2006 to 2008 Beirut became a center of violence involving the government of Lebanon, local Hezbollah militants and Israel. A spokesperson for AUB says that during the July 2006 attacks, Americans students were successfully evacuated. The campus has excellent security and an emergency response plan, according to the spokesperson. Spencer James, 23, a college student at the University of Washington in Seattle, attended AUB last summer for an intensive Arabic language study program. He says he felt relatively safe in Beirut, having traveled to more than 40 countries.  It was reassuring to know the Doha Agreement, a deal reached by Lebanese factions last May, had been signed, he says.  “It must be quite different when there is fighting occurring,” says James. “But I never felt like…I was in any danger to walk through the city at night or anything.”

UAB By the Numbers

The cost to attend AUB as an undergrad is anywhere from $9,754 to $13,480 per year, depending on your degree, roughly similar to the tuition at a state school in the U.S.  On campus housing is about $2,800 a year and books and supplies will run you $300 a year. The average financial aid package, according to The College Board, is about $3,000. The undergraduate population is around 6,000 students, comparable to a small liberal arts college.

Strength in Cultural Diversity
Beirut is considered a melting pot of cultures. While Arabic is the main language in Lebanon, many people are fluent in English. AUB is also registered with the Department of Education of New York State, which registers and certifies the University’s curricula, degrees and certificates.  And despite the distance, students say they can make the transition back to the U.S. with relative ease.  Says James: “They've even continued to be helpful for me as I apply to medical school and need transcripts and stuff to be sent from Beirut to the U.S.”

Quick Facts:
Student to Faculty Ratio: 13 to 1
AUB Alumni Network: Includes 105 countries
2008 Scholarships and Grants: Students received more than $11 million
Deadline to apply for Spring 2010 admission: Nov. 30, 2009
Acceptance Rate: 74% of all applicants are accepted