Georgetown University was the first institution of higher learning in the nation's capital. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The growing presence of out-of-town universities in Washington underscores what has been true throughout D.C. history: The nation’s capital is very much a college town.

The University of California opened an outpost known as UCDC in 2001 on Rhode Island Avenue near Scott Circle. New York University launched its Washington center in 2012 on L Street NW. Arizona State University planted its flag last year at 18th and I streets, a few blocks from the White House.

These universities and others have woven themselves into the landscape of downtown Washington alongside federal agencies, lobbying firms, think tanks, trade groups and embassies. They are expanding the higher-education scene in a city that already boasts a robust network of homegrown campuses.

The latest example is Johns Hopkins University’s purchase of the Newseum building at 555 Pennsylvania Ave. Under the deal announced Jan. 25, several Hopkins graduate programs will move from Massachusetts Avenue to the prime address near the Mall.

John Cavanaugh, president and chief executive of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, called the city “an enormous magnet for students in all kinds of fields.”

Washington has long been on the map of higher education. Many schools pay lobbyists to track federal spending and regulation, and a plethora of higher-education groups focus on federal relations. But numerous universities from outside the District also hold real estate dedicated to programs for students.

NYU flies its purple-and-white banner at 1307 L St. NW at a building with beds for 119 students, and with eight classrooms and a 121-seat auditorium. Executives come on weekends for a master’s program in business administration. Other NYU students rotate through the living quarters year-round. Michael Ulrich, director of the NYU center, said Washington’s allure is obvious. “It’s such a great place for undergraduates to have an internship,” he said.

The College of William & Mary has run an academic center near Dupont Circle for more than a decade. Adam Anthony, the executive director, said about 300 undergraduates a year come to the center from the public university’s main campus in Williamsburg, Va. Anthony said the center also attracts faculty who want to develop research contacts in fields from social sciences to humanities, “a huge draw for them,” he said. The programs are not just focused on government. This semester, a William & Mary music professor is teaching about Washington and the arts.

Arizona State made a splashy statement when it opened an eight-story center near the White House that is home to programs in journalism, international leadership, law and other fields. “The one place you need to be to carry out the conversation, to think about new ideas and to bring everyone together is Washington,” university President Michael M. Crow said in March, “because everyone is there from everywhere, all over the United States and all over the world.”

The UCDC building is one of the larger university centers in the city. Eleven stories tall, it has about 275 beds for visiting students as well as classrooms and meeting spaces. About 200 UC students are based there, from all nine undergraduate campuses. Dozens of others come to the center from schools including the universities of Michigan, Notre Dame and San Francisco.


The University of California center in Washington opened in 2001. (Nick Anderson/The Washington Post)

Other schools with buildings or offices in Washington devoted to students and academic programs, according to a list that NYU’s Ulrich shared with The Washington Post, include Boston, Brigham Young, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Florida International, Marquette, Michigan State, Ohio State, Pepperdine, Stanford, Syracuse and Texas A&M universities, as well as the State University of New York at Brockport and the universities of Georgia and Wisconsin.

The list is not comprehensive. Dozens of other schools offer internship programs and other academic initiatives in Washington. That’s not counting major universities in the suburbs such as the University of Maryland at College Park and George Mason University in Northern Virginia.

Several universities are based in the District, including one about as old as the city itself. The Jesuits secured land for a college in Georgetown in 1789, the year before the District of Columbia was created. Classes began in 1792 at what would become Georgetown University.

Several other colleges sprang up in the 19th century. Congress granted a charter in 1821 to Columbian College, later renamed George Washington University. (Today GWU is the city’s largest university, with more than 27,000 students.)

The school now known as Gallaudet University, for the deaf and hard of hearing, was chartered in 1864. Then came historically black Howard University in 1867, Catholic University in 1887, American University in 1893 and Trinity College for women (now Trinity Washington University) in 1897.

The public University of the District of Columbia was launched in 1976-1977 through the merger of three schools: D.C. Teachers College, Federal City College and Washington Technical Institute. The teachers college, in turn, traced its roots to a school for African American girls and young women founded in 1851.

The federally funded National Defense University, with graduate programs in national security, is based in Southwest Washington at Fort McNair. Strayer University is among the largest for-profit educators in the city. And Wesley Theological Seminary, affiliated with the United Methodist Church, offers graduate degrees in divinity, ministry and theological studies at a campus in Northwest Washington.

Here are eight prominent D.C. universities with 2017 enrollment totals for undergraduate and graduate students:

School Undergraduates Graduate students Total (2017)
American University 8,123 5,735 13,858
Catholic University 3,315 2,708 6,023
Gallaudet University 1,129 449 1,578
George Washington University 11,999 15,974 27,973
Georgetown University 7,463 11,542 19,005
Howard University 6,354 3,038 9,392
Trinity Washington University 1,534 430 1,964
University of the District of Columbia 3,859 670 4,529

(Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System)


The New York University center in Washington opened in 2012. (Nick Anderson/The Washington Post/Nick Anderson/The Washington Post)