For many college-bound students, urban campuses are alluring. Especially if the campus happens to be located in a national capital with global clout.

Which could explain, partly, why American University is getting more selective. The undergraduate admission rate at the private university in Washington D.C. fell significantly this year.

There were 16,736 applicants for the freshman class at AU, and 5,868 were offered admission. That’s an admit rate of 35 percent, down from 46 percent the previous year. As recently as 2009, the rate was 53 percent.

Admission rates are a function of demand. The more applicants, the lower the rate. AU, with 7,910 undergraduates and 5,293 graduate students, no doubt benefits from its location, a short drive up Massachusetts Avenue NW from the U.S. vice president’s residence and Embassy Row. The university draws many students interested in political activism and internship opportunities in the plethora of nearby federal and international agencies.

“We’re in an era when big-city universities are at a tremendous advantage competitively,” AU President Cornelius M. “Neil” Kerwin said in a recent stop at The Washington Post newsroom. “This is a special time for universities located in cities like Washington.”

But location isn’t everything. Kerwin said his school is advancing on a number of fronts — academic, financial and physical. There is a lot of construction under way, including three new residence halls with 590 beds in an 8-acre project called East Campus.

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Founded in 1893, AU is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. It doesn’t have schools of medicine, nursing or engineering. But it does have schools of law, business, communication and international service.

“I’d like to think that the things we’ve chosen to do, we’re doing at a pretty high level,” Kerwin said.

Kerwin, 66, is AU’s 14th president. He came to office after his predecessor, Benjamin Ladner, was forced to resign in 2005 amid an investigation of his spending of university money. Kerwin, a scholar of public policy and regulation, had been provost under Ladner.

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A major focus of Kerwin’s tenure has been raising financial aid for students in need. In the 2009-2010 school year, 34 percent of AU’s financial aid budget was devoted to need-based aid and the rest distributed according to what AU deemed academic merit. Now the share of the budget for need-based aid is 75 percent. For students on financial aid, that defrays the net price significantly at a university where the full charge is nearly $58,000 a year for tuition, fees, room and board. Seventeen percent of AU undergrads have enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell grants.

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At any urban university, an issue that gets close scrutiny is public safety. AU, near the suburbs of Montgomery County, Md., is no different. “It’s always important to reassure families that this is a safe place to send your son or daughter to school,” Kerwin said.

Kerwin said the university has taken vigorous steps to combat alcohol abuse and sexual violence. Asked about statistics showing the prevalence of sexual assault among college women nationwide, he said: “This is a plague.”

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AU is one of 144 colleges and universities under federal scrutiny for their handling of sexual violence reports. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened its investigation of AU on March 11. Federal officials say that universities listed as being under investigation does not necessarily mean that they have violated the law.

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Kerwin said students get frequent educational programming from the university about the importance of consent in sexual relationships. “We expect them to be safe and to be respectful of other people’s bodies and persons,” he said. AU, he said, is striving to build a culture in which students feel comfortable reporting episodes of sexual violence. “We’re doing an enormous amount of training,” he said.

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Nationally, AU has a slightly lower profile than some of its D.C. peers. It ranks 72nd on the U.S. News and World Report list of national universities, tied with private Baylor University in Texas and public Rutgers-New Brunswick in New Jersey. Among private universities in the nation’s capital, George Washington ranks 57th, and Georgetown 21st.

Kerwin said he doesn’t pay too much attention to the rankings. He said his goal is for AU to be compared with other mid-sized urban universities that are held in high regard, such as Boston College.

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Citing surveys of its graduates, AU boasts that 90 percent are working or enrolled in graduate school soon after earning a diploma. The federal College Scorecard shows that the median annual salary for AU alumni who received financial aid is $55,900 a decade after they started college. That’s well above the national average of $34,943.

“The days are over when you can take it for granted that people think a university education is worth the investment,” Kerwin said. “You have show it.”

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