Despite a single, glaring F, Maryland received far higher scores than its neighbors on a state-by-state "report card" that attempts to gauge how well the nation is preparing its students for college.

The analysis, by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, praised Maryland for the steady gains its high school students have made on standardized tests, the large percentage of adults who are enrolled in part-time classes and the percentage of college freshmen who go on to complete a degree.

Such factors helped Maryland earn a string of A's and a B-minus on the center's biennial "Measuring Up" report -- scores that are higher in almost every category than those given to surrounding states.

Yet on the subject of affordability, Maryland was given an F -- as were 35 other states -- because of its steep public university tuitions and financial aid programs that were deemed paltry compared with those in other states.

"It's great news for Maryland," said Calvin W. Burnett, the state's secretary of higher education. "We're not pleased that the affordability issue is one we have to deal with, but [the report card] shows we have a strong higher education system."

The study, issued last week, marked the third time the center has graded the states. Though the report provided letter grades only in individual categories, a Washington Post analysis of the results showed that Maryland's average grade -- a 2.88 on a four-point scale, or just below a B -- was higher than those of its neighbors.

The same analysis showed that Virginia earned a 2.68 and Pennsylvania a 2.54 -- both just below a B-minus -- while Delaware scored a 2.4, or just above the range of a C-plus, and West Virginia earned a 1.4, or roughly a D-plus.

Maryland earned an A-minus for preparation, a measure that looks more at the performance of elementary and secondary schools than institutions of higher education. In particular, the report's authors said that three-quarters of seventh- to 12th-graders are taught by teachers who have majored in their subjects and that a high number of 11th- and 12th-graders scored well on Advanced Placement tests.

On the downside, they said Maryland's low-income eighth-graders do very poorly on national tests in math.

Maryland earned an A for participation, particularly for the large number of high school students who go on to college. It also earned an A for the "benefits," meaning the advantages, the state receives from its well-educated residents: About 35 percent of Maryland residents ages 25 to 65 have at least a bachelor's degree, one of the highest percentages in the nation, according to the report.

The state received a B-minus in the category of college completion.

The report noted that 62 percent of first-time, full-time students earn a bachelor's degree within six years of starting college, a slight increase over a decade ago and a rate just below those of the best-performing states. However, the authors pointed out that the proportion of degrees awarded compared with the number of students enrolled is relatively low, suggesting that too many students may be studying part time for years without making substantial progress.

But the authors did applaud Maryland for making great improvements in the area of student retention.

According to the study, 52 percent of first-year community college students return for a second year, up from 42 percent a decade ago. About 85 percent of freshmen at four-year colleges return for a sophomore year, compared with 79 percent in 1994.

The authors reserved their strongest language for Maryland on the subject of affordability, saying the state has made "no notable progress" over the past decade.

They said Maryland families must devote a much larger share of their incomes -- even after financial aid -- to tuition at public two- or four-year schools than families in many other states.

Janice Doyle, a Maryland assistant secretary of higher education, acknowledged the problem.

"The situation is exacerbated now because tuitions are going up because of tight state budgets, and there's no money to increase need-based aid," she said. "Maryland's a high-income state, but it's got low-income people, and that's the concern."

She said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) began to address the issue this year, redirecting funds from merit scholarships to financial aid programs. "I think that's the appropriate way to go," she said. "We'll be asking for more money."