At first glance, college rankings are all about who’s No. 1 and who’s up or down in the top 10, 50 or 100.
But what also matters to university officials who track rankings from U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, Kiplinger, Princeton Review, Washington Monthly and a host of other sources — and what perhaps should matter most to students and parents — is how colleges compare to their peers.
With that in mind, here is a closer look at how schools in Maryland, Virginia and the District fared in the latest U.S. News rankings released Wednesday. It is important to remember that all such rankings are deeply subjective, reflecting methodological choices. Many academic leaders dismiss the rankings or even refuse to participate in surveys that provide data for them.
Liberal arts colleges,which focus primarily on undergraduate education, often get less attention than big-name doctoral universities. But there are several such schools in the region of significant stature. The private Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis rank 14th on the U.S. News list of best national liberal arts colleges.
The private University of Richmond (28), the public Virginia Military Institute (70) in Lexington, the public St. Mary’s College of Maryland (87), the private Washington College (96) in Chestertown, Md., and the private Sweet Briar College (100) in Sweet Briar, Va., also placed highly on that list. Of those schools, the one with the highest share of undergraduate students who receive Pell grants is Sweet Briar, a women’s college, where 20 percent have the need-based federal grants.
Regional colleges and universities, which U.S. News puts on separate lists, fly below the national radar but serve a huge share of the market. The private Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore ranks second among northeastern regional universities (the list is actually termed “north”). The public James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., is sixth among regional universities in the south — defined as states south of the Ohio and Potomac rivers, south of Missouri, and east of Texas and Oklahoma.
An arbitrary but useful cutoff — the top 30 — pinpoints some other notable regional schools.
Among regional universities in the south, the public University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg is 16th, the public Christopher Newport University in Newport News is 23rd, the private Hampton University in southeastern Virginia is 27th, and the private Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., is 28th.
The private Averett University in Danville, Va., is 27th among regional colleges in the south. (Regional colleges, as U.S. News defines them, are separate from regional universities and focus more on undergraduate education.)
Among regional universities in the north, the private Gallaudet University in the District, a renowned school for the deaf and hard of hearing, is 17th. The private Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., is 23rd, and the private Hood College in Frederick is 26th.
Elite public universities are closely watched. The University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which drew a national spotlight during a leadership crisis in June, is the second-ranked public university in the country, tied with the University of California at Los Angeles and just behind the University of California at Berkeley. The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg is the sixth-ranked public university, behind the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
William & Mary spokesman Brian Whitson noted that the U.S. News analysis showed the college has the least financial resources among the top 50 national universities, public and private. He said that was a sign of the school’s efficiency. “You hear a lot about doing more with less,” Whitson said.
The University of Maryland placed 19th among public universities, tied with the University of Pittsburgh and behind Ohio State University. U-Md. spokesman Brian Ullmann said the university has ranked in the top 20 for 11 straight years. The rising selectivity of College Park often surprises applicants who count on U-Md. as a safety school but fail to get in. “Perception hasn’t really kept pace with reality,” Ullmann said.
It is also worth noting that the University of Maryland Baltimore County and George Mason University in Fairfax County were recognized as top national up-and-comers and that UMBC and William & Mary won praise for undergraduate teaching.
Historically black colleges and universities are an important sector in the region. Howard University in the District ranks second in the country in this group, just behind Spelman College in Atlanta. Hampton University ranks fourth, and Bowie State University in Prince George’s County is 27th. The University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne and Virginia State University in Petersburg are tied for 33rd. The University of the District of Columbia was unranked. At all of these schools, at least 30 percent of students receive Pell grants.
Several prominent private schools remained in the top 100 on the national university list: Johns Hopkins University (13) in Baltimore; and Georgetown (21), George Washington (51) and American (77) universities. Howard and Catholic universities were tied at 120.