Hopkins cracks academic top 10

U.S. News ranks it 7th

good news for other Md. schools

August 20, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The Johns Hopkins University vaulted into the top 10 yesterday -- not for its lacrosse team but for its academic credentials in the influential, if controversial, annual issue of U.S. New & World Report that rates the nation's colleges.

College basketball might have March Madness, with the NCAA tournament dominating that month. Academics has August Angst, as faculty and administrators -- many of whom claim they pay no attention to such things -- await the yearly results from the magazine, sent to colleges yesterday.

"Rankings are important to every institution I know with possible the exception of Harvard, and they are probably important there, too," said Robert Massa, who left Hopkins this summer after 10 years as dean of enrollment to become a vice president at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.

FOR THE RECORD - In yesterday's editions of The Sun, Goucher College was mistakenly omitted from a chart that listed the rankings of Maryland schools by U.S. News & World Report. Goucher was in the third tier of national liberal arts colleges, the same ranking it received last year. The Sun regrets the error.

"It does not make any difference where you are on the list, you always want to be higher," he said. "It's a fact of life."

Hopkins went from 14th in last year's tally of national universities to seventh on the new list, tied with Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania. The list also has a new leader, as the California Institute of Technology jumped from ninth last year to displace perennial winner Harvard.

Officials at U.S. News said a technical adjustment in the way it crunched the numbers this year probably accounted for some of the changes at the top. If a school was strong in a certain category, it got credit for finishing at the top as well as for the size of its margin over other schools.

"Schools that are focused on science and technology have high levels of spending per student that are so much greater than anybody else's, they tended to move up," said Amy E. Graham, director of data research for the college issue.

`Only one indication'

Hopkins has always played down the rankings, which was not changed by its status in the top 10.

"It is good and exciting to be counted among the top universities in the country," said school spokesman Dennis O'Shea. "But I would say the same thing now that I said a year ago when we were ranked 14th -- this is only one indication of a school's strength and no indication of if it is right for a particular student."

Other Maryland schools also received good news in the issue. While the University of Maryland, College Park didn't crack the top 50, remaining in the second tier of national universities, it did move to 22nd among public universities, from 30th last year.

Loyola College remained among the top regional universities in the North, dropping from third to fourth as another technical school -- the Rochester Institute of Technology -- moved ahead. Hood College rose a notch to 10th on the same list and was ranked behind Gallaudet University as the best value among regional universities.

Western Maryland College moved from the fourth tier among national liberal arts colleges to the third tier, where it joined Washington College. (The top 20 percent of schools in each category are given numerical rankings; the rest are ranked in three descending groups called tiers.)

"I didn't even know that," said Martha O'Connell, Western Maryland's admissions director and a strong critic of the rankings. "I've been too busy meeting prospective students to pay any attention.

"One thing that concerns me is that 25 percent of a school's score comes from a survey of deans and admissions directors asking if other schools are up-and-coming or not any good or whatever," O'Connell said, noting that as a result she is deluged with alumni magazines and other publications from schools across the country.

"I don't think I could make that judgment about any school other than the one I work for or maybe the one my child goes to," she said. "Otherwise, you're just reading the same statistics and propaganda as everyone else."

A mini-industry

U.S News started its annual rankings 12 years ago and has spawned a mini-industry. Time magazine has its rankings coming out this weekend, and a variety of college guidebooks are scheduled for publication this time of year.

"Rankings have taken on an immense importance over the last five to seven years in the way in which students select colleges and colleges position themselves. In many ways I look at this as unfortunate," said Massa, echoing the criticism of many.

"It places emphasis on relatively arbitrary measurements. It encourages students and parents to take shortcuts in searching for the right school, and it encourages colleges to focus resources on aspects of their programs that will impact the rankings, things such as admission selectivity," he said. "Everyone wants to be more selective, but how to do that has become less important than the fact that you do it."

Critics say some colleges have altered their practices to try to influence the ratings, including:

Encouraging applications from scores of unqualified students who can be turned down so the school will look more selective;

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