The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis ranked as the top public liberal arts college in the country, pushing its traditional rival, the U.S. Military Academy, with which it shared the top honors last year, into the No. 2 spot, according to the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings.
"We always compete against West Point and Air Force, but first and foremost we're partners," said Cmdr. William Marks, a spokesman for the academy. "It's always nice to be recognized as being on the top."
The Johns Hopkins University was Maryland's top overall performer in the rankings, coming in 13th among national universities. It also shared the top spot of guidance counselors' picks with a number of Ivy League schools, up from ninth last year.
The University of Maryland Baltimore County and Stevenson University carried on long runs high on the up-and-coming charts for colleges praised by their peers for innovation and growth.
The much-cited and often-criticized U.S. News rankings break schools into different groups and are based on a range of indicators, including a school's academic reputation, the performance of its students, its financial resources and alumni giving. For the past three years, a sample of high school counselors has been surveyed for the main rankings, and their picks are also published separately.
While the Naval Academy is categorized as a liberal arts college, the experience it offers is not like the stereotypical liberal arts school in the New England woods. Its 4,400 students, or midshipmen, pursue an academic degree alongside their military education and after graduation typically spend five years in the Navy.
But Marks said that being ranked highly lets prospective students know that they should be considering the academy alongside the country's top colleges. While the academy has a reputation as an engineering school, the combination of engineering, liberal arts, language and leadership courses means midshipmen receive something akin to a "classical renaissance education," Marks said.
UMBC held on to the top position on the up-and-coming university list, although it tied this year with George Mason University in Virginia.
While UMBC is ranked 160th overall, its president, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, said the up-and-coming list is a measure of which colleges are leading the way for the future.
"It gets us beyond the traditional notion of prestige," he said.
Asked whether it is time after four years to relinquish the top spot to another institution, Hrabowski laughed.
"We never arrive," he said. "If we are really innovative, we are always asking new questions and looking in the mirror to ask how we can do better."
Stevenson was ranked as the third up-and-comer in the northern region among regional universities, a designation for schools that offer few or no doctoral programs.
Glenda LeGendre, vice president for public relations and marketing at Stevenson, was excited that the school made the list for another year.
"This is an important category," she said. "The other schools that are in it are good company. We're proud to be amongst them."
Stevenson has grown aggressively in recent years and is focused on developing innovative academic programs, LeGendre said. It offers the first fashion design course in Maryland and a combined business and technology master's program.
The school fielded a football team for the first time in 2011 and plans to start a women's ice hockey team next year.
Dennis O'Shea, a spokesman for Johns Hopkins, said it was too early to work out what might have caused the leap in the guidance counselor picks, but cautioned against reading too much into rankings.
"Any time that you're counted among the top universities in the country, that's a good thing," he said. "It certainly is a positive sign that high school guidance counselors think well of us, but we always remind everyone who asks that these rankings are very blunt instruments. They should not be used by students to say, 'I want to go to this college or that college.'"
Elsewhere, the University of Maryland, College Park weighed in at 58th among national universities and 19th on the list of public universities, but dropped off the up-and-coming list. Loyola University Maryland tied for second place among regional universities in the north.
St. Mary's College of Maryland joined the Naval Academy on the list of top public liberal arts schools at No. 5, sharing the top non-military school spot with New College of Florida.
An earlier version of this article misstated that Loyola University Maryland was in third place among regional colleges in the north. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.