In the 75th year of its discussion-based curriculum centered on great books from the Western tradition, St. John's College in Annapolis has been ranked as the top school in the nation whose undergraduates go on to earn doctorates in the humanities.

The top ranking, according to a survey of all Ph.D. earners conducted by the National Science Foundation, places St. John's College ahead of more than 1,200 institutions. The school is also among the nation's top 20 liberal arts and research universities whose undergraduates completed doctorates, according to the survey.

The data, compiled by the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium using survey results from the NSF, spans 2001-2010 and includes 1,547 institutions. A total of 275,598 doctoral recipients completed the survey, the consortium said.

St. John's ranks 19th among institutions whose graduates earned doctorates. More than half of the 1,547 schools are liberal arts colleges. St. John's ranks first among 1,248 schools whose undergraduates go on to earn humanities degrees.

St. John's is the only school in Maryland ranked in the top 50. Goucher College is ranked 68th and Johns Hopkins 146th. Among those with degrees from all disciplines, St. John's ranked 19th, right ahead of Brown University.

"There are so many rankings out there that I imagine that this one doesn't come as a surprise at the college," St. John's president Christopher Nelson said. "These studies require experience and skill in oral and written communication, practice in the analytical arts and a passion for working and learning cooperatively with others."

"The students here … develop a kind of interest, imagination and desire to continue their studies as we would hope for."

In 1937, St. John's changed its undergraduate program to an all-required curriculum based on Western tradition and including such subjects as religion, philosophy, math, science and literature. Students do not have majors, instructors are called tutors, and classes are small and discussion-based.

Nelson said the school's curriculum is promoted in the 2000 book "Latticework: The New Investing" by Robert G. Hagstrom, senior vice president and director at Baltimore-based Legg Mason Focus Capital, who also praises the school's dialogue-based approach.

Jaime Dunn, St. John's director of career services, said about 40 percent of the school's graduates pursue careers in education, communication and the arts. Other students pursue such fields as business, marketing, engineering and law.

"There are a lot of students who are interested in those philosophical questions they're grappling with here," Dunn said. "They want to find more answers, they want to go for further schooling, and that data shows you they want to keep learning. And a good way to do that is through graduate school."

Dunn added that because the school's curriculum is intensive, its graduates often take a year or so off before entering graduate school. Only 10 percent of St. John's students continue their schooling immediately after graduation.

Others, she said, are undecided on what fields to pursue after the unconventional curriculum and spend a few years in the workforce before deciding on a discipline for graduate school.

Still, Dunn said, 70 percent of St. John's students earn a second degree of some kind within five years of graduating from the school. She said employers have told her that the school's graduates have exceptional writing, communications and creative skills.

"Because all of our classes are discussion-based, people have to learn to talk but also to listen, which is a real skill that a lot of people don't have," Dunn said.

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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