Depending on the source, St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland is either one of the North's outstanding liberal arts college or a place where students feel trapped on campus, hate their books and food and resort to heavy drinking to survive.
Likewise, the Johns Hopkins University is either a top-notch national school or a "nerd-vana" with unhappy, exceedingly ugly students.
Those are a couple of the assessments you can find by thumbing through the host of college guides that have appeared in the last month.
All kinds of surveys and rankings are now available for students to consider when choosing a college. In a society crazed for Top 10 lists, there are plenty of publishers willing to provide one for high school students considering colleges.
A college that receives a good ranking can generally count on receiving a flood of inquiries from prospective students.
A good survey result "affirms . . . the fact that something good must be happening here," said Christine Cihlar, spokeswoman for St. Mary's. "We are very careful to make sure the governor and the legislature know about it," she added.
Bad rankings have sparked intensive lobbying efforts by disappointed campus officials.
Alas, said Ms. Cihlar, "the survey game is here to stay."
Probably the two most respected and feared rankings appear each fall in national magazines: U.S. News & World Report and Money. Their surveys, which were released this month, weigh various criteria, including a campus' financial health, the tuition and entering freshmen test scores.
Now in its third year, Money's survey can be particularly aggravating to college officials since it provides a "best buys" list, which gives heavy weight to tuition. The list ends up with some odd rankings, putting schools such as New Mexico Tech and Trenton State College ahead of Yale and Princeton.
St. Mary's College, a public school in Southern Maryland, fared well in both of the major rankings. U.S. News called St. Mary's the No. 1 best buy for regional liberal arts colleges in the North. Money magazine judged the school the 24th best buy for a quality education in the country, ahead of Hopkins (No. 51) and the College of Notre Dame of Maryland (No. 76).
But a newly published guide from the Princeton Review had a few other assessments.
St. Mary's came in No. 8 on the list of campuses where students feel trapped. They also have to eat lousy food (No. 15) and hate their books (No. 6). But they can always wash away their troubles with the vast quantities of beer and liquor available (Nos. 9 and 16, respectively).
The Review surveyed 30,000 students at 244 campuses on everything from dining hall food and student promiscuity to campus race relations. The results, say college officials, are extremely subjective and incomplete, because only a fraction of the nation's campuses are ranked.
But they are amusing.
Hopkins ranked No. 3 in the "nerd-vana" ratings, behind only the California Institute of Technology and Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif.; No. 8 in the "unhappy students" category; and No. 6 in the listings of schools where class discussions are "rare."
Hopkins came in No. 1 in one dubious category: campuses where "students turn each others' stomachs."
"We're talking clearly about unscientific evaluations done for shock effect as much as anything else," Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea said of the Princeton Review findings. He cheerfully invited prospective students to come to campus to see the students themselves.
St. John's College in Annapolis, where students follow a classical curriculum, showed up several times in the Princeton Review survey, ranking No. 18 on the list of colleges with "most liberal students," No. 4 among campuses where students can get to know their professors, and No. 1 for encouraging class %o discussions. It also showed up at No. 15 on the bad food list.
The Review called the University of Maryland at College Park, the state's flagship public university, a "fine institution." But its surveys placed it No. 17 in the category "Bring NoDoz and Jolt," suggesting classes there are somewhat less than stimulating.
On the plus side, the school placed No. 6 on the list of places with good student newspapers.
Goucher College in Baltimore showed up twice: for being a place where students know their professors and No. 18 on the list of places with big theaters.
Goucher, meanwhile, would rather discuss the U.S. News rankings of small national liberal arts colleges. The Towson college moved up this year, from somewhere in the top 90 to somewhere in the top 60.
College guides have been published for years. A generation ago, one popular "underground" guidebook listed the price of an ounce of marijuana on campus and assessed the availability of birth control pills.
The stakes went up in the last few years, though, when U.S. News and Money got into the market, producing slick-looking and well-read surveys.
Ever since, colleges have complained about the results and lobbied the magazines for changes in the way they assess schools.
Public colleges complain, for example, that the surveys give too much weight to how many students graduate from a college within five years of enrolling. Public schools are penalized because their students tend to take longer to graduate.
Another complaint is that the rankings give too much weight to a college's "selectivity."
"They reward colleges for recruiting a lot of students and then turning them down, rather than making a serious effort to find the right students to apply," said Bernice Thieblot, a Baltimore design consultant who works with some 30 colleges on their marketing and communications.
Some snubbed colleges simply go on the offensive.
Ursinus College, a liberal arts institution near Valley Forge, Pa., took out a full-page ad in U.S. News' college issue to tout itself even though it didn't make the top 25 in its category.
"Guides like this one are not the only sources of college ratings," the ad reads, and lists several positive on-campus developments.
The ad continues: "Here at Ursinus, we've learned to be philosophical about it."