ST. MARY'S CITY - When U.S. News and World Report published its annual college rankings a few weeks ago, there was only one school in Maryland that could wave a fuzzy foam finger and say, "We're No. 1."
That wouldn't be the Johns Hopkins University, or the University System of Maryland's flagship campus at College Park. That would be little St. Mary's College, which U.S. News called the nation's top public liberal arts college for the second year in a row.
"I call it a unicorn in American higher education," says Steven Muller, the former president of Johns Hopkins who serves as chairman of St. Mary's board of trustees. "It really is one of a kind."
The school has made a steady climb in the U.S. News rankings, starting out in the regional categories then moving up to the national division a few years ago, where it is joined by the likes of Amherst, Williams and Swarthmore.
St. Mary's is ranked in the second tier of those schools, on par with Gettysburg, Ursinus and Drew, and ahead of the state's other liberal arts colleges - Goucher, Western Maryland and Washington College.
Those are all private schools - there are few state-funded liberal arts colleges. And none is quite like St. Mary's.
"It's a public state college that behaves increasingly like a private college," Muller says. "It is a rare, interesting and effective place."
Daya Foster, a 20--year-old senior from Baltimore, agrees.
"You're a person in class here, not a number," said Foster, echoing a phrase used by many students at the school, which sits on a stunning piece of real estate along the St. Mary's River.
St. Mary's officials can rattle off a list of impressive accolades in national publications - the top 10 percent of colleges as ranked by the Princeton Review, Barron's and the Fiske Guide; among the top 50 best values in Kiplinger's magazine; favorable mentions in Time magazine and "The College Finder." It is even ranked among the top 25 colleges for Asian-Americans by aMagazine.
"Maryland students are extremely lucky because this is something that most states don't have," says St. Mary's sociology Professor Louis Hicks.
For all that, little St. Mary's - 1,600 students, all undergraduates - remains an unknown quantity for many in Maryland. It's perched on the southern edge of the state in St. Mary's County - two hours from Baltimore, 90 minutes from Washington - and has a name that might lead people to assume the school is a Catholic women's college.
"When I was chairman of the department, I would get mail addressed to 'Father,'" says English Professor Jeffrey Hammond. "It made me feel really pious."
The name comes from St. Mary's City, the 17th-century settlement of English colonists who established what would become the state of Maryland. In 1840 the state built a girls high school on the long-abandoned site, in part to ensure that it was not plowed under and forgotten.
The high school eventually became a two-year women's college, and in the 1960s became a four-year co-ed institution. It was during the presidency of Edward T. Lewis, who arrived in 1983, that St. Mary's began to take its current shape.
When the University System of Maryland was put together in 1988, Lewis kept St. Mary's out. He made a deal with the state - steady funding, with increases confined to adjustments for inflation, in return for virtual independence. The state covers about a third of the school's budget.
Though the funding arrangement was a boon during the recession of the early 1990s, current President Jane Margaret O'Brien acknowledges that the fixed-income arrangement has hurt during the past several years, when state money for higher education has been plentiful. But, she said, she wouldn't have it any other way.
"It allows us to move so much more quickly when we want to do something," says O'Brien, who has been president for four years and has two children at the school.
St. Mary's has its own board of trustees and sets it own tuition, which is the highest among state institutions. With required fees, it comes in at $7,360, about $2,000 more than tuition at University of Maryland, College Park.
But St. Mary's officials say that the school is still a rarity - an affordable, small liberal arts college.
"You can see that we are public in the demographics of the student body," says Wesley Jordan, a longtime member of the psychology faculty who became dean of admissions last year.
Eighty percent of the students are from Maryland, and one-quarter are the first members of their family to attend college. "You would never see that in a private liberal arts school," he says.
Jordan points out that 17 percent of the students are minorities - 11 percent African-American. "I'm guessing that's twice that of most private liberal arts colleges our size.
"And when we say a 13-to-1 student-faculty ratio, that really is the case," Jordan says.
Says Kai Cunningham, a junior from Baltimore: "You have the opportunity of being heard, of fully debating an idea. That is the best way to learn."
Jordan says St. Mary's is not for everybody. Some find its location too isolated - a factor that also hinders faculty recruitment, because it can be difficult for the spouses of professors to find employment in the area. And, Jordan said, students who are certain of their academic track might thrive at a bigger university.
But for students who are still exploring their options, Jordan said, St. Mary's is a good choice.
"I didn't really know what I wanted to do," says Ian Rucker, a senior from Prince George's County. "A liberal arts education gives you a wide view of everything. Now I plan to go to law school."
Even the isolation helps, he says. "It makes you think more about yourself."
The school was designated the state's "honors college" in 1992 and officials are still trying to figure out what that means. For some, the designation means putting top students through a challenging program. But others say an honors curriculum should mean that all students complete a St. Mary's Project, a yearlong effort that could be a paper or a play, a thesis or an exhibition.
Recently, a divided faculty voted to make the project optional by department. The honors debate goes on.