Spanking The Rankings

An interesting movement is underway among some of America’s most prominent law schools. One by one, they have begun deciding not to participate in the U.S. News and World Report law school rankings. Yale and Harvard led the way earlier this month; my law school alma mater, the Georgetown University Law Center, followed two days later. You can see a list of the law schools that have eschewed the U.S. News rankings here.

Each law school that has withdrawn from the rankings process has released a statement explaining its reasons. You can read the statement of Georgetown Law Dean William Treanor here. In a nutshell, he contends that the rankings reflect priorities that are at variance with the public service orientation of the law school and do not adequately account for efforts to help students attend law school. He writes:

“Rankings formulas that over-emphasize GPA/LSAT scores, that refuse to credit public interest lawyers who are subsidized by school-sponsored fellowships as fully employed, that treat need-based financial aid as a disfavored use of resources, and that penalize schools that admit students who have to borrow to fund their legal educations are not rewarding quality education and are not advancing our profession’s high ideals.”

U.S. News and World Report is pretty transparent about its methodology in compiling the rankings. You can see a description of the methodology here. The publication summarizes its approach as “evaluat[ing] institutions on their successful placement of graduates, faculty resources, academic achievements of entering students, and opinions by law schools, lawyers and judges on overall program quality.” Among the data it analyzes are LSAT and GRE scores, acceptance rates, median undergraduate grade point average, bar exam passage rates, and post-graduation employment rates. The decisions of Georgetown and other law schools to not participate in the rankings presumably means that U.S. News won’t be able to collect at least some of the data it would use to evaluate the withdrawing schools against the same standards applied to participating schools.

So, are the decisions of law schools to withdraw from the rankings a good thing? Of course, academic institutions are free to choose whether to participate or not, and if they feel that the ranking algorithm is fundamentally contrary to their values, as Georgetown does, then withdrawal makes sense. It will leave incoming students with less information–but some have questioned the credibility of the rankings and whether schools have goosed the data they provide to inflate their ultimate ranking. A whistleblower recently raised issues about the accuracy of data supplied by Columbia University, and last year a dean at Temple University was convicted for fraud offenses for falsifying data.

I’ve always had a basic objection to the U.S. News rankings. I think they are both absurd, because an education simply can’t be reduced to a mathematical equation, and distortive, because institutions inevitably end up making changes in hopes of increasing their ranking–even if those changes alter the character of the school and its goals. If the law school withdrawals, coupled with the issues about the validity of the data underlying the rankings, cause the rankings to go the way of the dodo, I think that would be a good thing. Schools should get back to focusing on delivering what they consider to be the best approach to education, and stop the mindless competition to be “top ranked” on some list or another.