Spanking The Rankings (Cont.)

I wrote a few weeks ago about the revolt of certain law schools–including my alma mater, the Georgetown University Law Center–against the U.S. News and World Report rankings. The revolt got some results. Earlier this month, U.S. News and World Report announced that it would be modifying its approach to rankings, and wrote an open letter to law school deans announcing the changes. You can see the letter here.

U.S. News says the changes are in response to the issues raised by the law schools, but it is also standing its ground in its position that its rankings are appropriate and a helpful data point for students deciding on where to go for their legal education. The letter to the law school deans says that the ranking algorithm will be modified, stating that “there will be some changes in how we weight certain data points, including a reduced emphasis on the peer assessment surveys of academics, lawyers and judges, and an increased weight on outcome measures.” At the same time, U.S. News let the law schools know that it is going to rank them, whether they participate or not, and offered an incentive of sorts: “We will rank law schools in the upcoming rankings using publicly available data that law schools annually make available as required by the American Bar Association whether or not schools respond to our annual survey. For schools that do respond, we will publish more detailed profiles, enabling students to create a more comprehensive picture of their various choices.”

Law schools don’t seem to be blown away by the U.S. News announcement. Yale’s dean was quoted as saying: “having a window into the operations and decision-making process at U.S. News in recent weeks has only cemented our decision to stop participating in the rankings.” Michigan says its decision to not participate in the rankings won’t change, either.

I’m not surprised that U.S. News is trying to put out the fire; its ranking publications are no doubt a big money-maker in an era where fewer and fewer people are buying magazines. But the tweaks to its approach also shows that rankings are really kind of silly, and the metrics in its formula, and their weighting, aren’t some immutable, undeniable way of objectively evaluating law schools. If the metrics and the weighting can change in the blink of an eye because law schools have said enough is enough, why should anyone trust that the new formula is the right mix?

I think law students would be better served by ignoring rankings and thinking about what they want out of law school, using their personal interests and concerns to narrow the field of law school candidates by looking at rational considerations like cost, and then talking to recent graduates. Law school is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and the revolt against the U.S. News rankings illustrates that fact. That’s a useful lesson.

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.

Fighting For Law Students And Gaming The Rankings

The last few years have been tough for higher education, and no sector has been harder hit that law schools.  Since 2010 the number of students taking the LSAT — the test that most law schools use as an admissions tool — has plummeted, and the number of new students entering law school has plunged to the lowest level since 1973.  That’s a problem, because there are 53 more law schools now than there were when Watergate was front page news, and they all want to fill their classes with tuition-paying students.

So, a larger pool of law schools is grappling with a shrinking pool of applicants.  What to do?  Well, you could take students with lower LSAT scores and college GPAs and accept more applicants — but then you’d get a lower ranking in the publications that try to rank law schools, like U.S. News and World Report.  That would be bad, because a lower ranking might mean that fewer students will want to apply to your law school in the first place and fewer potential employers looking for elite candidates will be interested in interviewing your graduates.

The result of this quandary apparently is law schools that are trying to game the system.  The idea is to maintain high standards for applicants for berths in their first-year classes, but then throw open the doors to transfer students to fill out larger second-year and third-year classes.  Indeed, American University Law School in Washington, D.C. has seen so many of its students transfer to George Washington University Law School, also in D.C., that a law professor at American wrote a Facebook post accusing GWU of “raiding” American and actively trying to game the rankings, because only the credentials of GWU’s incoming first-year students are reported to the ranking entities.

In the rarefied and genteel world of law schools, such accusations are unusual, and the notion of law schools fighting for students is a bit unseemly.  But tuition payments are the lifeblood of law schools, and in some instances schools are fighting for survival.  When your very existence is at stake, the white gloves come off.