What the New ‘U.S. News’ Law-School Rankings Reveal About the Rankings Enterprise
Over this past fall and winter, a fleet of law and medical schools announced they would no longer cooperate with U.S. News’s rankings efforts. Often they cited “perverse incentives” that the rankings created — for example, to admit more privileged students, who have lower debt loads and higher test scores. The publication of this year’s rankings shows the impact of the law-school boycott:
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Over this past fall and winter, a fleet of law and medical schools announced they would no longer cooperate with U.S. News’s rankings efforts. Often they cited “perverse incentives” that the rankings created — for example, to admit more privileged students, who have lower debt loads and higher test scores. The publication of this year’s rankings shows the impact of the law-school boycott: U.S. News unveiled details of a new methodology that now places much more emphasis on graduates’ employment and much less on a school’s reputation.
This year’s lists also offer a hint of how widespread the rankings revolt was. Seventeen medical schools and 62 law schools — nearly a third of the law schools U.S. News ranks — didn’t turn in data to the magazine this year. (It’s not clear what nonparticipation rates have been in the past. Reached by email to request historical context, a spokesperson for U.S. News pointed to webpages that are no longer online. U.S. News ranked law and medical schools that didn’t cooperate this year by using publicly available and past survey data.)
Despite the upheavals, one important aspect of the rankings remained almost the same. The membership of the top 14 law schools, considered in the field to be the most prestigious, was similar to previous years’, though some institutions swapped places. It was the middle of the list that saw big swings in fortunes. All law schools that rose or fell by more than 20 places were ranked well below the top 14, according to an analysis by Law.com.
The schools whose placement changed drastically and those that didn’t, which schools cooperated with U.S. News and which didn’t — all underscored power dynamics among the schools themselves, inequalities that rankings reinforce. Here are three takeaways from this year’s law list and what they say about the rankings enterprise.
The law schools that opted out clustered at certain places on the list. Of the 15 top-ranked law schools, all but one, the University of Chicago, declined to provide data this year. Several schools at the bottom of the list also didn’t return U.S. News’s survey. In the middle, opt-outs were scarcer.
That pattern reflects the schools’ relationships with the rankings, based on their position on the list. Top schools aren’t thought to “need” U.S. News. “Their reputations are bigger than the rankings,” Michael Sauder, a sociologist at the University of Iowa and co-author of the book Engines of Anxiety: Educational Rankings, Reputation, and Accountability, said in a previous interview. “No one’s going to question that Yale is a good law school.” Midlist schools, by contrast, “rely more on the rankings to solidify their reputations.”
We decided it was better for the school to ensure that they had the most accurate information that we could provide.
Antony Page, dean of Florida International University’s law school, said he agreed with many common arguments against the rankings, including that they hampered the legal field’s efforts to open opportunities to lower-income students. Still, he submitted data this year. “We decided it was better for the school to ensure that they had the most accurate information that we could provide,” he said. Florida International rose 38 places, to No. 60, and advertised that fact on its website.
“We are a relatively new law school,” Page said. Its first J.D.s graduated in 2005. “There are still people out there that don’t know about this public law school in south Florida. We benefit from any additional attention.”
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the list, Malik C. Edwards, dean of the North Carolina Central University School of Law, said he hadn’t participated in the last three years, because he didn’t see it as worth his time. It wouldn’t be good for the school, either, he said. One straightforward way to rise in the law rankings is to increase the average LSAT scores of incoming students, which used to form 11 percent of the ranking score. (It’s now 5 percent.) But, Edwards said: “If you just increase the LSAT, it’s going to exclude people who we know, from experience, can successfully complete law school, can pass the bar, and can become practitioners.”
He was concerned about a statistic that suggests about half of African American applicants don’t get into law school anywhere. He didn’t want North Carolina Central, a historically Black institution, to become more selective in pursuit of a higher ranking.
The top 14 law schools stayed nearly the same. Historically, U.S. News rankings were designed to change only modestly year to year. Editors feared large shifts “could have undermined the credibility of the project,” Alvin P. Sanoff, an early and influential editor, wrote in 2007. Keeping the most scrutinized part of the law-school list — the top 14 — largely the same reflects that dedication to stability.
In March, The Wall Street Journal reported that Robert Morse, U.S. News’s lead data analyst on the higher-education rankings, told an audience of law-school administrators that the data team didn’t commit to a methodology ahead of time. Instead, analysts ran several scenarios and saw what different hypothetical lists looked like before deciding on a method, which contradicts the usual process in social science. But that practice at U.S. News appears to have a precedent. Sanoff wrote that when U.S. News revamped its undergraduate-program methodology in 1996, editors “pretested the change in weights to make sure that it would not produce an upheaval.”
“Our expert data team is always modeling to determine the impact of new metrics and data outliers,” Eric J. Gertler, U.S. News’s chief executive officer, told The Wall Street Journal. “We never adjust our methodology to prioritize one school over another in our rankings.”
Did the rankings protest help right inequities in law education? That was the point of the boycott. Did it work?
It did and it didn’t, Edwards said. On the one hand, top law schools’ criticisms of U.S. News helped draw public attention to points that law deans had long made to one another, and drove real change in the methodology. On the other hand, problems persist.
Except for Howard University, no historically Black college or university’s law school ever ranks outside of the unnumbered bottom, Edwards said. But this year, U.S. News decided to give numerical ranks to the top 90 percent of law schools, instead of just the top 75 percent, as was the practice before. North Carolina Central, previously part of the undifferentiated lowest quartile, this year got a rank: No. 175.
Press materials from the magazine said that giving numbered ranks to more law schools was a move toward transparency. For Edwards, it presented a new worry. Seeing that number, he thought: OK, should I start playing the rankings game?
“For me, it’s not something I want to do,” he said. But he thought the leaders of other law schools might feel differently.