Since 1987, U.S. News & World Report has been ranking law schools. While the law school rankings have been criticized for decades, this year more than 40 law schools have announced they will not participate, and earlier this month, representatives of more than 100 law schools attended a conference to discuss a solution, hosted by Harvard and Yale law schools (the first schools to pull out), and featuring Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
In anticipation of the Harvard-Yale conference, U.S. News, which had been relatively quiet in the face of past criticism, responded ferociously, running a full-page ad in the Boston Globe and a Wall Street Journal op-ed defending the ranking system. In the op-ed, U.S. News’ executive chairman and CEO Eric J. Gertler suggested that law schools were withdrawing from U.S. News because, in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s possible invalidation of affirmative action in admissions, they want to be able to ignore grades and standardized test scores in admitting students, without suffering a drop in their U.S. News ranking.
But the law school deans’ efforts to challenge U.S. News is long-standing, contrary to what Gertler suggests in this latest aggressive salvo, which seems aimed at placing U.S. News and the law schools that have withdrawn on opposite sides of a larger culture war. Indeed, deans have been publicly criticizing U.S. News and pushing for it to change its approach for a long time—more than a generation.
My school, Georgetown Law, is one of the schools that withdrew from U.S. News. I decided to do so after personally reaching out to U.S. News repeatedly for a decade, urging them to improve their rankings, without success. I recognize the value of rankings as students try to decide which law school is best for them. The question is not how to end rankings but how to make them more useful.
If its goal is to help students choose intelligently, U.S. News should make public how it ranks schools so that students know what lies behind the rankings. For example, under the algorithm U.S. News has used in the past, the magazine told its readers that the factor “spending per student” was only 9 percent of the overall ranking. But scholars who probed the U.S. News data have long recognized that “spending per student” was, in fact, a dominant factor in how each school was weighed. Rich schools (like Yale, Harvard, and Stanford) had so much money they could rack up points in this area that other schools couldn’t come close to achieving. Thus, the top schools every year were always the richest schools. But mere wealth does not determine the quality of legal education or return on investment, the issues that students tell us are their biggest deciding factors.
Fortunately, in response to the criticism it has received, U.S. News is dropping “spending per student” from its methodology. But we don’t know what will replace it in the algorithm. To provide students with real guidance, U.S. News should make public how schools are evaluated.
Second, U.S. News should have experts in legal education on the team that determines the nature of the algorithm. Right now, it doesn’t. Many of the problems with the rankings have reflected a lack of knowledge about the way legal education works.
For example, U.S. News gives great weight to the median GPA of students in an entering class. But law school admissions people have a more sophisticated understanding of how to approach college grades in determining who will do well in law school. Freshman college grades are a worse predictor of law school success than grades received in the sophomore, junior, and senior years, because freshman grades largely reflect how good your high school is. Different undergraduate institutions have different grading curves. A 3.8 at one school is top of the class; at another, it is nothing spectacular. Science majors are graded more harshly than humanities majors. Experts in legal education know these things, and algorithms can be developed that take these realities into account.
The solution to the rankings problems law schools are identifying with U.S. News is not to end rankings but to develop several alternative rankings that people can rely on. Business schools have a number of prominent rankings—not just U.S. News, but Forbes, Financial Times, Fortune, and many others. Some give greater weight to academics, others to the student experience, others to career prospects. Students can look at the various rankings and decide which has the priorities that accord with theirs.
There are a number of international rankings systems that rate American law schools—the Times Higher Education World Rankings, the QS World Rankings, and the Academic Ranking of World Universities. They are worth considering by prospective law students.
But it would be much more powerful if, as they do with business schools, prominent U.S.-based publications started their own law school rankings with different approaches. That would give prospective law students the opportunity to think about which approach reflects their goals. And these new rankings systems should be transparent and include experts on their decision-making team.
Prospective law students understandably rely on rankings as they make their decisions. As an educator, I don’t want to end rankings. I want to ensure that they are helpful.