Law School Revolt Against U.S. News Rankings

From a Washington Post story by Nick Anderson and Susan Svrluga headlined “Law school revolt against U.S. News rankings gains steam”:

First, Yale University’s top-ranked law school declared it would end cooperation with the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Within hours, Harvard University’s law school, ranked fourth, followed suit. Then, what began as a high-profile protest against the rankings became a mass revolt that now encompasses four University of California law schools, four from the Ivy League and several other big names in legal education.

On Friday, the University of Washington law school, ranked 49th, and the University of Pennsylvania’s, ranked sixth, became the latest to join the rebellion.

The U.S. News method for ranking law schools “is unnecessarily secretive and contrary to important parts of our mission,” the Carey Law School at U-Penn. said in a statement, citing increased investment in need-based financial aid and efforts to promote careers in public-interest law.

Other law schools have echoed those points, claiming that the ranking formula rewards those that recruit affluent students, who tend to take on less debt, and fails to give proper credit to schools that recruit students from modest economic backgrounds and prepare them for careers in academia or public service. Russell Korobkin, interim dean of UCLA’s law school, ranked 15th, said on Nov. 22 that his school would not submit information for the ranking exercise this year because he had concluded that “honoring our core values comes at a cost in rankings points.”

For at least some schools that opt out of answering questions, there could be risks. Their ranking could fall — a bit or a lot — and that could be a turnoff, theoretically, for potential students who want a prestige degree and worry about their job prospects after graduation. Many also consult the rankings in the hope that enrolling at a particular school will help them make an impact in the profession.

Behind the scenes, law deans say, U.S. News is reaching out to them about their concerns.

“They have a business to run, and right now, they have a crisis of credibility,” said Austen Parrish, law dean at the University of California at Irvine. He said U.S. News representatives called him to discuss criticism after Parrish announced the school would decline to answer questions for the next version of the ranking.

U.S. News said Friday it will continue to rank all fully accredited law schools, regardless of whether schools provide the data it seeks.

“The methodology for our rankings has evolved over the last 30 years and will continue to evolve to meet the needs of all students,” U.S. News said. It said details about any changes would be made closer to the release of the next set of law school rankings in the spring.

Complaints from the law deans echo perennial criticisms of the U.S. News rankings in other spheres of higher education. There is no sign yet that their revolt will spread to become a more generalized boycott of U.S. News rankings of undergraduate and graduate programs. But it has seized the attention of university leaders across the country and elevated long-standing grievances about a process that relies on sometimes-flawed data and tends to reward wealth and prestige.

“There are ongoing discussions around rankings participation,” the University of Michigan said in a statement. Its law school, ranked 10th, announced a pullout on Nov. 20.

Hal S. Stern, provost of UC-Irvine, said the public university has no plans to end cooperation with the U.S. News undergraduate rankings. “We are in support of providing information that allows parents and students to make good choices,” Stern said.

U.S. News ranks UC-Irvine 34th among national universities for its undergraduate program, and it ranks the law school 37th, in a six-way tie with counterparts at UC-Davis, Boston College, Fordham University, the University of Utah and Wake Forest University.

The UC-Davis law school joined the rankings revolt on Monday. UC-Berkeley’s law school, ranked ninth, had done so on Nov. 17, one day after the thunderclap from schools at Yale and Harvard.

Erwin Chemerinsky, UC-Berkeley’s law dean, said Yale’s announcement spurred him to act on his own deep concerns about the rankings. He also consulted with university leaders. “I was so pleased that the chancellor, the provost, without hesitation, said they supported what I was doing,” Chemerinsky said.

The ranking rebellion then picked up steam with a sudden cascade of statements from law schools at Stanford (ranked second), Columbia (fourth), Duke (11th), Northwestern (13th) and Georgetown (14th) universities.

Asked whether it is worried the rebellion might affect other rankings it publishes, U.S. News said: “Our focus is on the students and how we can best provide comparative information that allows them to assess all institutions equally. We will continue to pursue our journalistic mission of ensuring that students can rely on the best and most accurate information, using the rankings as one factor in their school search.”

Widely known as a rankings behemoth in higher education, U.S. News has weathered intense criticism for decades over how it collects information and sorts schools of all kinds. A core element of its process are surveys that ask higher education leaders to assess the quality of educational programs at other institutions. Results from these “reputational surveys” are used alongside other data — some of it publicly available, the rest gathered through additional questionnaires — in formulas that U.S. News invents (and frequently adjusts) to rate schools.

In August, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona declared that ranking systems that value wealth and exclusivity more than economic mobility and return on investment are “a joke.” He later confirmed that the criticism was aimed at U.S. News lists, among others.

But the kind of rebellion that U.S. News faces now from law schools is different. An array of formidable brand names in legal education is not just complaining but taking action. Specifically, they are asserting that they will not provide U.S. News with the detailed and proprietary information it uses to crunch the numbers that will yield the next version of the annual law school list.

Much information about law schools, including admission test score ranges and data on volume of applications and offers of admission, is made public through the American Bar Association. But U.S. News asks for more, law deans say, including certain kinds of information about employment of graduates, spending per student and student debt.

Some prominent schools are not joining the revolt. The University of Chicago’s law school, ranked third, said in a statement it will continue to supply information U.S. News seeks. The Chicago law dean, Thomas J. Miles, framed the decision as a matter of supporting the marketplace of ideas.

“A ranking is the product of innumerable and contestable design choices,” Miles wrote to his students on Nov. 23. “As our University is dedicated to the free expression of ideas and to questioning viewpoints, our aim is not to suppress opinions. Rather, we should encourage prospective students to apply critical thinking and reach their own conclusions about what value the rankings add.”

Ken Randall, dean of the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, which is ranked 30th, said he has no plans to withhold data from U.S. News. He’s sharply critical of their methodology, though, especially the reputational survey, which he compared to an Olympic diver climbing out of the pool, giving herself a “10” and then sitting down at the judging table to rate her competitors.

Randall said the rankings exert a powerful influence in the legal field. “The big bulk of schools,” everyone from about 15 to 100 or so, “really do think about rankings a lot,” Randall said. Applicants scrutinize them when deciding where to enroll. Employers bear them in mind when hiring.

A big law firm, he said, might look at hiring graduates in the top 30 percent of their class at a top-10 law school. But they might not dip so far down into the class to hire graduates from a lower-ranked school. “It’s a lot of weight,” Randall said.

Among top-10 law schools, those at New York University, ranked seventh, and University of Virginia, ranked eighth, did not respond as of Friday afternoon to questions about the ranking rebellion.

Georgetown’s law dean, William Treanor, said he has raised concerns with U.S. News for nearly a decade that its methodology discourages schools from helping make law school more affordable and supporting public-interest legal careers. He had considered withdrawing earlier this year — but concluded a unilateral move wouldn’t be effective in forcing change and could hurt the school’s ranking. When Yale’s dean stepped forward, Treanor said he realized — and the university’s leaders agreed — “It’s the right moment for us to withdraw.”

Nick Anderson covers higher education and other education topics for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.

Susan Svrluga is a reporter covering higher education for The Washington Post. Before that, she covered education and local news at The Post.

Speak Your Mind

*