After Boycott from Law Schools, U.S. News & World Report Changes Ranking System

From a New York Times story by Ruth Graham headlined “After Boycott from Law Schools, U.S. News & World Report Changes Ranking System”:

Under pressure amid a boycott by top law schools, U.S. News & World Report told law school deans that it will make several changes in the next edition of its influential ratings.

In a letter to American law school deans, U.S. News said its next list would give more credit to schools whose graduates go on to pursue advanced degrees, or school-funded fellowships to work in public-service jobs that pay lower wages. The magazine, which has been publishing the ratings for decades, is responding to criticism that its rankings overvalue high-paying private-sector jobs.

The 2023-24 rankings, scheduled to be published this spring, will also rely less on surveys of schools’ reputations submitted by academics, lawyers and judges, the magazine said.

U.S. News said the list will no longer consider indicators of student debt, or the schools’ spending per student. Critics have said the magazine’s previous metric for measuring student debt encouraged schools to favor wealthy students over those with financial need, and that its use of spending per student figures favors wealthier institutions.

“We realize that legal education is neither monolithic nor static and that the rankings, by becoming so widely accepted, may not capture the individual nuances of each school,” Robert Morse, the chief data strategist at U.S. News, and Stephanie Salmon, senior vice president of data and information strategy, wrote.

U.S. News will continue to rank schools that have declined to participate, using publicly available data. But it will publish more detailed profiles of schools that respond, a possible incentive for lower-ranked institutions eager to attract the attention of students.

The U.S. News list, published annually since 1987, is as influential as it is sclerotic. Roughly the same 14 law schools have held the top slots for 30 years, alternating only slightly and prompting headlines when they do. Its criteria for the rankings are watched almost as closely.

In recent months, however, a majority of those top 14 schools have announced that they will no longer participate. Among those dropping out are Yale, which has topped the list for decades, and Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern, Georgetown, Columbia and Berkeley.

A spokeswoman for Yale University, Karen Peart, said that the law school’s decision to withdraw was made “based on what is best for the institution.” She declined to comment on whether the changes announced today would affect the school’s future participation in the ranking process.

The moves announced today could signify the power of the top law schools to shuck the ratings — their reputations cemented by top firms and prospective students. Other law schools, however, are more dependent on the ratings to attract students.

The growing backlash against the rankings reflects concerns among school leaders about ethics, fairness and the purpose of a legal education, and the institutions that provide it. Rankings that emphasize test scores and salaries deter students from pursuing careers in public service, school officials have said. The rankings’ criteria also discourage schools from serving working-class students who require need-based aid to attend, critics say.

The magazine’s rankings are “profoundly flawed,” Yale Law’s dean, Heather K. Gerken, wrote announcing the school’s withdrawal from participation in November. “We have reached a point where the rankings process is undermining the core commitments of the legal profession,” Ms. Gerken added.

The U.S. News process “does not advance the best ideals of legal education or the profession we serve, and it contradicts the deeply held commitments of Harvard Law School,” John Manning, the dean of Harvard Law, wrote the same day.

Top law schools and others have criticized the list for years, and the changes announced Monday do not address all concerns they have aired in the past. The magazine said in its letter that it would require “additional time and collaboration” to address the role of loan forgiveness, need-based aid, diversity and other issues in its rankings, and that it would “continue to work with academic and industry leaders to develop metrics with agreed upon definitions.”

Ruth Graham is a Dallas-based national correspondent covering religion, faith and values.

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