Monday, March 11, 2013

The Pernicious Influence of the U.S. News Law School Rankings

Yesterday, I posted about why prospective law students should not use the U.S. News law school rankings to help them decide which law school to attend.  (Basically, it gives them no useful information.)  Today, I would like to talk about the pernicious effect that the rankings are having on law schools and urge law school administrators to ignore them.  

For example, a group of Law Professors calling themselves the Coalition of Concerned Collegues wrote this comment to The ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education:

"[P]reoccupation with the annual ranking of schools by U.S. News and World Reports gives schools a perverse incentive to spend more in areas rewarded by the U.S. News formula.  Two examples are expenditures per student and faculty- student ratios, which have risen dramatically in the decades since the rankings went into effect. " 

In particular, "Schools also have incentives to reduce tuition for students with high median GPA and LSAT scores, even though these applicants are unlikely to have the greatest financial need. This causes students from modest economic backgrounds paying full tuition to, in effect, subsidize the education of their more privileged peers. A school can do better in the rankings if it spends more in ways that could enhance its reputation. The combination of rising costs, declining applicants, and perverse incentives puts the financial survival of some schools in question."

Dean David Yellin has similarly criticized the effect of U.S. News law rankings on law schools (here).  He declares, "Many factors have contributed to this trend [high tuition], but none more than the impact of competitive forces in general, and the U.S. News & World Report rankings in particular."  He remarks, "Too many legal educators become obsessed with U.S. News.   I have seen a few deans campaign for their position promising to game the system to move their school up.   Others have issued a press release when they move a handful of spots (needless to say, there is usually silence when a school moves down)."

He notes that "Law schools have always cared about the prestige that comes from being highly regarded by judges, lawyers, students and legal academics.  Soon after U.S. News began ranking law schools in 1989, it became the most visible indicator of prestige.  It did not take schools long to begin trying to affect the various factors that go into the ranking.  The most heavily-weighted factor is the reputation survey sent to four members of each school's faculty.  Schools have tried many things to increase their standing in that survey, including glossy mailings hailing their accomplishments,  increasing the amount of scholarship produced by their faculties (which has been achieved by increasing the size of the faculty, reducing the teaching expectations of some faculty and recruiting highly regarded scholars from other schools).  Not surprisingly, with most schools following the same pattern, very few have actually succeeded in raising their reputation survey ratings.  But this effort has been a major cost driver."

He notes that "The focus on recruiting highly credentialed students has also been a cause of another big factor in law school tuition increases:  the expansion of law school administrative staffs."

He also makes a comment like the one I noted above, "The grades and LSAT scores of incoming students are also major factors in U.S. News.  As a result, schools pay more attention to these credentials than ever.   Many schools now spend massive sums on scholarships aimed at luring students with higher credentials.  The proliferation of these merit scholarships has unfortunately contributed to a major reduction in need-based financial aid.  And it has encouraged schools to increase tuition overall to pay for these scholarships."

Lastly, "A final example of U.S. News'  influence on tuition (although there are many more) is that 10% of its ranking methodology is based on expenditures per student.  How this relates to quality U.S. News does not say.  But if you spend more on your students, you do better in the ranking."

In sum, the U.S. News law school rankings have driven law schools to make some unwise decisions.  It is time for law schools to ignore U.S. News and start making decisions based on the best interests of their students and the public at large.  In fact, law schools should not participate in the U.S. News madness at all.  When those questionnaires come in the mail, throw them in the trash.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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