Monday, March 30, 2020

The Pernicious Influence of U.S. News Law Rankings on Law Schools: Two New Reports

Critics have been talking about the pernicious influence of the U.S. News law school rankings for many years.  Trying to go up in these rankings has caused law schools to devote resources to items that would be best used elsewhere.  In the last two weeks, two legal education reports have appeared that reiterate the harm caused by the U.S. News rankings.

Law School Transparency: LST's 2025 Vision devotes considerable space to the U.S. News rankings.  The authors proclaim, "the incentives landscape must also change. Schools and students alike rely on the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings as the pinnacle benchmark for quality and prestige. Students use these rankings to make decisions about where to apply and attend; schools use them to decide how to allocate limited resources. Students that rely on U.S. News make less informed decisions, increasing their debt and expanding the mismatch between debt loads and career outcomes. Schools, meanwhile, drain their resources and creative spirit to compete. The incentives the U.S. News ranking system creates and the hierarchy it reinforces complicate even the most basic reform conversations within law schools. Decision-makers want and need new systems of measurement that produce better incentives, yet still offer consumers valuable information as they decide where to attend law school." (emphasis added)

They continue, "This methodology is the cheese for this rat race, which would be easier to stomach if the rankings effectively measured anything meaningful. The trouble is that the rankings are neither meaningful nor effective."  (emphais added)

They add, "While ranking concerns can be abstract, these concerns also drive policies that target key metrics. . . .  The rankings produce a non-stop rat race without a finish line, but with a host of incentives that extract a school’s resources rather than enhance its ability to affordably deliver a better education."  The Report also includes a detailed analysis of  the business structure of U.S. News.  It is eye-opening.

They conclude, "Myriad factors stand between good intentions and meaningful reform, but more accessible, affordable, and innovative law schools can become the new normal if we devote additional energy to changing the structural barriers that hold schools back."

Two weeks ago, the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Education issued a new report on legal education, Principles For Legal Education and Licensure in the 21st Century: Principles and Commentary, which similarly criticizes the harmful effects of rankings on the allocation of law school resources. The Report declares, "In conjunction with regulatory changes and improving the definition, collection, and use of relevant data, address the myopic and counterproductive rankings to which law schools are beholden. We must develop consumer information tools which meaningfully allow students to make appropriately individualized informed choices. A single ordinal ranking of a wide variety of kinds of institutions cannot do that. We must work together to address this collective action problem." (emphasis added)

The Report continues, "We regulate law schools in ways that are myopic, outdated, and excessively one-size-fits-all. Ordinally ranking the multitude of law schools exacerbates those characteristics. All of this affects how schools prioritize their resources. It diverts their focus from anticipating the effects of technology, globalization, and mobility; experimenting with new educational models; and adapting to changing professional requirements. It also encourages incrementalism."

In sum, both Reports demonstrate the pernicious influence of the U.S. News rankings on legal education.  The solution: stop cooperating with U.S. News.  Law schools should stop sending information to U.S. News and stop selling their law schools through the rankings..  Professors should stop returning the reputation forms, which we all have received.  U.S. News cannot issue rankings if it lacks the information to produce those rankings.  I realize that this requires that law schools and its faculties overcome the "prisoner's dilemma," but legal education will remain moribund if we let U.S. News decide how resources are allocated.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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