A few days ago, Robert Morse from U.S. News and World Report sent a letter to every law school dean informing them that the publication will revamp its rankings. This was in response to 12 of the 14 top law schools announcing that they will no longer provide information to U.S. News.
The letter stated that they will decrease the importance of peer assessment scores, increase the weight of outcome-based data, and rank law schools based on publicly available data. But the details are unclear.
Today’s column will provide a few suggestions for changes that will remove unnecessary subjectivity, increase the chances of graduates leaving with less student loan debt, provide flexibility to law schools in their admissions process, and encourage prospective law students to do a more detailed evaluation of schools based on their own needs and goals.
Remove the reputation score. The most flawed metric in the ranking is the peer assessment score. It is overly subjective, transparent as a stone wall, and given disproportionate weight in the rankings compared to the questionable value it brings. The problem with this metric is that the people they survey probably know only a few law schools very well and very little about the rest. They are basically being asked to compare apples to oranges. How can someone compare one school with a strong criminal justice program with another school that is known for intellectual property law?
And these people are human. I would not be surprised if they gave high marks to the law schools they graduated from (or where their children attend), and for academics, where they currently teach.
While it is good that U.S. News will reduce the impact of the peer assessment score, it needs to be removed altogether since it is not likely to produce informed responses along with the potential for bias.
Require a multiyear-employment period for post-graduate public interest fellowships. U.S. News is reversing its position and is now giving full employment credit for school-funded post-graduate fellowships. Previously, it penalized these fellowships because some schools were believed to use them to game the rankings while providing questionable benefits.
For the purpose of compromise and simplicity, full credit should be given for positions that last for at least a few years. This avoids putting U.S. News in an awkward position of guessing which fellowships are legitimate and which are only there to game the rankings. Also, the fellows will get adequate practical experience which can be transferable elsewhere. Ideally, the contracts should last 10 years, which is the time required to be eligible for forgiveness under PSLF.
Law schools should be given some flexibility in their admissions. U.S. News made no mention of adjusting its GPA/LSAT metric despite complaints that it punishes people coming from lower-income households and inhibits social mobility. However, since there are studies that show LSAT scores are correlated with bar passage rates, it is not likely to go away soon.
One idea would be to let law schools admit a small number of students whose GPA/LSAT scores will not count for rankings purposes. This can give schools more flexibility to admit promising students who don’t have the right numbers. Or admit the marginal candidate whose parents can donate a new mock courtroom.
Assign a tuition score. This is simple. The lower a school’s tuition, the higher the score. For calculation purposes, tuition should not be what is advertised on the school’s website. It should be calculated based on what the average student pays after applying discounts and scholarships.
This will incentivize schools to lower their tuition or at least keep it steady. It can also encourage schools to help applicants obtain outside scholarships. This should address law school administrators’ concerns about diversity and socioeconomic considerations.
I did not mention living expenses because where students live is usually outside the schools’ control.
A more detailed analysis on tuition in rankings is found here.
Eliminate the national ranking. It is generally understood that law practice is mostly local despite technological advances. Also, most lawyers eventually specialize as opposed to having a general practice. With that in mind, U.S. News would provide a better service to prospective students if they focused more on providing detailed regional and specialty rankings as opposed to a simple national one.
A law school national ranking is problematic because as stated above, it is like comparing apples to oranges, bananas, grapes, plums, and other fruits. Prospective students obsessively focus on national rankings because they assume that federal judges and the major law firms look at these rankings when making their hiring decisions.
If U.S. News really wants to change the game, it should scrap its national ranking altogether. Unfortunately, this is least likely to happen because, if they do, someone else will rank them instead. And we all want to know who is No. 1.
U.S. News claims that its core mission is to help prospective law students make the best decisions for their educational future although what that means is unclear. But if U.S. News is serious about this, it should not only provide detailed information about each school but also provide it in a manner that allows students to make a fair comparison of every school.
Steven Chung is a tax attorney in Los Angeles, California. He helps people with basic tax planning and resolve tax disputes. He is also sympathetic to people with large student loans. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can connect with him on Twitter (@stevenchung) and connect with him on LinkedIn.