U.S. News vs. Law Schools and the ABA


    The American Bar Association Special Committee on the U.S. News and World Report Rankings released a 65-page report last week discussing the impact that law school rankings have on law school applicants, law schools, law school tuition, and law school financial aid (among others)--and the news was not good for U.S. News. Last Thursday, U.S. News responded to the accusations of the ABA.

    Among the highlights of the ABA's report:

    U.S. News and World Report’s annual ranking of law schools overwhelmingly dominates the public discourse on how law schools compare to one another. As a result, U.S. News rankings have assumed ever increasing importance to any law school that wishes to attract students and faculty and to retain support from alumni and university leaders. The criteria U.S. News uses for rankings now has a powerful influence over the management and design of American legal education. [...] That influence is not entirely benign [...]
    The U.S. News rankings are based on a methodology that emphasizes a small number of factors in order to rank all American law schools. [...] The current methodology heavily emphasizes the following: the median LSAT score of entering J.D. students; the median undergraduate grade point average (UGPA) of entering J.D. students; student/faculty ratio; dollar expenditure per student; reputation ratings of law schools determined through surveys of academics and legal practitioners; and placement data. [...] ...every aspect of the U.S. News methodology has been subject to detailed analysis and criticism by scholars.
    Many in legal education and the legal profession believe that law students have chosen law schools based upon U.S. News rankings rather than upon a nuanced understanding of differences among particular schools, and as a result have not attended the best school for the student, but rather the best school as ranked by U.S. News.

    The report comes to the following conclusions:

     

    1. The current methodology tends to increase the costs of legal education for students. As a recent study by the United States Government Accountability Office has suggested, the U.S. News methodology arguably punishes a school that provides a high quality education at an affordable cost.
    2. The current methodology tends to discourage the award of financial aid based upon need. Because median LSAT score and median UGPA are so important to the current rankings, law schools have largely abandoned other measures of merit or need in awarding financial aid.
    3. The current methodology tends to reduce incentives to enhance the diversity of the legal profession. U.S. News annually ranks law schools by student racial diversity only, and this is done in a separate ranking, but U.S. News does not incorporate this data in the main rankings methodology. Because diversity (whether racial, economic, religious, or other) is not a factor in the rankings, the promotion of diversity of the legal profession can take a back seat in law school admissions management to the promotion of a high median LSAT and UGPA.

    Today, U.S. News' Robert Morse (director of data research for U.S. News, who also develops the methodologies and surveys for the America's Best Colleges and America's Best Graduate Schools annual rankings), bit back:

    It's clear that the U.S. News law school rankings have a large impact on law schools and prospective law school students. The ABA implies that the U.S. News rankings are behind rapidly rising tuitions at law schools, why law schools are offering more merit-based aid and less need-based aid, and why some law schools aren't enrolling enough at-risk law students with far lower LSAT scores compared to the school's typical LSAT score.

    But there are other key factors behind these trends. It also must be pointed out that the ABA does not cite real evidence behind these often-repeated claims of the degree to which U.S. News exerts power over law school behavior. In other words, it's very easy for the ABA and law school academics to blame U.S. News for many of the negative practices at law schools. Law schools and the ABA need to take far more direct responsibility for these trends.

    Personally, I agree with Mr. Morse. The rising law school tuition costs, the overwhelming demand for a legal education, the way financial aid is disbursed, the diversity of a law school class (and so on) cannot be blamed solely on the U.S. News rankings--or any ranking. It is disingenuous to do so. The blame can be nicely spread out from one end of the spectrum to the other, encompassing law school applicants, U.S. News, law school deans, and even law firms. Attempting to place the blame on one or throw the blame off another only focuses on the problem, but never gets to its root or discusses a potential solution.

    WHAT DO YOU THINK: Do you agree with the ABA? With U.S. News? Do you think the blame lies somewhere in between? What do you think would be better way to categorize law schools--or is any way really a "good" or "better" way?
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