U.S. News Disclosing Less Due To Gaming

by John A. Byrne on

U.S. News' Ranking Guru Robert Morse in the Moot Court room at George Washington University Law School

U.S. News’ Ranking Guru Robert Morse in the Moot Court room at George Washington University Law School

The long-time rankings guru for U.S. News & World Report told a law school audience today (June 19) that the reason U.S. News reveals fewer details about its rankings methodology is because in the past some law schools tried to game the ranking.

Speaking before more than 70 law school communication officials at George Washington Law School, U.S. News Chief Data Strategist Robert J. Morse said that earlier editions of its annual law school rankings included more detailed explanations on how much weight the organization puts on some of the 12 factors that determine the controversial ranking.

“But when we gave out estimating factors, we found out the schools were deciding to respond to our questions with a deep understanding of out methodology,” he said, sitting in the judge’s chair in the school’s moot courtroom. “In some cases, transparency led to gaming of our system.”

‘YOU ARE NOT THE MAIN PEOPLE WE ARE SERVING’

In a wide-ranging discussion of U.S. News’ ranking, Morse reminded the law schools that the ranking was never created for the legal education community. “You are not the main people we are serving,” said Morse, who joined U.S. News three years before its first law school ranking came out in 1990. “The law school rankings are not being done for law school deans or faculty.” Instead, explained Morse, U.S. News does its ranking “to provide prospective law school students, their parents and other parties in the legal field with key comparative information that they need to make an informed decision about which law school to attend. They should be viewed as part of the rapidly growing higher education accountability movement.”

That movement, added Morse, has led to greater scrutiny of the education policies and administrative actions taken by deans, faculty and administrators, more attention paid to law school budgets, questions about what new law school graduates have actually learned, and how well graduates have been prepared to pass the bar exam and practice law.

No less crucial, he noted that many prospective students are asking whether the JD degree is worth it while some critics are asking whether there are too many law schools graduating too many studnets? “These are all issues people are dealing with and that is why people are drawn to rankings,” he said. Citing the American Bar Association’s standards on the reporting of employment data by law schools, Morse said that “some of these consumer-related standards have been partly the result of our ranking. There has been increased integrity in the data…and students are more sophisticated consumers than they were a decade ago as a result.”

CONCEDES THAT METHODOLOGY FOR ITS SPECIALTY RANKINGS IS ‘NOT SOPHISTICATED’

Morse conceded that the methodology used by U.S. News’ to crank out its nine specialty rankings for law schools, ranging from the best schools for clinical training and dispute resolution to tax law and trial advocacy, left something to be desired. “It’s not a sophisticated methodology,” he admitted, though U.S. News is considering other ways to improve it. “It is something we are thinking about,” but he suggested that a change is not likely to occur in the near future.

Currently, the organization’s specialty rankings are solely based on surveys it sends to each accredited law school’s dean, dean of academic affairs, the chair of faculty appointments, and the most recently tenured professor. Critics say the survey is more of a popularity contest that tends to reinforce previous published rankings. It only takes seven mentions for a school to appear on a specialty list. Last year, this survey was sent to 804 school officials and had a response rate of 58%.

If some law schools have changed admissions or employment practices because of U.S. News, he said, that has been an unintended consequence of the rankings. “It’s clear that many law school deans are at least taking the rankings into account,” he said. “The real question is, is managing a law school to do better in the ranking, good or bad? For prospective students, is the degree worth more in the marketplace?”

‘U.S. NEWS DOES NOT PUT OUT THE RANKING AS A MANAGEMENT TOOL’

Morse didn’t answer his rhetorical questions, except to say that “U.S. News does not put out the ranking as a management tool. It’s definitely true there have been unintended consequences. The big issue is can you sum up a complicated institution into one number. But rankings are here to stay, and the controversy will continue.”

Morse said he believed that U.S. News’ ranking wields greater influence over prospective students than ever because of the current “law school employment picture. There are fewer high paying jobs available and students are depending on rankings more to make the decision on law school as an investment. The rankings have to be viewed in the context of a tough market….Many new JD grads leave with very high debts, but their current job prospects or earning power is low.”

He pointed out that the 2015 job market for new JD grads “remains very tough compared to a few years ago. It’s much harder to get the $160,000 starting salary jobs at the ‘Big Law’ firms to pay law school loans since Big Law is hiring far fewer new JDs. Morse quoted the latest ABA numbers which showed that roughly ten months after graduation, 31,160 graduates of the Class of 2014, or 71%, were employed in long-term, full-time positions where bar passage is required or a JD is preferred.

U.S. NEWS NOW DISCOUNTS IN ITS RANKINGS CERTAIN JOBS GAINED BY JDS

Some 26,248 of the grads, or 59.9%, were employed in long-term, full-time jobs that require bar passage, while 4,912 grads, or 11.2%, were emplaned in long-term, full-time ‘JD advantage’ positions where a law degree is preferred. That left 9.8% of the Class of 2014 unemployed and seeking employment. U.S. News, he said, is taking into account the 43 different kinds of post-JD jobs and their duration that the ABA now requires schools to report on, but schools are getting less credit for some of those jobs in the placement success portion of U.S. News’ ranking.

Morse said that full weight is given for graduates who had a full-time job lasting last least a year where bar passage was required or a JD degree was an advantage that were not funded by a law school or its university. Less weight was given to full-time, long-term jobs that were professional or non-professional and did not require bar passage, the pursuit of an additional advanced degree, and to positions whose start dates were deferred. U.S. News gives the latest weight to jobs categorized as both part-time and short-term.

“Starting with the 2016 edition, U.S. News discounted the value of jobs that were funded by the law school or university even if they were full-time, at least a year long and required bar passage bar passage or were jobs for which a JD was an advantage,” Morse said. “These weighted employment rates at graduation and at nine months—which are not actual employment rates—are only used in the ranking formula and are not published. All these weighted figures were then divided by the total number of a school’s 2013 JD graduates” for the ranking that U.S. News published in March of this year.

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