Many law school administrators have problems with the U.S. News ranking of America’s best law schools—not least of all Anthony Varona, associate dean for faculty and academic affairs at the American University Washington College of Law.
Varona has been part of the law school world for many years. He began teaching at Georgetown Law in 1998, switched to Pace Law in 2002, and came to American in 2005, where he became associate dean in 2010.
He also has a history of addressing social justice issues. He’s the former general counsel and legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, the United States’ largest gay civil rights organization, and in 2009, he received the Hugh A. Johnson Jr. Memorial Award from the Washington Hispanic Bar Association.
Varona doesn’t have a bone to pick with U.S. News for the usual reasons, e.g. that it compares apples to oranges, that it creates self-fulfilling prophecies, or that the differences in numerical ranks are statistically meaningless. He believes U.S. News gets in the way of making law schools more diverse. “As a first-year contracts and public law professor, I see the invaluable role played by the diversity of my students in virtually every one of my class sessions,” Varona says. “So any ranking that purports to rate schools by academic quality while failing to account for student diversity is highly suspect. By excluding student diversity from the mix, the U.S. News rankings are dangerous insofar as their methodology creates a perverse incentive for all but the most elite and wealthy law schools to admit more homogenous entering classes.”
Why is that? Well, underrepresented minorities tend to have lower GPAs and standardized test scores; by placing a big emphasis on undergraduate GPAs and LSATs, “it’s as if US News is telling these schools—’look, if you admit those minority students, your ranking will fall because strong diversity and strong academics just don’t mix,'” Varona says. And because the U.S. News ranking wields so much power, many schools aim for better rankings instead of more diverse first-year classes. That’s a mentality that simply doesn’t make sense to Varona.
For applicants making choices about where to attend law school, how helpful do you think the U.S. News ranking actually is?
I would say that applicants should refer to them with great caution, fully aware of their shortcomings and particularly the serious limitations of what the U.S. News editors have chosen to measure and the relevance and importance of what they have opted to overlook. It would be dangerous for an applicant to put any real trust and faith in the proposition that School X is “better” than School Y, solely because US News ranks X 41st and Y 70th—especially since a quick glance at the last few years’ worth of US News rankings will show extreme swings up and down in the rankings, for many schools, from year to year. These wild shifts suggest more of an attempt by U.S. News to sell more print copies and online subscriptions than they do any credible relative improvement or degradation of school quality.
Applicants also are well-advised not to rely solely on the US News main overall rankings in making their determinations, but to dig deeper: I tell them to consider particular rankings data points in isolation—such as reputational scores (although they, too, have their serious shortcomings), placement rates, faculty-student ratio, expenditures per student, etc. I advise them to consider data that U.S. News provides but does not incorporate into the overall rankings, such as student diversity ratings and strengths in particular specialty areas of interest. I urge them to consult other published sources as well as current students, alumni and faculty. To visit the school, talk to current students and professors, observe a class or two, and generally get a sense for how well they would “fit in,” etc.
Given that diversity has so many components, how would you propose that U.S. News measure it? Do you think some components are more important than others in the law school context?
There is no question that incorporating student diversity as a rankings metric would be a challenging exercise. There are many forms of diversity, so how should they be reflected and weighted? How should any such metric account for how some law schools are located in regions of the country that are much more racially and ethnically homogenous than others?
The truth, though, is that all of the metrics used by the US News ranking methodology are blunt indicators of academic quality and career placement success. If anything, a student diversity metric would be much more reliable as a quantitative measure than the other components of the rankings methodology—like collegiate GPAs and LSAT scores—which at best are very rough predictions of academic promise in legal studies. And U.S. News already keeps track of and publishes at least some student diversity data, tracked back to the ABA’s annual reports, so they would have a big head start. Quite a few legal scholars and others—including the State of California’s Bar—already have suggested smart and fair approaches to incorporating student diversity into the US News methodology. The task would be less onerous than U.S. News‘ resistance suggests it would be.
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