Law Schools To U.S. News: Enough Already

“WE ARE US News Top 100 - 2014 - Official.ashxNOT PLAYING TO U.S. NEWS”

Does that arms race actually improve the education students receive? Not according to Anthony Varona, associate dean for faculty and academic affairs at American University’s Washington College of Law. “​The failure of the U.S. News ranking methodology to incorporate student diversity results in rankings that not only are deeply flawed but also dangerous,” Varona says. “They are flawed insofar as student diversity enhances academic quality and rigor, especially in the law school classroom, where we devote so much instructional time to the problems facing our richly diverse society. We want, after all, our future lawyers—our ‘social architects’—to be culturally competent and sensitive to the unique challenges and demands of our increasingly motley communities, nation and world.” (For more on the U.S. News ranking and diversity, see “We Do Not Have The Luxury Of Staying Silent.”). 

Allard also objects to the “simplistic arithmetic formula [that] puts a lot of eggs in the LSAT basket.” He feels that while LSAT scores do matter, it’s important to look at each applicant holistically—and if that hurts Brooklyn Law’s ranking, so be it. “We are not playing to U.S. News,” Allard says. “I think they should look at us and think we’re doing a great job, but we’re not playing to them. They’re kind of looking at us through backwards binoculars and they’re really missing the big picture of what we’re doing.” 

“A GLARING FLAW IN THE METHODOLOGY” 

Critics have also accused U.S. News of calculating employment rates unfairly. The simple percentages assigned to each school don’t show it, but the process is complicated and somewhat obscure. In its most recent methodology page, U.S. News explains that it gave full weight to full-time roles “lasting at least a year” that required bar passage or at least preferred J.D.s “Many experts in legal education consider these the real law jobs,” the site says. (Who exactly are they?) Meanwhile, “less weight” (no number specified) went to full-time jobs that didn’t require bar passage and advanced degree programs. U.S. News gave part-time, short-term jobs the lowest weight.

The last part makes sense. It’s hard to imagine someone taking on massive debt with the goal of getting a quick, part-time gig. But the rest discounts graduates who pursue non-traditional employment, regardless of whether they do so out of choice or necessity. “That’s the problem, the overweighting of large law firms,” Allard says. “God bless them—that’s where I worked my entire career. You can have a great career in a large firm, and many of our students want to do that. But that’s not the only place you can go and be an outstanding lawyer.”

The more of those non-traditional graduates a school has, the more it gets punished. “The U.S. News methodology penalizes those law schools—like mine—with large numbers of graduates entering prestigious LL.M. programs, NGO fellowships and other coveted opportunities not fitting the traditional ‘12-month, JD-required or preferred’ ​job ​mold,” Varona says. “Despite that many of these graduates turn out to be ​some of ​our most successful ​and high-achieving​ alumni, U.S. News counts them as effectively unemployed or underemployed. This is a glaring flaw in the methodology, since most LL.M. students, by definition, are not looking to be employed full-time while pursuing their advanced degrees.”

WHO’S TO BLAME? 

U.S. News probably wasn’t trying to create a monster. “The rankings are compiled accurately,” Krauss says. “When the rankings become reified, when they become the definition of the status of the school—that’s not U.S. News’ fault.” The people who treat the ranking as the be-all and end-all are the problem. 

But U.S. News hasn’t shown much interest in rectifying the situation. In 2009, Robert Morse, the God of Rankings at U.S. News, told Time that schools that target the rankings don’t hurt their students

Krauss believes U.S. News has an ethical responsibility to minimize the tail-wagging-the-dog effect. He admits that it would be a hard task, though he has an idea: U.S. News could radically change its algorithm every year without informing law schools, which would make it harder to game; he can’t imagine the people at U.S. News truly believe their current formula is perfect. His suggestion would, of course, make year-over-year comparisons difficult, if not meaningless, and probably cause even more controversy.

Allard believes the wider public is starting to wise up. “I think that the grip that U.S. News had five, 10 years ago is slipping, because there’s greater cynicism and skepticism about its accuracy, and because there are many more alternatives,” he says. He advises applicants to treat going to college like buying a car—in other words, to rely on more than just one consumer report: “Collect as much information as you can, find overlaps, and kick the tires.”

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