What’s Wrong with the US News Rankings?

Many of the shortcomings of the US News law school rankings have been extensively documented. My purpose here is not to rehash those well-known issues. Instead, I want to outline the ways in which the US News law school rankings may have been a contributing factor in law schools making bad decisions over the last decade. Whether one believes that the economic downturn or structural changes in the legal market have caused employment numbers to decline for graduates, it is helpful to consider how the rankings “game” has led to decisions that have, at a minimum, exacerbated present circumstances. So, in this series of posts, I only want to focus on the potential ways in which the US News rankings may have affirmatively made the situation worse rather than the defects in the rankings system regarding methodology and statistical validity.

To start, it is important to appreciate the importance US News gives to each measured category. These are the weights given to the data gathered by US News (from most to least weighted):

Peer Assessment 25%
Practitioner Assessment 15%
Employment at 9 months 14%
Median LSAT 12.5%
Median GPA 10%
Classroom/Library/Support 9.75%
Employment at Graduation 4%
Student/Faculty Ratio 3%
Acceptance Rate 2.5%
Bar Passage 2%
Other/Financial Aid 1.5%
Library Books 0.75%

A Dean’s shelf-life is often cut short because of rankings declines. The pressure to at least maintain a law school’s ranking necessitates focusing on the numbers over which the Dean can affect in US News scheme. As has been noted elsewhere, the twin survey results are difficult to change (except as a collateral effect of a significant move in the rankings). Although marketing might alter survey scores at the margins, there is little to no evidence of such a connection. As a result, a rankings-focused Dean would focus on the four variables over which the law school has significant control: 1) Employment at 9 months; 2) Median LSAT; 3) Median GPA; 4) and, Expenditures for classroom, library, and other student support (although there are reports that this variable might be eliminated). In total, those variables constitute 46.25% of a law school’s ranking. Unfortunately, as I will discuss in the coming series of posts, the emphasis on those four variables has made the dual problems of graduate debt and un(der)employment likely worse.

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