US News Rankings: A Chart of the Past Decade
Co-authored with Dan Filler.
The US News rankings have captivated legal academia. The rankings have had a tremendous effect on student decisions about which law schools to attend. They have also had an impact on which authors receive offers from law reviews (the letterhead effect) and the choices that authors make when faced with multiple publication offers. As one might expect, given that US News wants to sell magazines, schools move around the rankings to some degree. Each year the rankings produce a few new “haves” and a gang of fresh “have nots.”
We have created a chart of the trends in the US News ranking for the top 25 law schools over the past decade. Below is a small version of the chart; click on it for the full-size version. More analysis is below the chart.
As the chart demonstrates, there are some bands of stability and some areas of volatility. The same six schools have occupied the top six positions for the last decade. There has been little movement in the top 15. But below the top 15, schools dance around quite substantially.
When students choose law schools, they should remain focused on the forest and not get lost in the trees. Focusing on year-to-year changes can be misleading. For example, in 2006, Wash. U. moved up five spots from 24 to 19. But a year earlier, it dropped from 20 to 24. What is the real Wash. U? Over time, one can see a dramatic change — Wash. U was in the high twenties and early thirties until it leveled out at 25 in 2002. In another example, if one looked at GW in 1998, it was ranked 20. But at that time the 20 was an anomaly, as Wash U was 24 in 1997 and 25 in 1998. After 2004, GW has been consistenly ranked either 20 or 19. To the extent that the US News rankings have any value at all, it is evident only in long-term trends, not in yearly fluctuations.
There are other instances where the US News rankings are simply a game of musical chairs for certain groups of schools. For example, Berkeley, Virginia, and Michigan have been have engaged in a US News game of cat-and-mouse over the past decade. When one school drops, students may become crestfallen. Prospective students may shift their preferences. However, over time, the ordering of these schools appears just to shuffle around a lot, with no discernible pattern. Relying on the US News rankings to choose among these three law schools is like choosing one’s hometown based on today’s weather report.
Below is the full data set; click on the chart for a larger image.
UPDATE: We have corrected an error pointed out in the comments. The charts now reflect Virginia’s correct 2006 ranking of #8. We also learned that a commenter at xoxohth has created even more comprehensive data charts here in Microsoft Excel format.
One more point regarding what looking at the rankings temporally tells us. For many schools, the rankings don’t change very much. And even the big changes are simply often a reflection of the fact that so many schools are tied or nearly tied; hence, a small nudge upward or downward will lead to a bigger fluctuation in rank. If people look at any given year and compare it to the year before, they might assume that there is some kind of progress for certain schools and some regress for others. But if they look at the big picture, there is lasting change for only a few schools. For example, take Berkeley. From 1997 to 2006, it was ranked 7, 10, 8, 9, 7, 10, 13, 11, and 8. So it is basically where it started, but sometimes it was a “Top 10” school and sometimes it wasn’t. Of course, in the real world, Berkeley did not make a prodigal journey. If one looks at the rankings when Berkeley went from 10 to 8, she might think: “Berkeley is on the move. It’s now firmly in the top 10.” But a few years later, Berkeley would not only fall to 10, but would plunge as low as 13. One might be tempted to think: “Oh my, Berkeley’s really plunging now. They must be doing something wrong.” Now, Berkeley’s back in the top 10. Should we think “progress”? No. There’s no progress. Berkeley is basically where it always was — in the top 10, where it clearly belongs in my opinion. The only change is where US News places it in the rankings. Therefore, looking at the rankings temporally suggests that one shouldn’t take the US ranking changes in any one year very seriously.