The Rankings Trap: What can we do to break the vicious cycle?

27 de agosto de 2017

Two posts by Professor Mark Osler on Law School Innovation have provided suggestions for how law schools can finally remove themselves from the iron, maniacal grip of the US News Rankings.  His proposals are provocative and pretty awesome:


He points out how Rankings create the wrong incentives and are poor indicators of what schools actually do.  His suggestion is to urge Yale to drop out of the Rankings.  A commentator on his post further recommends that Harvard, Yale, and Stanford should lead the way and drop out of the Rankings.  Like a domino effect, this could lead to all schools finally freeing themselves of the iron grip of the Rankings.  I believe this could work. However, the only problem would be that Harvard, Yale, and Stanford do not have any incentive to drop out because they lead the rankings and so (rightly or wrongly) feel they reap the rewards of being at the top.


“While in Washington last week for the AALS convention, I was able to hear two law school leaders say these two things:  (1)  The U.S. News ratings are a false proxy for quality, they stifle innovation and degrade our service to students, are leading us to financial disaster, and are making us corrupt; and (2)  At my institution, I am doing everything I can to maintain or increase the US News rank of our school…In other words, these leaders were both saying that the pursuit of rankings is corrupting and bad, and that they are complicit in it…If you want to a lead a law school, [bleeping out cuss word] it, then lead.  If that means rejecting the tyranny of the rankings, then do so.  Stop being complicit.  Lead the rebellion.  Quit in protest.  Stand for something.  Lead, already.”  What a confounding conflict between knowledge and action.  As one commentator suggests, something more must be holding law school leaders from stepping out of the Rankings trap or schools would have done it already.


For whatever reason (beyond the scope of this post), the Rankings are there and they have become entrenched as the end all and be all.  While Professor Osler’s proposals in an ideal world would be fantastic, it doesn’t seem like schools or leaders of law schools are willing or able to change.


The US News Rankings tend to create panic among administrators and students, especially on years when they find they’ve dropped down.

1.  For administrators, they see the Rankings as the primary resource for incoming law students when deciding between schools.  Can’t disagree here.  Most people I know, including myself, consulted the US News Rankings as the primary source for deciding where to go to school.

2.  Further, many students and administrators believe that the Rankings have a direct effect on employment opportunities for students.  However, when digging into this topic with my admittedly limited research skills, I did not find a that a drop in rankings caused lowered employment for students (anyone have this data on hand?  Please do tell).

3.  As a general emotional/psychological reaction, whenever rankings for a school rise, the school and its students celebrate.  However, whenever the rankings fall, the schools and students panic and say “down with the rankings!”


Down with the Rankings no matter what number US News decided to slap onto you for the year!  At an open school forum, I heard a student point out that part of the quality assessment portion of the US News Rankings was based largely on the opinions of lawyers and judges determined by the US News Ranking’s Best Law Firms rankings.  Sounds fishy, like maybe, US News Rankings knows it’s making a ton of money off of these Rankings, and then uses one of their rankings to reinforce the other and then that ranking to reinforce another of their rankings and so on.

Did you just get this image of puppet master in your head?  I just felt a chill.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece beautifully laying out the insanity of having a singular ranking system to indicate which schools are better than others, even when schools often are apples to oranges to pineapples, porsches, and brie.  However, despite these intelligent critiques and thoughtful protests against the rankings by reputable and popular academics, administrators in law schools and everyone in law schools continue to be caught in a delicate tap dance between denouncing the rankings while feeling (rightly or wrongly) that they must continue to improve in the rankings or suffer consequences.


1.  For administration, leaving the rankings could lead to a real personal harm – getting fired.  What after that? Probably, new administration would be hired who would be pressured to do the “right thing” and raise the school’s rankings!

2.  For students, the loss of employment prospects, though again, have never seen any proof of a causal link on this one.  Anyone?  Anyone?  Plus, students don’t know anything but the Rankings, and if that is taken away, there’s a chance that students might panic and call for administrative dismissals.

3.  Bad publicity.  US News Rankings are supported by media everywhere, and not only do major news outlets highlight the US News yearly rankings, but so do law related blogs across the nation.  Yes, we are all complicit in this crime.

4.  Admissions fear a lower quality student population should rankings fall, as for the most part, prospective students don’t know any better than to rely on the rankings when making decisions on where to go.  What a mess!


On top of Professor Osler’s suggestions, I would propose the following.

1.  Students organize to pressure their schools to drop out of the Rankings.  Sure, let’s, start with the big wigs.  Harvard, Yale, and Stanford still would attract the types of students they currently attract (considering for ex. when experiments have been done on the quality assessment (reputation) areas of rankings where lawyers/judges were asked to rank imaginary law schools that don’t even exist – ex. like Princeton Law School getting ranked top 20 when there is no Princeton Law School just because it’s Princeton).  And, really, do H, Y, and S have to rely on the Rankings to fight over the tiny population that fit their criteria anyway?  A rabid fight for the “best of the best of the best”?!  A heated Rankings adherence and infrastructural battle to get that kid with 5 higher points on the LSAT, with what consequences over the ability for them to be flexible and more innovative in their admissions criteria?  And, what’s the point of the other 200 ABA accredited schools (or at least those who make the cut) to scramble to try to get to spot 64?  In fact, schools with lower endowments than H, Y, and S seem to suffer the most, as they can’t really invest in the things the Rankings demand without giving up something often more valuable to students. The tradeoff most schools have to make because of US News Rankings often leads to irrational investments that don’t benefit students in the end.

2.  Students can create a new system of informing incoming students about how to decide where to go to school.  With this new climate where prospective students are becoming more savvy and more wary of law schools, perhaps, now is the time that students and other news sources could create multiple ranking systems based on different criteria – perhaps a ranking system measuring how much skills are incorporated into the curriculum or one where 3L year allows for the most flexible choices in terms of externships and real world experience, depending on the student’s interest.  (And, let’s just pray that Above the Law doesn’t trash anyone who tries to create a new ranking, as they seem to believe in US News Rankings, which only serves to reinforce rather than challenge what ought to be challenged).  If students or other media sources could provide alternative sources of information that prospective law students can view and trust, this would provide the US News Rankings with a nice little slap in the face in the form of healthy competition, and maybe then, US News wouldn’t be able to dig their heels in quite so hard, and maybe then, prospective students, current students, faculty, and administration would start to be swayed and pulled by various sources rather than just one, ultimately offering the ability for greater innovation, flexibility, and reform.

3.  Student awareness.  Look into the methodology of the US News Rankings and start to think about what they are incentivizing your schools to do.  Do some research into what your school is actually doing to achieve higher rankings (Are they lying about employment data?  Are they building a new $10 million dollar building instead of giving out scholarship funds or lowering tuition?  Are they being forced to emphasize LSAT and GPA scores over other qualities that would make a good law student and lawyer?  Do they offer deferred entrance to what looks to be a promising law student who has the tragic misfortune of a low LSAT score so that the score won’t count in the Rankings?  If you’re connecting the dots and see inefficient actions taken by your schools as a result of your school’s relationship to the Rankings, it’s time to speak out.  Think about what your school could do for you if it didn’t have this limitation, and if you think it could benefit as a consumer and an investor in legal education,  investigate, submit your complaint, and start the domino effect.  Write those petitions.  Have those open forums.  And, start changing public opinion  by using social media.

Tweet tweet tweet!


Any other ideas on how to get our schools away from the US News Ranking’s puppet master’s hands?

Maybe with a little collaboration between faculty and students and national news sources that are not US News, we could aim for our schools to go for gold:


“Unranked means that U.S. News did not calculate a numerical ranking for that law school. The school or program did not supplyU.S. News with enough key statistical data to be numerically ranked by U.S. News. Schools or programs marked as Unranked are listed alphabetically and are listed below those marked as Rank Not Published.”

Final Questions:

How Do We Inspire Law Schools to Run Free and Far Away from the US News Rankings?  

Do We Agree That Getting Rid of The Rankings Would Benefit Us As Students?

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