Spring may be the season when daffodils bloom, or when baby animals are born, but for those of us in law schools, spring is the season when the U.S. News annual law school rankings come out. You may have noticed a telltale pattern to law schools’ response to this annual event. Schools that have done well in the rankings sweepstakes crow about their performance, while schools whose rankings have dropped typically criticize the process and do their best to diminish the meaning of the rankings.
It’s hard to talk about rankings in the abstract when there’s a new number to explain. So I thought that this year, it might be valuable to think a bit about the process of ranking, and what it means for the UW Law School, before our rankings for this year are disclosed.
I know that rankings are important. That’s not because the rankings are inherently fair assessments of quality—as I’ll discuss further below, there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about them. But they are important because some of our critical constituencies depend on them. Our applicants look at them, and our alumni tell me that they do too. Employers who might consider recruiting our students consider them as well. So we need to be cognizant of the rankings because others are using them as a proxy for quality.
We do, however, need to remember that the enterprise of ranking heterogeneous institutions in a comprehensive way is fraught with difficulty. If you haven’t had a chance to read Malcolm Gladwell’s article, “The Order of Things,” from the 2/14/2011 issue of The New Yorker, I commend it to you. In essence, what he argues is that it’s easy to rank highly disparate institutions across a single measure of quality, and it’s easy to rank similar institutions across a range of variables. But, as he writes, “it’s an act of real audacity when a ranking system tries to be comprehensive and heterogeneous”—as the law school rankings do. Such a system is very dependent on the metrics the ranker chooses as measures of quality.
The U.S. News rankings choose four measures: quality assessment (measured by questionnaires), selectivity (measured by median LSATs and GPAs of incoming students and the school’s acceptance rate), placement success (measured by employment rates at graduation and nine months after graduation), and faculty resources (measured by expenditures per student, student-faculty ratio, and library resources). As you might imagine, public schools like Wisconsin, with far fewer resources than many private schools (and often lower tuition), are profoundly disadvantaged by quality measures that expressly turn on dollars spent. Last year, our overall rank was 35. Our ranking for academic reputation was 22 and our non-academic reputation was 27, but our ranking for average expenditures per student for instruction, library and supporting services was 107; for other expenditures, it was 156.
Two things happen when you create a limited list of metrics whose assessment has significant consequences for an institution. The first is that schools try in legitimate ways to affect the metrics on which they are being assessed. During the questionnaire season, my mailbox is full of glossy magazines describing the remarkable achievements of a vast range of law schools, trying to persuade me (I get one of the rankings questionnaires) to grade those schools well. Schools use financial aid money to entice strong students to attend their schools to keep their median LSATs and GPAs high. They work hard to help their students get jobs, and to make sure that every conceivable dollar that could be understood as being spent on students is counted in the total.
The second is that schools cheat. During the past year, two law schools publicly disclosed that they had reported false admissions data to the U.S. News which, in turn, caused them to be ranked more highly than they likely would have had they reported accurate information.
Rankings pressure increases with every year, and it has costs. If schools have to worry about admitting students with the highest possible LSATs and GPAs, committed individuals who would make great lawyers are less likely to be admitted if their numbers don’t help the rankings as much. If schools have to spend financial aid money enticing high indicator students to attend, they have fewer resources to provide the need-based financial aid that transforms lives and enhances the profession. And the resources spent on glossy magazines and promotional materials have to come from somewhere.
How could we solve this problem? One way might be to interest some other publications or groups in ranking law schools. Several publications rank business schools, and they use different metrics for doing so, so different schools can play to their strengths and try to succeed in one ranking if not another. Because U.S. News is the only large publicly visible entity ranking law schools, their rankings metrics tend to be the only game in town. Up until now, other entities have shown little interest in competing with U.S. News to rank law schools.
Another way might be to encourage individuals to do their own ranking, based on what’s important to them. A law professor at Indiana wrote a program that allows this; you can see it (now outdated, but he tells me he’s planning to update it soon) at http://monoborg.law.indiana.edu/LawRank/play.shtml. That might give consumers a chance to emphasize the things they care about, rather than the things the U.S. News cares about. For example, if you wanted a law school with a great experiential learning program, a remarkable, innovative faculty, and very reasonable in-state tuition, the University of Wisconsin Law School would be at the top of your list.
Last of all, we have to recognize the rankings for what they are: an assessment of how a broad variety of very diverse law schools—public, private, small, large, religious and secular, regional and national, specialized and general—align themselves across one weighted set of metrics. They are important, but it’s a mistake to give them more significance than they deserve.
We’d like to be a highly ranked law school and we work very hard to be the best. But we won’t cheat, we won’t lie, and we won’t abandon our values to do that. And we’ll continue to work every day to maintain and strengthen what makes Wisconsin Law a great school that produces great lawyers.
This year’s rankings will be released to the public on March 13, 2012. If you have thoughts about them that you’d like to share, I’ll look forward to hearing from you.
Submitted by Law School News on March 6, 2012
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