This week, both Yale Law School and Harvard Law School announced that their schools will no longer participate in the U.S. News and World Report annual ranking of best law schools. In a statement, Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken said the rankings are “profoundly flawed” and that they “stand squarely in the way of progress.” This isn’t a mere squabble that will only affect elite institutions in a never-ending game of one-upmanship. Untethering legal education from U.S. News is a necessary (if not sufficient) step toward making legal education more democratic, more accessible to low-income students, and, over time, and more diverse.
The U.S. News rankings are influential, and problematic. The metrics used by U.S. News are only obtainable through data that is self-reported by the schools. By pulling out, Yale and Harvard will deprive U.S. News of the data it needs to make its rankings sausage.
The decisions by Yale and Harvard affects only the law schools—as of this writing, the colleges, as well as the other graduate schools at the universities, will still participate and provide data to U.S. News. But the law school rankings are the most important rankings provided by U.S. News. That’s because of how those rankings affect the decisions of students and employers in the legal field. Frankly, you just don’t see high school students choosing between colleges as different as Northwestern, Georgetown, and UCLA based on where those schools land on the magazine’s list. But you do see would-be law students make life-changing decisions based on the law school rankings. Whether one wants to live in Los Angeles or Chicago should be an easy choice, but, because Northwestern is ranked 13 while UCLA is ranked 15, we regularly see students braving whatever the hell the “lake snow effect” is supposed to be solely to gain two spots in the U.S. News rankings. In my career, I have encountered countless law students who say that the rankings were the single most important factor in their decision about where to go to law school. That’s over other concerns that should matter to young people, like cost, community, and where they want to practice law.
The primacy of the U.S. News rankings, then, has a knock-on effect on the law schools themselves, which have to compete to rise up the list using U.S. News’s own terms. That’s bad, because U.S. News’s methodology generally focuses on “inputs,” what kinds of students the school matriculates, rather than “outputs,” what kind of lawyers the school graduates. U.S. News cares about things like GPA, LSAT score, and the “selectivity” (percentage of students who apply that get accepted) of the school. Predictably, this means that law schools tend to accept applicants with the highest GPA and LSAT scores, regardless of how the school thinks an individual’s GPA or LSAT scores will translate into success at their law school. In terms of academic promise, the difference between a 175 on the LSAT and a 172 is almost meaningless, but to U.S. News, that difference can matter a great deal.
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The other huge problem with the U.S. News ranking system is that it bases 40 percent of a school’s final grade on “reputational” scores from other lawyers. This metric tends to ossify the stale groupthink about which law schools are truly the “best.” That’s one reason the U.S. News law school rankings have been incredibly stable over time. Yale Law School has held the top spot every year since the rankings were introduced in 1990. Indeed, the same 14 law schools have held the top 14 slots (albeit in occasionally varying order) since the rankings’ inception, with the exception of a few years when the 14th spot has been up for grabs. (Full disclosure: When I was the executive editor of Above the Law, I helped create an alternative law school ranking, which focused on publicly available student outputs. The most recent version of that project doesn’t rank Yale or Harvard in the top 10.)
The rankings inform the decisions about which students to admit not just at the schools at the top of the list, but at every law school in the country. The rankings are essentially telling all schools to “be more like Yale,” because if schools want to climb the rankings, they have to care about what U.S. News cares about. The difference in the quality of legal education available at, say, Notre Dame (ranked #25 by U.S. News) versus Indiana University (ranked #43 by U.S. News) is negligible, but good luck telling that to a student who gets into both. There’s nothing IU can do about its reputation score (since, once again, its reputation tends to reinforce its prior placement on the U.S. News list), so if the school wants to move “up,” all it can do is enroll more students with higher GPA and LSAT scores.
Bowing out of the rankings, while still on top, allows Yale to do things that would “hurt” it in the rankings, without losing its precious reputation as the best of the best. Dean Gerken said that Yale wants to ramp up its funding for students who take jobs in the public interest after graduation, and make the school more accessible to students from lower-income backgrounds who want to do public interest work. As Yale Law professor Taisu Zhang explained on Elon Musk’s Twitter: Doing those things while maintaining its inputs as required by U.S. News would “require compromises that are morally and logistically unattractive.”
Those compromises would likely involve offering more scholarship dollars to students with high LSAT scores who can already afford the tuition, essentially paying for high LSAT achievers to maintain its U.S. News rank. Harvard Law School Dean John Manning echoed the same concerns. He wrote that U.S. News creates perverse incentives for law schools to “direct more financial aid to applicants based on their LSAT scores and college GPAs without regard to their financial need.”
These problems with the rankings aren’t new, of course, and law school deans have complained about them for years. So why are Yale and Harvard pulling out now? For that context, we have to look to the other major change coming soon to a college or graduate school near you.
The Supreme Court is about to rule that affirmative action is unconstitutional. It will order schools to stop using race as a factor in admissions. But no matter how radical the ruling, and how much the Supreme Court blusters, law schools will still want to matriculate diverse classes of students, especially schools that consider themselves elite. That’s because a diverse learning environment is prima facie a better learning environment; it’s also a more attractive one for the best students in the country. This might be breaking news to the Tucker Carlson crowd, but most smart young people, including most smart white young people, don’t actually want to go to a whitewashed school where students are expected to tan their scrotums.
If Harvard becomes as white as a Republican congressional delegation, top students of color simply won’t want to go there. That’ll make Harvard even whiter than it already is, and eventually its white students will realize that they are being ill-served by learning in a mono-racial environment that isn’t preparing them to serve a diverse clientele.
Without “race-conscious” admissions, schools will have to do a better job of not just providing opportunities for low-income students but also providing the kind of professional outcomes those students want. That means more financial aid, more postgraduate debt forgiveness programs, more public interest fellowships, and less concern about the standardized-test-taking abilities of incoming students eager to take advantage of these programs. All of these things would depress a school’s ranking in the eyes of U.S. News. Yale and Harvard are setting themselves up to compete in a post-affirmative-action world by providing the kinds of assistance and opportunities that will incentivize the broadest cross section of students to apply to their schools in robust numbers.
In the next few weeks and months, we could see any number of schools follow suit. UC Berkeley has already announced that it will join Harvard and Yale in withdrawing from the U.S. News rankings. Berkeley Law professor and director of the school’s Policy Advocacy Clinic Jeff Selbin has been a long-standing proponent of breaking the U.S. News grip on law schools. I asked him to explain what this could mean for the entire legal industry. He said, “For far too long, law schools have been beholden to for-profit magazine editors at U.S. News masquerading as experts on legal education. Every law school and law student will benefit if we no longer spend scarce resources trying to satisfy arbitrary criteria at odds with our mission and values. I don’t see how the current U.S. News rankings survive if the top schools—hopefully, many others will follow—refuse to be complicit in their pernicious business model.”
We could see a cascade of schools pulling out of the rankings, regardless of whether they mean to change their admissions policies. But I do believe, naively perhaps, that most of the best law schools will modernize their admissions criteria once they’re free from the watchful eyes of U.S. News. We are seeing the first glimpse of what a post-affirmative-action world could look like, and it’s not the white-wing dream of letting test-prep tutors dictate who gets into law school. The Supreme Court might not value diversity, but the best law schools do, and you can’t measure that with yearly rankings in a magazine.