Students Just Don’t Care About U.S. News Law School Rankings Anymore

Im4j1ner.com – For years, U.S. News & World Report eschewed the “U.S. News” and “World Reporting” parts of its job to put out the definitive prestige ranking for law schools. Schools would hand over key data, U.S. News would pump it into its methodology, and we’d all agree that Yale was still more prestigious than everyone else.

But as schools complained and programs calcified in the rankings, the publication began tweaking the methodology to provide more movement. The process makes for a more exciting release, but the changes alienated stakeholders, culminating in Yale turning on the venerable ranker, withholding critical information and prompting many law schools to do the same. Publicly, Yale complained that the publication punishes public interest work. The argument is disingenuous bullshit since law schools could promote real public interest work if they would just choose not to run students into six-figure debt.

But while USNWR and the law schools went to war and the rankings became increasingly janky, a funny thing happened… the prospective students stopped caring.

In The Decline & Fall of the US News Rankings, Kentucky Law professor Brian Frye and Indiana Maurer professor Christopher Ryan Jr. look at how changes in U.S. News rankings manifested in changes to the following year’s class. Because, one would think, that a boost in law school prestige one year would result in the school attracting a more prestigious class the next year.

Using a correlation function, we compared the change in a law school’s position in two consecutive years (e.g. 2014-2015) with its change in position in the revealed preferences rankings in the immediately consecutive years (e.g., 2015-2016). The results are surprising. At no point do the values we compared exhibit a strong correlation in either direction, as we might have expected, a priori. The correlation coefficients this comparison produced are all in the range of weak to very weakly correlated. More surprisingly, they are often inversely (or
negatively) correlated, meaning that as US News rankings change in one direction for a school, they move in the opposite direction in terms of the revealed preferences change in rankings in the subsequent year. We take this to mean three things.

Primarily, the authors think the rankings have simply lost their relevance. “In fact, it seems that every time US News tinkers with its methodology, it loses its target audience a little more.” There’s more data out there for prospective law students — like the Above the Law rankings, which will be dropping soon, or Frye and Ryan’s own Revealed Preferences ranking — and there’s no need to uncritically swallow the USNWR rank when a student can cobble together a bespoke assessment. So if you don’t care much about prestige, you don’t need to rely on U.S. News. And if you do care about prestige, the changes to the USNWR methodology whittle away at its reliability as a measure of prestige.

All this leaves law schools — who publicly complain about rankings while privately attempting to maximize their position — in a quandary. If the rankings aren’t actually influencing future classes, then what’s the point.

This study may be useful for law school administrators and faculty members making decisions about institutional priorities and the allocation of institutional resources. If the US News rankings are decreasingly salient to prospective law students, law schools may wish to deemphasize the effect of the US News rankings on institutional decision making.

And then what happens? Would U.S. News have to go back to — gasp — news?

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