'Some law schools are clearly gaming U.S. News rankings'

U.S. News and World Report seriously considers proposed changes to their law school ranking    

By Michelle Weyenberg

The infamous U.S. News and World Report law school rankings could be getting a makeover in an effort to prevent law schools from working the system in their favor.

Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News, announced in June that they are “seriously” taking into consideration two ideas for implementation in the upcoming rankings. 

The first idea is that U.S. News should count both full-time and part-time entering student admission data for median LSAT scores and median undergraduate grade-point averages in calculating the school’s ranking. This would steer law schools away from accepting students with lower Law School Admission Test scores and undergraduate GPA’s into their part-time programs.

The second is for U.S. News to compute the bar passage rate component using only the data of first-time takers who are graduates of American Bar Association-accredited schools.

But there are many law school officials who oppose these changes — mainly the change to including part-time scores. And as one law school dean says, combining the scores of full-time and part-time students could increase the pressure to end evening schools.

Under the current rules laid out by U.S. News, the LSAT scores of the students in part-time programs don’t count in the rankings. Seeing an opportunity, some law schools have directed some of their applicants to these alternative opportunities — students who have otherwise persuasive life histories suggesting they are going to make good lawyers but who may suffer from non-competitive LSAT scores.

Theodore Seto, professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said there are some schools that are clearly gaming the U.S. News rankings. Seto released the study “Understanding the U.S. News Law School Rankings” last year.

“The problem is that schools that have good part-time programs are suffering because of this,” he said.

According to Morse, many people have contended that some law schools operate part-time J.D. programs for the purpose of enrolling students who have far lower LSAT scores and undergrad GPAs than the students admitted to the full-time program in order to boost their admission data reported to U.S. News and the American Bar Association.

And this is where the backlash to the rankings comes into play. Dean Gary J. Simson of Case Western Reserve University School of Law has had enough and has called for the ranking to just “go away.” Another dean has said that a school’s place on the U.S. News ranking is so important that some would drop the part-time programs rather than slip lower in the national rankings. Others suggest that U.S. News rank part-time programs separately from full-time programs.

“The ABA needs to step in here and take a proactive role and they haven’t thus far,” Seto said. “There is a simple way of solving the problem, but it requires the ABA to change some of the data it collects.”

The simple way — redefine the part-time program, Seto said.

As for the bar passage rates, U.S. News currently uses the rate of all first-time test takers from a state regardless of the ABA accreditation of their law schools, according to Morse. This distinction is perhaps most meaningful for the state of California, which has a large number of non-ABA-accredited schools. 

“It’s a change that will hurt my law school, but probably make sense of an accurate measure of how schools are doing,” Seto said.

Morse said they do not plan to make a decision on the issue until fall 2008 or early 2009.

Understanding the U.S. New rankings

Seto’s new research findings on the U.S. News rankings, to be released in the near future, conclude that the reputation variable is fairly reliable.

“Deans, faculty members, judges and lawyers seem to have consistent judgments about law schools across the country over time,” he said.

The research also gave special attention to looking at which schools are going up the ranking systematically and going down systematically.

“We look at which schools are moving in the direction they’d like to be,” he said.

“My view has never been that we should get rid of U.S. News rankings,” Seto said. “But, students and law schools would be better served if there were competing rankings systems, as there are within business schools. Stop trying to cater to one institution would be best.”

But that’s easier said than done.

Until recently, the ABA didn’t make all the data available electronically, he said. U.S. News also circulates a questionnaire that is familiar to law schools across the country.

“A potential competitor can’t get the data unless it can get law schools to do a survey,” Seto said.