Diversity: Law School Rankings

by ursavoice

Jennifer Elrod

Every April, U.S. News & World Report (USN) publishes its latest law school rankings. This list drives most of legal education. For applicants, the rankings signal which law schools are slotted into one of four tiers (only tier one counts in the view of many); for deans, they are a reminder of the fierce, endless competition to climb higher on the ranking ladder; for alumni, they can be a point of pride or dismay, depending on which way (up or down) their school moves in the rankings’ hierarchy; for employers, they are a way to focus on a limited number of schools for potential employees.

What can be gleaned from USN rankings? Some claim that applicants can make more informed choices based on USN’s assessment of law schools, e.g., employment after graduation. But others counter that this measurement can be misleading because law schools create institutional “bridge” jobs so that more graduates are included in the school’s employment statistics. Critics say it is a system that can be, and often is, gamed by deans and administrators so schools move up the USN ranking ladder. Professor Jeffrey Stake has created an online Ranking Game.1 A player, using the USN categories, selects her criteria, assigns a weight to each, and views the result: where the player’s school ranks. If the player does not like her results, she can shift the weight given to various criteria to achieve her desired result.

Based on the pervasiveness and perceived power of the USN rankings, many law school deans respond by pushing to raise the median LSAT and GPA scores of their entering first year class. The aim is to have their schools rise in the rankings, which will attract applicants with high numbers, alumni dollars, and a stronger reputation for that institution. In fact, 40 percent of the total ranking depends upon the reputation of the school as judged by a dean and three faculty members at each ABA-approved law school who are invited to rank other schools on a scale of one to five. But how many in the legal academy take the time to acquire sufficient knowledge to assess accurately what the other 199 law schools are doing in terms of the USN criteria. What happens most often is that the same 10 or 15 law schools receive high numbers while the remaining 190 or 185 schools are left with the task of a mounting an expensive public relations campaign to publicize their programs. Moreover, the reliance on perception rather than in-depth knowledge of a particular law school’s program is problematic as it may lead to inaccurate assessments and, in turn, incorrect rankings.

Here are three points to ponder: How many in academia know that the University of New Mexico’s law school faculty-to-student ratio is 1 to 10, and has been for nearly ten years; that the University of Miami’s law school has taught International Law to its first year students for more than a decade; and that City University of New York Law School instituted a year-long ethics course for first year students in 1983. None of these factors play a role in USN’s rankings but they might be significant for an applicant’s enrollment decision. These three points illustrate the gap between what USN measures and what might be relevant to a potential applicant.

Dean Richard Matasar, New York Law School, points out that the USN rankings assess primarily inputs, e.g., GPA, LSAT, and the reputation of the faculty and dean. He suggests that this is not the best or most accurate way of measuring law schools for the ultimate consumer: the applicant. Matasar argues that the USN criteria should measure mainly outputs, e.g., practical skills training, cost of tuition, quality of teaching, and faculty-student ratio.

Another interesting aspect of the USN rankings is a separate list of specialized programs based upon the assessment of faculty who teach in a particular field, such as tax or environmental law. Although Yale ranks number one overall, it does not place in the top ten of environmental law programs. The number one program is Vermont Law School’s, a fourth tier institution. Thus, when an applicant with an interest in environmental law tries to assess what meaning to draw from this divergent information in the USN Rankings, she is left with a contradictory answer.

The most significant casualty of the USN rankings is diversity. USN does not include diversity as a relevant factor in its measurement of the Top 100 law schools. Rather, diversity is a separate listing. Most of the law schools with significant numbers of African American, Latino, and Native American students are fourth-tier schools, according to the 2011 USN rankings. The top four are Florida A&M University (41 percent African Americans), Texas Southern University (51 percent African Americans), University of the District of Columbia (29 percent African Americans), and Florida International University (44 percent Latinos).

Because of the strong incentive for deans to seek applicants with ever higher LSAT and GPA numbers to move their institution higher in USN’s rankings, applicants with lower LSATs and/or GPAs find that gaining admission to law school is a growing challenge. This group of applicants includes a disproportionate number of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.

The reality is that there are fewer students of color in entering law school classes as illustrated by the Columbia / SALT Report, which I discussed previously. And all the talk about seeking a diverse entering first-year class is just that: talk. It is time for law schools and the profession to walk the talk by insisting that USN include diversity as 25 percent weighted criterion in its measurement of law schools. Such weighting might motivate law schools to actualize diversity by enrolling a critical mass of students of color in each entering class.

1. http://monoborg.law.indiana.edu/LawRank/