Anyone interested in rankings, and their effects on legal education, will want to read these two well-crafted and well-argued studies. The first, by William Henderson (Law, Indiana-Bloomington) and Andrew Morriss (Law-Case Western),
examines the change in entering class median LSAT, a key input into the U.S. News & World Report rankings, between 1993 and 2004. Using multivariate regression analysis, the authors model several factors can influence the direction and magnitude of this change. The study presents six specific findings: (1) the market for high LSAT is divided into two segments that operate under different rules; (2) initial starting position is a strong predictor of the future gain or loss in LSAT scores; (3) the allure of the high-end corporate law firms appears to cause a significant portion of students to discount the importance of rankings in favor of locational advantages related to the regional job market; (4) students will pay a tuition premium to attend elite law schools but, when deciding among non-elite schools, are willing to forgo a higher ranked school for lower tuition; (5) there is little or no association between change in lawyer/judge and academic reputation and median LSAT scores, and (6) two well-known gaming strategies for driving up median LSAT scores appear to work. Drawing upon these results, the authors suggest that the current rankings competition among law schools has all the hallmarks of a “positional arms race” that undermines social welfare. The authors outline the emerging equilibrium in which non-elite schools engage in costly strategies to boost their reputations while elite law schools are able to further leverage their positional advantage. Because this dynamic spawns rapidly escalating costs in the form of higher tuition, continuation of the ranking tournament threatens the long-term viability of the current model of legal education. The authors conclude with four specific recommendations to law school deans and the editors of U.S. News & World Report.
Professor Morriss is also blogging this week at the Volokh site about the findings, so interested readers may want to check in there periodically as well.
The second, by Jeffrey Stake (Law, Indiana-Bloomington), confirms the "echo chamber" effect which undermines the credibility of the U.S. News reputational surveys, on which we have remarked previously. Professor Stake does more than that, however:
As measures of educational quality, the US News rankings are seriously flawed. They overweight criteria that matter little, such as bar pass rate. They exclude criteria that matter greatly, such as job satisfaction. Two of the seemingly valid criteria incorporated into the US News rankings are illusory. The reputation surveys done by US News do not tap into independent professional opinion but instead measure opinions which are influenced by US News and, thus, add little reliability to the results that would be reached on other criteria. A more serious problem is the effect of US News rankings on the operation of law schools and students who desire admission. The rankings have created incentives for students who want to be lawyers to go to schools that have grade inflation and take easy courses at those schools. The US News rankings have created incentives for schools to teach to the bar exam, spend money on glossy publications, raise tuition, increase the number of transfer students accepted, and admit students according to their ability to bubble in multiple-choice answer sheets rather than their prospects for contributing to the learning environment at the law school or their prospects for becoming effective and responsible lawyers.