I invited Professors Henderson and Morriss to reply to my criticism of their defense of U.S. News; their comments follow:
As Brian notes, many of the underlying inputs used by U.S. News, including the employment numbers (which are supplied by the schools to the ABA), are remarkably unreliable. This is an embarrassing problem that only the law schools and the ABA can solve. Yet, because of its dominant position, the value that U.S. News provides to applicants does not necessarily hinge on high quality data.
Specifically, in terms of employment prospects, U.S. News helps to coordinate the market for human capital: By enrolling in a highly ranked school, a student signals to employers that he or she has impressive intellectual ability; and employers in the market for that talent know where recruit. See Korobkin (1998); Korobkin (2006). Although we agree that overall U.S. News rankings cannot be defended as a measure of educational quality, the rankings are nonetheless correlated (albeit imperfectly) with future employment options. This information is clearly valuable to prospective students contemplating a 3-year, $100K+ investment.
We believe a lot of vitriol over the U.S. News methodology (which we saw firsthand at the Rankings sessions at the 2007 AALS meeting) is not really about the methodology, but rather the discomfort of being ranked at all. Indeed, U.S. News has ratcheted up the competition for students. Law schools can and should provide all information available to aid students in deciding how to make a major investment of time and money. (And the ABA has recently made a giant step in this direction. See here. [Ed.--see also here.]) With more information in the public domain—and perhaps more alternative rankings—prospective students will have the ability make more informed and targeted enrollment decisions. This dynamic will make U.S. News less influential; we think this would be a very good development.
If the U.S. News rankings went away tomorrow, law faculty would be better off, but not prospective students. Indeed, by placing its methodologically flawed ranking system into the stream of commerce, U.S. News is forcing the legal academy to disclose more information. (Note that in the late 1990s, the ABA-LSAC Official Guide was made more comprehensive and uniform in partial response to the outcry over the false information that was being submitted to U.S. News.) On that criterion, we are happy to defend the U.S. News rankings.
Two further thoughts of my own by way of reply. First, the Korobkin argument about the coordination function served by rankings (even a set of rankings based wholly (or in the case of U.S. News, partially) on nonsense criteria could perform such a function!) works only if those in the market for human capital--the sellers (the students) and the buyers (e.g., the elite firms)--pay attention to the rankings. There seems to be good evidence that the sellers pay attention, but I don't know of any evidence that the buyers do. (Maybe such evidence exists?) My impression--admittedly anecdotal, but accumulated over a long period of time--is that almost all legal employers operate with their own "internal" rankings of schools based on past experience, and that this trumps U.S. News and anything else. U.S. News only appears "imperfectly correlated" with these job market realities because it uses enough measures that track professional opinion among insiders. Second, if U.S. News stopped ranking schools tomorrow, how exactly would students be worse off? The job placement data the magazine reports is not reliable. There are now lots of ways to figure out that Columbia provides better job opportunities than, say, Cardozo (but did students really need U.S. News to figure that out ever?). So what exactly is lost? True enough, U.S. News will send some students to Washington & Lee over Illinois based on ranking differentials, but will they have really performed a service or simply misled students who might have made a better choice in the absence of the U.S. News nonsense number?
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