Monday, June 30, 2008

Proposed Changes to US News Ranking Methodology...or Fiddling While Rome Burns

Bob Morse of U.S. News reports that the magazine is considering two rather modest changes to its ranking methodology:  first, including part-time JD students in its calculation of median GPA and LSAT; and second, using only the bar passage rate for ABA-approved law schools in calculating the relative success of a school's graduates on the bar.  As Mr. Morse mentions, the second change would have the biggest impact on the accredited California schools, which are helped by the fact that their bar passage rates are compared to a state-wide average that includes graduates of more than a dozen non-accredited law schools, most of whose graduates have much lower rates of success.  Since bar passage accounts for only 2% of the overall score, the effect of this change will be minimal.

Including part-time JD students in the GPA/LSAT calculation will, indeed, defeat one of the many gaming strategies that have emerged in recent years, but affected schools will presumably just increase their reliance on transfers to avoid taking too big a hit.  But including part-time students is also going to have pernicious consequences as well, given the way the US News tail wags the legal education dog.  For many, probably most, part-time programs serve older, working students, who might not have time for fancy LSAT prep courses, but who bring levels of dedication, seriousness, and pertinent experience that enrich legal education and the legal profession.  What a loss it will be if, out of fear of US News, schools start cutting back their part-time programs or rejecting these students whose numerical credentials might impede their crusade for a "higher ranking."  (As Dean Gary Simson of Case Western wrote on a listserve for law schools Deans--he forwarded it to me--perhaps these latest proposed modifications to the rankings should be "treat[ed] a wake-up call and....should cause us all to finally say 'enough' and that we are done participating in a ranking system that has done substantial harm and little, if any, good to legal education in the United States.  Even deans at the most highly ranked schools -- those schools that today appear to be winning in the rankings game -- should recognize that they have a major stake in abandoning a system that, at some magazine editors' whim, could be suddenly revamped in ways that could send those schools plummeting from their lofty perch."  What say you Dean Koh?  Dean Kagan?  If Yale and Harvard publicly opted out of US News, this would have a dramatic effect.)

What is perhaps most striking about these two proposals for change is how modest they are, how they barely scratch the surface of the litany of fatal problems now afflicting the U.S. News rankings.  I reviewed these problems in my open letter several months ago, and Mr. Morse indicated previously that he would address these issues.  I hope he will still do so.   I know many Deans and faculty contacted Mr. Morse at that time; I would urge them to do so again.

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