The most widely watched ranking of U.S. law schools may move to stop an increasingly popular practice: schools gaming the system by channeling lower-scoring applicants into part-time programs that don't count in the rankings. U.S. News & World Report is "seriously" considering reworking its ranking system to crack down on the practice, says Robert Morse, director of data research at the magazine, who is in charge of its influential list.
Such a move could affect the status of dozens of law schools. It would likely reverse gains recently made by a number of schools that have helped their revenue by increasing their rosters of part-time students with lower entrance-exam scores and grade-point averages, without having to pay a price in the rankings.
In some cases the part-timers' course load is barely less than that of full-timers, and they are able to transfer into the schools' full-time programs in their second year. Statistics about second-year students' pre-law school scores also aren't counted in the rankings. ...
A change in criteria would "catch the outliers but punish part-time programs that have existed forever and aren't doing it to game the system," says Ellen Rutt, an associate law-school dean at the University of Connecticut. If U.S. News makes the move, many schools with part-time programs would have a tough choice: Leave their admission standards for part-timers unchanged, which could hurt their rank, or raise the standards, likely shrinking the programs and cutting revenue.
Tom W. Bell, a law professor at Chapman University, Orange, Calif., who developed a rankings model that mimics the one used by U.S. News, says that if the change had already taken place this year, some schools could have fallen from the magazine's "first tier" of the top 50 schools to the second tier, and some from the second to the third. For example, Southern Methodist University and the University of Connecticut, tied at 46th, might have fallen out of the top 50, and Hofstra and Stetson universities might have sunk below 100. Representatives for the schools didn't dispute his analysis, done at the request of The Wall Street Journal.
[Other projected losers under the change in methodology are:]
It's become an open secret that many law-school deans strategize specifically to improve their rank in the magazine's annual publication, to try to reap more interest by employers in their students and energize alumni donors. Even movements of one point in median LSAT scores, or a few hundredths of a point in median undergraduate grade-point averages, can change a school's position on the list.
One of the top beneficiaries of the current U.S. News criteria is Phillip Closius, former dean of the University of Toledo's law school. He led the school's rise from the list's fourth tier to its second tier within a few years.
After he took the helm of the University of Baltimore law school last year, that school also quickly climbed the rankings, to 125 this year from 170 last year, he says. (Schools in the third and fourth tiers aren't publicly ranked -- instead they are grouped together -- but deans can find out where they placed.)
Mr. Closius's winning strategy in both places: Cut the number of full-time students accepted into the program to boost the median LSAT scores and GPAs, which together account for more than 20% of a school's ranking. In their place, the schools add more part-time students, who can transfer to full-time the second year. ...
"U.S. News is not a moral code, it's a set of seriously flawed rules of a magazine, and I follow the rules...without hiding anything," he says. ...
The rankings played a role in the 2006 resignation of Nancy Rapoport, who was dean of the University of Houston Law Center, which had fallen to 70th from 50th in the span of a few years. (It's now tied for 55th.) Ms. Rapoport, who is now a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says managing the rankings as a dean is "like trying to meet analysts' quarterly expectations by massaging the numbers."