Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Front Page WSJ Story on Law School Rankings

Riveting front page story in today's Wall Street Journal:  Law School Rankings Reviewed to Deter "Gaming," by Amir Efrati:

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."

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In a August 26, 2008 Wall Street Law Journal front page article entitled Law School Rankings Reviewed to Deter 'Gaming' reporter Amir Efrati reports that U.S. News and World Reports is considering changing its ranking system to include part time [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 27, 2008 9:13:12 PM


Why doesn't US News change the gaming on all their college rankings? In particular, forcing colleges to report the full range of SAT or LSAT scores (not just 25th-75th) and population average (not the median) would show up those schools with "fatter tails" vs. those with more consistently high quality students. In my view this test score gaming is at least as bad as what you describe.

Posted by: jj | Aug 26, 2008 8:37:22 AM

I know this isn't how you sell magazines, but it seems absurd to have new rankings every year. Has that much changed with any school? Instead of US News they should get together like those "independent, operator-owned" steakhouse ads you see in the airlines' in-flight magazines. You know the one where they just seem to rotate the top spot among the listed steakhouses.

Posted by: willis | Aug 26, 2008 8:20:01 AM

Unfortunately, the losers in this "change in the game" will be students whose strengths aren't shown by the rigid GPA and LSAT score system, such as second-career students, foreign students, etc. Work experience, second degrees, post-graduate degrees--none of this is reflected in the formula, and schools are punished for straying outside that criteria.

I am a student at one of the schools mentioned in the article. My low undergraduate GPA (already almost 20 years old by the time I applied for law school) would have kept me out of this school if it hadn't been for the opportunity provided by this strategy. I have excelled in law school, published in the law review, etc. My section was filled with doctors, engineers, accountants, bankers, and other professionals who brought much more to the study of law than my "full-time" counterparts, most of whom have never held even a part-time job. I'm so glad that I had this opportunity, and I would hate to see it denied to others.

Posted by: rattlerd | Aug 26, 2008 8:15:34 AM

Any idea which 3rd tier schools will pop up into the Top 100 under the new system?

Posted by: 3rd to 2nd | Aug 26, 2008 7:39:22 AM