Ian Ayres (Yale), Lower-Ranked Law Schools Should Be Thanking U.S. News:
Law professors love to hate on the U.S. News law school rankings. Lower-ranked schools in particular find it very difficult competing for an important segment of applicants who are intent on simply going to the highest ranked school possible.
But these rankings may have been responsible for keeping dozens of lower and unranked law schools in business. ...
The top 50 schools with the highest U.S. News rankings saw their enrollments drop by about 8%. Why wouldn’t highly ranked schools be willing to reduce their admission standards to keep their classes filled?
One important reason is the fear of falling in future U.S. News rankings. A school that dramatically reduced its admission standards would fall in the rankings and have a harder time recruiting applicants in future years (and might have poor bar results which would lead to a further fall in the rankings). ... [A]ny school dropping credentials in order to boost class size would have to worry that its peers would instead invest (by running a deficit) in maintaining students’ entering credentials – and as a result would shoot by them in the U.S. News rankings. ...
If the top 150 ranked schools had maintained their 2011 enrollment class size there would have likely been 5828 fewer students for the 53 unranked law schools to admit. This would have forced the unranked schools as a group to shrink their first year classes by 57.4%. The unranked schools had already seen their first-year enrollment drop by 29.5% (4255) so the loss of 5828 more students would have counterfactually meant a total contraction of 70%. ...
Ranking competition acted as dam to protect part of the lower-ranked schools’ applicant pool from being sucked up by their higher-ranked competitors.
Which of the unranked schools would have been most likely to fail in the absence of this ranking competition? Well, we can start by looking at those who contracted the most even with this ranking protection. The following table shows the 10 law schools that experienced the largest percentage contraction in their first-year class from 2011 to 2014.
These law schools would have been especially at risk if some of the higher ranked schools had chosen to enroll thousands more students. Part of me wonders whether the world would have been a better place if higher ranked schools maintained their class sizes and forced some of these weaker schools out of existence — allowing the downturn in admissions to naturally cull the weakest members of legal education’s herd.
Normally, the rankings make it harder for poorly ranked schools to attract students, but over the last few years the ranking may have insured that there were some students left for these school to attract. Instead of being the scourge of lower ranked schools, the ranking system was probably their savior.
Update: Above the Law, Which Law Schools Should Have Closed Their Doors?