We Americans love rankings—sports standings, 12 Best Places for Hawaiian Poke. You name it, we rank it. Of course, these are the essential ingredients in clickbait, too. Let’s all fess up—no living human has ever been able to resist “15 Child Actors and What They’re Doing Now” (which is inevitably ranked from Best to Scott Baio). Or “Top 7 Celebrities Who Should Be Abducted by Aliens” (always ranked from Scott Baio to Anyone Else).
Admit it. It’s OK. It doesn’t make you a Very Bad Person. That’s reserved for those who click on anything containing “Kardashian.”
To anyone who a) has a surly high school junior slouching on their couch, or b) has one or more glossy fundraising pitches disguised as “alumni magazines” gathering dust on their coffee table, or 3) pulls down a paycheck from any institution of higher learning, there is no list more top of your thoughts than… the US News & World Report Rankings. These range from Colleges and Grad Schools to Global Universities and… I kid you not… High Schools. As if high school isn’t anxiety-inducing enough.
As a nation, we’re obsessed with school rankings. Having been a student at two law schools—one Ivy and one East Coast preppie—as well as serving a five-year stint teaching and working as an assistant dean at a New York City law school, I know some stuff about USN&WR law school rankings. I’ve seen the rankings sausage being made from inside the legal meatpacking plant and it ain’t pretty.
Let me elucidate.
As a would-be law student, lo these many years ago, I pored over the US News rankings—and this was in such ancient times that US News & World Report was still an actual magazine. One of the better uses of the rankings is to see the median undergraduate GPA and median Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) score of each law school’s last first-year (1L) class. Unless you’re particularly self-delusional, this makes a very efficient way to choose which schools to waste a fee and a few hours of your life applying to. In my case, I applied to two in-the-zone law schools with medians right around my GPA and LSAT score, one “safety” school, and one “reach” school. It went like clockwork, putting aside the quaintness of my applying to a mere four law schools. I got an acceptance from the safety school before the saliva on the back of the stamp was dry, then acceptances from my two in-the-zone schools followed apace, and my reach school rejected me almost as fast as my safety school had accepted me. (But I would later get a second more successful bite at that particular school.)
That’s the kind of good and noble purpose for which USN&WR ranks were originally intended. But that’s not how the story has turned out.
After doing my Juris Doctor or JD—which is what we lawyers renamed our law degrees due to MD envy—at East Coast Preppie School of Law and later my Master of Laws or LLM at Ivy League R. Biff Snooty Law School, I went to work as a lawyer for a couple of decades. (Don’t even ask why a legal master’s degree comes after a legal doctorate—it has to do with medieval monks and I only have 1,500 words.) Fast forward to 2011 and I accepted a gig teaching and assistant deaning in NYC at a law school I shall call St. Scubicolus Law School. (The name has been changed to protect the innocuous.)
A big part of my job as Assistant Dean at St. Scooby’s Law was recruiting foreign students for our LLM program—which mostly required endless 13-hr flights to Beijing. These programs are Very Lucrative Indeed for law schools, since foreign students get comparatively little by way of scholarships and are mostly put into empty seats in courses law schools would be teaching anyway. So high marginal revenue and very low marginal cost per student. Ain’t capitalism grand?
Because of my recruiting and admissions responsibilities, I was inside the bubble when it came to The Rankings Numbers. Let me explain these. Although US News is very close-hold on how they aggregate all the inputs to their system to produce a ranking, some are well known. For law schools, the two most important factors in their ranking are the aforementioned median undergraduate GPA and LSAT score. These are the pair of baby elephants in the law school rankings’ living room. After the legal employment market cratered during The Great Recession, US News upped the importance of post-graduation employment as a rankings factor, so those are now the Big Three.
Now St. Scooby’s during my five-year tenure was peculiarly blessed—being Catholic and all—with a Dean who was way-smart and knew everything there is to know about US News rankings and an Associate Dean who was way-smart and a True Statistics Geek. This was a huge advantage.
What happens during the admissions process each year is this. First, you offer full or near-full scholarships to students with GPAs and test scores well above your median. Realizing that you’re almost certainly one of their “safety” schools, the trick is to lure them in by offering them a free ride. The yield on these students was not high and we used to throw confetti each time we snagged one. Well, almost. Then, you concentrate on getting most of your 1L class from those applicants with grades and scores just above your median or with one or the other above your median. This is where The Art of the Scholarship Deal comes in. We had an Admissions Assistant Dean who had a really good eye for knowing just how much you had to sweeten the deal to get these kinds of applicants to say yes. Finally, by carefully banking some above- and well-above median applicants, now you can go to students below median. Why? Because they aren’t offered scholarships and will pay full freight.
The result of all this is that the weakest students in the bottom quarter of the class are basically subsidizing the strongest students in the top quarter of the class. So the students with the bleakest prospects for landing a $175,000/year junior-associate spot at a Big Manhattan Law Firm are paying for the free education of the bright young things who are actually going to get those jobs. And let us not forget that these bottom quartile students are overwhelmingly financing their law school with, you guessed it, federal student loans. Yikes.
Let me be clear that St. Scooby’s was hardly alone in this. Every law school outside of the top fifteen or so schools is engaged in this rankings-driven free-for-all. In fact, one of the things I most admired about St. Scooby’s Dean was his dedication to showing all the numbers and his absolute refusal to cook the rankings books by making up data, as several law schools have been caught doing over the last decade.
All of this highly sophisticated game-theory admissions stuff is driven overwhelmingly by the US News rankings. If you game out your incoming 1L class correctly, you can move your median GPA up a tenth and maybe move your median LSAT score up one—or even two!—points. And that will decidedly move you up the rankings.
Why does this ranking even matter? Because it does. Applicants rely very heavily on rankings to choose schools because they perceive that a degree from a higher-ranked school is more valuable to them than one from a lower-ranked one. There’s some truth to this, since Big Law Firms that pay Big Law Salaries spend much more of their time trawling for new hires in higher ranked law schools, thinking they’ll find higher-quality candidates. And because they assume their clients will be more impressed with lawyers from Yale or Stanford than the Acme School of Law and Diesel Repair. Law school development officers like moving up the rankings because it gives them a sexy story to tell the alumni while engaged in their unending institutional panhandling. And admissions officers love to brag on their law school’s rank, especially when it’s higher than their nearest competitors’.
So it becomes a self-reinforcing system of perverse incentives. Unfortunately, often those students at the bottom of the class come from immigrant families or from economically disadvantaged demographics or are first-generation college graduates. And this obsession with rankings drives their spiral into student-debt serfdom with little chance to command the kind of salaries that might pull them out.
And that’s the human face of our American rankings mania.
[Post script: Having been rejected for a JD by Harvard Law School, I was accepted into their LLM program nine years later…]