Anyone who has attended law school is well aware of the fanatical attention that is paid each spring to the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings. Law students fret over what the rankings mean for their employment opportunities, administrators consider how the rankings will affect their current positions and salaries, and prospective applicants categorize their “reach” and “safety” schools based on the numbers. If a school’s ranking takes a substantial tumble, it’s not unheard of for the top students to jump ship, transferring to higher-ranked schools. And although everyone plays along with this annual ritual, most know that U.S. News rankings are not necessarily the best indicator of a quality legal education.
In an article for Washington Monthly, Alan B. Morrison of George Washington Law argues that the influence wielded by U.S. News rankings “might be warranted if the ratings were based on solid methodology, but they are not.” For example, he questions the soundness of valuing a “3.4 [GPA] in electrical engineering from MIT as . . . worse than a 3.8 in the history of cinema from Podunk State,” as well as of the assumption that undergraduate institutions use the same curve for grading. Further, he criticizes the lack of consideration of certain factors, such as location, that may be very important to some students but wholly irrelevant to others. “The goal of any information system about educational institutions should not be just to provide students with facts,” he asserts, “but also guidance to help them think through the decisional process, including what factors may be important to at least some applicants and why.”
One of the most fundamentally flawed aspects of the system, Morrison says, is that it assumes there is a “uniformly agreed upon definition of law school quality and that U.S. News uses it in creating its rankings.” Because there is no acknowledgment of subjective measures of value, there is bound to be disagreement about the rankings ‒ particularly among similarly ranked institutions. To see what a more practical set of guidelines would look like, check out Morrison’s own list of relevant factors for law school applicants to consider.