Rankings influence schools

December 3, 2009
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A new report says law schools are greatly influenced by the annual rankings released by U.S. News & World Report.

I didn’t need a report to tell me that. What I did need the report to tell me was how influential the U.S. News & World Report’s rankings are. According to the research report, “Fear of Falling: The Effect of U.S. News & World Report Rankings on U.S. Law Schools,” pressure to move up in the rankings influences the way law schools allocate money, categorize students, and hire deans. Faculty members and administrators describe a drop in ranks as “demoralizing” and “devastating,” the report says.

In fact, the majority who responded had a negative view of the rankings and felt they were more harmful than beneficial. Yet, schools are still trying to improve their rankings.

Some schools allocate more money to merit-based scholarships instead of need-based so they attract students with higher LSAT scores. Some admitted to hiring recent graduates on a temporary basis so that they could be considered employed for the survey. Some categorized students as part-time or probationary so their LSAT scores wouldn’t count. I don’t know if U.S. News & World Report caught on to that, but just last year, it changed the methodology to include part-time students in its analysis.

Surprised? I initially was, but now I think it makes sense that schools would try to manipulate the results of their ranking.

Law schools on the list get free publicity and can tout their high rankings in recruiting material or justify tuition or budget increases. Those who don’t rank so high are quick to complain about the survey’s methodology or say the rankings don’t matter. They know that students use these rankings when picking schools. According to the report, prospective law students interviewed said the rankings were the biggest influence on which schools they applied to.

Take Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis as an example. A quick search on its Web site reveals press releases each time the rankings are released. Just last year, when the school jumped nearly 20 spots, it issued a press release about it and how it expected to continue to rise in the rankings.

Cut to this year when IU – Indy fell back nearly 20 spots. I couldn’t find the press release mentioning this, but Dean Gary Roberts had released a statement in April blaming the change in methodology on the school’s drop.

Rankings are important to educational programs of all kinds because kids want to go to highly ranked schools. IU – Indy is currently promoting its “Super Lawyer” law school ranking on its home page.

Indiana University in Bloomington also issues press releases when the rankings come out, although the school tends to emphasize the rankings of all its graduate programs, not just the law school. I couldn’t find any on Notre Dame’s law school Web site, and the press releases I found on Valparaiso University’s Web site touted their rankings of graduate programs but not the law school. (That could be because it’s consistently ranked as a Tier 4 school, where schools are just listed alphabetically.)

The report was released by the Law School Admission Council and conducted by two sociology professors. You can read more about it on the LSCA’s Web site under "Research reports." Interestingly enough, the authors also studied business school rankings for a comparison, but because there are more rankings released by various sources, the business schools’ reputation sand operations were not as affected as the law schools were.

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