US News announces changes, but law schools still skeptical of rankings

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Revisions promised by U.S. News and World Report to how it calculates law school rankings do not appear to have reduced the animosity many law schools feel toward the rankings, with one Indiana professor claiming the changes do nothing to improve the annual evaluation.

“U.S. News is still doing nothing to validate their method as a method that achieves a ranking that is actually useful for students,” Jeffrey Stake, an Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor who has studied the magazine’s ranking methodology, wrote in an email to Indiana Lawyer.

The national publication announced changes to its ranking methodology in a letter to law school deans posted on its website Jan. 2. Robert Morse, chief data strategist, and Stephanie Salmon, senior vice president of data and information strategy, co-wrote the letter.

U.S. News stated it will use the publicly available data that law schools submit annually to the American Bar Association, but it will give different weight to certain data points. Specifically, a reduced emphasis will be placed on the peer assessment surveys provided by academics, lawyers and judges, while more weight will be given to the data on student outcomes.

“We maintain that data beyond the rankings — whether collected by U.S. News or the American Bar Association — is an essential resource for students navigating the complex admissions process and seeking to evaluate the important but costly education that you deliver,” Morse and Salmon wrote.

Stake said he was not convinced the changes would improve the rankings. He detailed his concerns in an email to Indiana Lawyer.

In particular, Stake maintained that if more weight is given to undergraduate grade point averages and LSAT median scores, that will “exacerbate (the) nasty incentives” for law schools. They will be more likely to choose students based on those two numbers, he said, rather than looking for students who will improve the quality of the practicing bar.

“U.S. News tells school admissions offices to ignore whether the person is a single parent, a first-generation student, has experience in the military, has received a PhD in a field relevant to law, will return to help a community that needs more legal representation and counseling, and so forth,” Stake wrote. “The changes at U.S. News will also do nothing to reduce the bad incentives to rely on transfer programs. To top it off, those medians are also not good indicia of whether a student should attend a school or not.”

The Bloomington professor also expressed some disappointment about the reduced weight given to peer reviews. He said the publication’s surveys of legal academics and attorneys produced useful information, even while he conceded the surveys’ emphases on faculty publishing could possibly pressure professors into devoting more time to writing and less time to teaching.

“Nevertheless, reputations are information and it seems that U.S. News will deemphasize its reputations factors, decreasing the value of the only useful thing they are doing in this whole process,” Stake wrote in his email.

U.S. News was prompted to address the concerns about its rankings after about a dozen law schools declared they would no longer provide information to the magazine. The revolt was started Nov. 16, 2022, by Yale Law School, which has long held the No. 1 spot on the annual rankings.

None of the law schools in the Hoosier state — IU Maurer, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and Notre Dame Law School — have announced any intention to quit participating.

U.S. News defended the rankings, saying they provide valuable information to individuals who are applying to law school. In addition, the publication called upon law schools to disclose more of the data they keep private.

“More data benefits everyone,” Morse and Salmon wrote. “To that end, we plan to make available to students more of the data we already have collected so that they can run deeper comparisons among law schools. Similarly, we call on all law schools to make public all of the voluminous data they currently report to the ABA but decline to publish, so that future law students can have fuller and more transparent disclosure.”

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