Ratings, Not Rankings:
Why U.S. News & World Report Shouldn't Want
To Be Compared to Time and Newsweek -- or The New Yorker
Nancy B. Rapoport [FNa1]
1999, Ohio State University, Nancy B. Rapoport
The annual ranking of law schools by U.S. News & World Report (U.S. News)
and other publications has been accompanied by an annual battle between those in
favor of law school ranking systems and those opposed to such systems. The
author argues that a significant problem with these ranking systems is that both
law schools and potential law students are taking the rankings for far more than
they are worth. The author argues that these ranking systems, such as the one
developed by U.S. News, are flawed in that they take into account factors that
do not reflect upon law school quality. A more useful system would be to present
a prospective law student with various indicia of each law school's quality and
to allow the law student to make his or her own personal rankings based upon the
factors that he or she values most. The author argues that a second and more
practical solution would be to use broad measures of quality to rate rather than
rank the law schools.
It's the beginning of the academic year, and the latest U.S. News & World
Report (U.S. News) ranking of law schools has been out for six months. In a few
more months, it will be time for the annual battle of the ranking opponents
versus the ranking proponents. The deans of most law schools will, once again,
come out squarely against the methodology of the rankings and the fact that U.S.
News ranks virtually every law school in the country, rather than just the top
fifty schools that it ranks in other graduate programs. [FN1]
The proponents will cite the need for winnowing the complex choices among law
schools with some objective and standardized measures. [FN2]
And then we'll all go into an infinite loop on the rankings war for yet another
Is there a real problem with ranking law schools? In one sense, no. Assuming
that competing avenues exist for developing and providing rankings, [FN3]
then the multiplicity of ranking systems would tend to dilute the effect of any
individual ranking system. And assuming that the rankings have some objective
basis in reality, [FN4] what harm can they do?
The answer is: plenty. The current popularity of the U.S. News rankings causes
law schools and potential law school applicants to overreact to them. [FN5] Some law schools use the rankings as an outside measure of how "good"
they are-especially according to the "academic reputation" component
of the rankings. Unfortunately, the academic reputation score is not in the
least a reliable measure of quality. U.S. News bases this score on the answers
to questionnaires that request each respondent to rank all of the law schools in
the country, from "marginal" to "distinguished." [FN6] No one in legal academia has sufficient information on each law school in the
country to provide realistic rankings for each school, [FN7]
and yet this part of U.S. News's ranking system accounts for twenty-five percent
of each school's overall ranking. Responses by judges and lawyers on the same
"marginal" to "distinguished" scale account for an
additional fifteen percent of the overall ranking. Any law school that really
relies on the reputational scores as a way of measuring quality is relying on a
glorified coin toss at best.
It's bad enough that some law schools are measuring themselves against the U.S.
News rankings, but potential law students are encouraged to take the rankings as
gospel. I have great sympathy for the applicants who slog through the seemingly
endless piles of glossy bulletins that law schools send to them. Naturally,
these bulletins are going to paint the schools in the rosiest of glows, and
naturally, applicants want some way of cutting through the hyperbole. But the
rankings are not the best way to help applicants choose schools.
When U.S. News is not busy incorporating the "dartboard" approach of
reputational scores into a school's overall ranking, it is using the allegedly
objective measures, such as the applicants' entering undergraduate grade point
averages (UGPAs) and Law School Aptitude Test (LSAT) scores, along with each
school's acceptance rate, placement rate, and amount of fiscal resources. [FN8] Although each of these numbers is measurable,
[FN9] none of
these numbers is a good indicator of quality. These numbers don't reflect how
well the law school teaches, how cutting-edge its research is, or whether the
law school community is cutthroat or supportive. [FN10] For the students who choose to enroll in law school, only one of the U.S. News
factors--placement rate--is likely to be of interest. [FN11]
Why not come up with factors that mesh with what the consumers (the law school
applicants) want to know?
While we're coming up with user-friendly factors, we should also do away with
the rankings that go all the way from 1 to 181. FN12]
Rating schools on some relevant factors, rather than ranking them from top to
bottom, would serve applicants better. In fact, the rankings aren't really
necessary, because all of the raw information that might be useful to
prospective students is available in an easily accessible format. [FN13]
To the extent that law students value particular factors more than others, they
can construct their own rating systems. Ranking all of the law schools on the
same scale, based only on the measurable factors that U.S. News collects, makes
about as much sense as ranking the weekly news magazines-or even the weekly
magazines, period. Does U.S. News want to go head-to-head with Time and
Newsweek, or The New Yorker, on such factors as "perception of erudition"?
Of all of the justifications for its rankings, my favorite response by U.S. News
to the "why rank" question is the snide "law schools do it, so we
We know that rankings and numerical assessments are an inescapable part of life.
Law schools rely heavily on UGPA and LSAT scores when choosing students for
admission. They rank, assess, and compare students continually between admission
and graduation. There are occasional injustices in any ranking system. But just
as law schools find test scores an inexact but useful tool for comparing
students, so do students find our rankings an inexact but useful tool for
comparing schools. [FN14]
The fact is, most law school admissions committees don't rank prospective
applicants simply by their UGPAs and LSATs--they read the entire files. And when
committees do use applicants' LSATs and UGPAs, they typically do so as part of
an "index" number--a multivariate regression analysis of how well that
school's weighting of LSAT and UGPA predicts that particular law school's
first-year grades. These index numbers are recalculated each year by the Law
School Admission Council to make sure that the index bears some relation to
Law schools don't treat applicants just as numbers. The selection of a law
school entering class depends on both the applicants' quantifiable indicia of
academic success, such as their UGPA and LSAT numbers, and the non-quantifiable
indicia of academic success (everything from the difficulty of the undergraduate
major, the general quality of the undergraduate institution, prior public
service or military experience, length of time since earning the undergraduate
degree, any subsequent advanced degrees, or the amount of time that the
applicant worked while earning his or her degree). Using just the numbers to
choose a class makes little sense. Numbers can always be manipulated, and they
never tell the whole story. [FN15]
Even current law students are not treated just as numbers. Other indicia of
ability, beyond bluebook exams, are (or should) [FN16] be
used to determine whether a law student "gets it" and will be a good
lawyer. If we look at qualitative and quantitative factors to see how good our
law students are, shouldn't we be looking at qualitative factors, in addition to
quantitative factors, to rate law schools?
The bottom line is that U.S. News is looking at the wrong things. If you want
consumers (in this case, law school applicants) to make informed decisions based
on someone else's idea of quality, at least don't pretend that quality is
calculable by assigning numbers to some selected and irrelevant factors. I could
rank law schools by the height of faculty members, [FN17]
but assigning a number to faculty height doesn't make that ranking valid,
The best solution is to let consumers make their decisions based on their own
weighting of those factors that mean the most to them. The second-best solution
is to provide broad measures of programmatic quality and rate schools along
those broad measures, instead of ranking them from first to last. The
rank-ordering just creates a false presumption that there's a real difference
between first and fifth, or even first and twenty-fifth. If the world can
tolerate ambiguity as to whether Time or Newsweek is measurably better than U.S.
News, then it can probably tolerate ambiguity as to who has the best law school.
[FNA1]. Dean and Professor of Law, University of Nebraska
College of Law. The views expressed in this Essay are hers alone, and not those
of any other faculty or administrator at the University of Nebraska. Many thanks
to Assistant Dean Glenda Pierce, Professor Julia McQuillan, and Jeff Van Niel
for their very helpful suggestions on this Essay.
[FN1]. See, e.g., Law School Admission Council, Letter from
Law School Deans to Law School Applicants (last modified Oct. 26, 1999)
[FN2]. See, e.g., Michael C. Krauss, How I Rate Rankings:
High in Consumer Value; Surveys Help Keep Service Institutions Competitive,
Advertising Age, June 15, 1998, at 46, 46 Rankings Reflect How the World Works,
U.S. News & World Rep., Mar. 2, 1998, 7, 7 (noting that refusing to rank all
of the law schools, from 1 to over 180, "would deny information to tens of
thousands of potential students"). These proponents, though, do not tend to
mention the boon to sales that come from the magazines publishing the ranking
issues. See Jan Hoffman, Judge Not, Law Schools Demand of a Magazine That Ranks
Them, N.Y. Times, Feb. 19, 1998, at A1 ("'These rankings are a misleading
and deceptive, profit-generating commercial enterprise that compromises U.S.
News and World Report's journalistic integrity,' said Carl Monk, executive
director of the Association of American Law Schools.").
[FN3]. For a few of these alternative ranking systems, see
generally Ian Van Tuyl et. al., The Princeton Review: The Best Law Schools
(Gretchen Feder ed., 1999); Law School Rankings (last modified Nov. 7, 1996)
<http:// homepages.gs.net/ <<degrees>> gentry/rankings.htm>;
Jeffrey E. Stake, Indiana University School of Law Bloomington: The Ranking Game
(visited Oct. 27, 1999) <http://monoborg.law.indiana.edu/LawRank/rankgame.html>
(compilation of ranking sources). A recent national survey has been developed
which seeks to measure an undergraduate university's use of "good"
practices that encourage learning. See Ben Gose, A New Survey of 'Good
Practices' Could Be an Alternative to Rankings, Chron. of Higher Educ., Oct. 22,
1999, at A65.
[FN4]. That's a big assumption. For a thorough critique of
the U.S. News rankings, see Stephen P. Klein & Laura Hamilton, The Validity
of the U.S. News and World Report Ranking of ABA Law Schools (last modified Feb.
18, 1998) < http://www.aals.org/validity.html>.
[FN5]. The U.S. News rankings create other problems as
well. In this age of limited resources, universities are searching for ways to
measure the quality of their academic units. There is always the risk that the
universities in which the law schools are based will give the rankings more
credence than they deserve and will allocate resources in a way that strangles
real quality or innovation.
[FN6]. U.S. News describes its methodology as follows:
Reputation for academic quality was measured through two surveys conducted in
the fall of 1998. The dean and three faculty members at each law school were
asked to rate the quality of schools from "marginal" (1) to
"distinguished" (5). Sixty-two percent responded, and the resulting
reputation score accounts for 25 percent of the school's rank. Practicing
lawyers, hiring partners, and senior judges were also asked to rate each school.
Thirty-nine percent responded, and their opinions account for 15 percent of the
See U.S. News Online, Law: Methodology (visited Oct. 27, 1999) <http://www.u
[FN7]. Cf. Bruce Keith & Nichols Babchuk, The Quest for
Institutional Recognition: A Longitudinal Analysis of Scholarly Productivity and
Academic Prestige Among Sociology Departments, 76 SOC. FORCES 1495, 1445-1500
(1998) (noting that the same issues exist in rating prestige of other academic
[FN8]. See U.S. News Online, supra note 6.
[FN9]. Not only are these numbers measurable, but they're
manipulable as well. There are numerous ways to manipulate the rankings. For
example, it would be possible to raise a given law school's median UGPA and LSAT
scores by choosing half of an entering class solely on UGPAs and half solely on
LSATs. But is that the best way to choose a law school class?
[FN10]. See Klein & Hamilton, supra note 4 (citing
some of these non-quantifiable, but important, measures of law school quality);
see also Gose, supra note 3, at A65 (discussing a survey that does not use
quantifiable factors to rank undergraduate colleges, but instead seeks to
measure a college's use of educational practices that encourage learning). One
interesting new study, which hit the legal trade papers last October, comes from
Thomas M. Cooley Law School. That study ranks Creighton University School of Law
as number one in the country-and Harvard as number ninety-three-based on a
"value added" measurement: entering credentials versus bar passage
rate. See New Law School Study Ranks Creighton at No. 1, Harvard No. 93, L.
Wkly. U.S.A., Oct. 5, 1998, at B17. Although I'm not a fan of this study's
decision to rank schools, I thought that its attempt to use a value-added
approach was at least a slightly more realistic way of evaluating quality.
[FN11]. U.S. News used to include information about
starting salaries. Apparently, though, the enormous regional differences in
starting salaries made this factor less attractive.
[FN12]. Yes, I know that schools are listed alphabetically
beyond the "first tier." But it's still a top-to-bottom ranking
[FN13] See generally Law School Admission Council, The
Official Guide to U.S. Law Schools (1999) (providing raw information for
ABA-accredited law schools); Section of Legal Educ. & Admissions to the Bar
& the Office of the Consultant on Legal Educ. to the American Bar Ass'n, The
Official American Bar Association Guide to Approved Law Schools (Rick L. Morgan
& Kurt Snyder eds., 2000 ed.) (same).
[FN14] Rankings Reflect How the World Works, supra note
2, at 7.
[FN15]. For example, the bulletin of the University of
Nebraska College of Law explicitly states that admission is not "a function
of the numbers," and it lists a variety of non-quantifiable indicia of
academic success that can be factored into the admissions decision. University
of Neb.-Lincoln, College of Law Bulletin 10 (1998).
[FN16]. This is another hobbyhorse of mine. I fail to see
how the ability to take bluebook exams predicts with great reliability whether
someone will be a good lawyer. But I'll save that tirade for another essay.