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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Should US News Include an Affordability Index in its Law School Rankings?

On Monday at Concurring Opinions, Dan Solove raises concerns surrounding the all-important academic rankings cast by US News law school voters.  I've argued previously that voters should be subjected to some sort of "voter aptitude" test in order to cast votes that count -- for instance, required to name at least one current member of a law faculty in order to cast a high or low ranking.  Alternatively, US News could provide, on its ballot, certain key input/output measures for each law school.  Voters might think twice about assigning the same score to schools in the same state, for instance, if one has a 70% bar passage rate and the other a 90% bar passage rate.  Professor Solove's post prompts Ashby Jones at the WSJ Law Blog to ask, "Is the US News Ranking Methodology Too Simple?"

Another modification would be to give some value in the overall rankings to the affordability of a legal education at particular schools. 

Yes, the magazine lists tuition next to each school's ranking.  But tuition plays no role in the score assigned; indeed, since US News rewards expenditures in several of its categories, higher tuitions tend to lead to greater resources to spend and thus higher rankings.  Yet for the ranking's consumers, affordability should be an important consideration.  A student may pay $20K+ more per year to attend a "Tier Two" than a "Tier Three" school, even though the bar passage and job placement statistics of the two schools are virtually identical.

US News could at least to some degree remedy the absence of affordability measures by including a "1" to "5" ranking of law school affordability and counting that score in the school's overall ranking.  Schools which have admirably kept tuition at very low levels would be rewarded; schools that have funded faculty hiring sprees with ever-steeper tuition rates would think twice in the future.  This could have a very positive effect on law school policies, in that it could help check the spiraling tuition costs in an era when law school debt burdens are approaching unrealistic levels at many high-tuition private schools.

Imagine constructing a ranking of the "best" houses in your city.  20% would be based on the number of bathrooms, 20% on yard size, 20% on square footage, 20% on the number of bedrooms, and 20% on the "reputation" of the neighborhood.  What house would end up on top?  Surely a massive mansion.  But is that the best house to buy?  Of course not, since its price would vastly exceed that of more modest accommodations.  US News tells us which law schools have granite counter tops, but not which law schools provide the best return on investment for students.  Other rankings -- like the "Best Value" Law Schools -- leave out indicators like academic or professional reputation, which may be influential to some students and which, at the extremes, can certainly affect the value of a law degree.  But US News, leaving out affordability entirely, provides poor guidance for potential JD students.

Posted by Geoffrey Rapp on April 7, 2010 at 01:38 PM | Permalink

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Posted by: news | Apr 9, 2010 3:36:01 AM

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