Friday, February 03, 2017
What a law school world without U.S. News might look like
First, many thanks to Howard Wasserman for inviting me to guest blog. It has been a terrific experience.
Many people in legal education criticize the U.S. News rankings in a variety of ways. I don't want to revisit those criticisms. The question I want to discuss is not whether USN could be better, but whether law schools would be better off without USN. Many people pine for a world in which USN's rankings did not exist at all.
USN rankings are important to schools primarily because they're used by prospective students and employers (including judges), and to a lesser extent by other constituencies such as alumni/ae and prospective faculty members. It is no secret that many schools make operational and strategic decisions based at least in part on the likely effect on the school's USN ranking. As a school's USN ranking declines, its costs go up because its admissions yield usually declines and its tuition discount usually goes up.
USN is, among other things, a proxy for law school prestige. In many other disciplines, prestige is measured more directly by scholarly productivity or, especially in STEM areas, by grant money received. If USN rankings disappeared, there would likely still be a prestige hierarchy of law school. My guess is that most knowledgeable people in legal education would sort law schools by prestige into perhaps four groups: a handful of super elites; another 15 or 20 elite schools; probably 20 to 30 schools regarded as marginal; and the remaining 150 or so deemed middling. My guess also is that there would be relative agreement about that sorting, with the occasional hotly contested bubble school. So, what might the law school world look like if USN's rankings disappeared?
Dental schools actually beat back USN's attempt to rank them. The dental school deans simply and concertedly refused to provide USN with the data that would allow it to create a rankings system. Moreover, dental schools, which tend to have low prestige within their universities, typically do not bring in much research money and their scholarly productivity lags behind that of other disciplines.
Thus, there are no rankings and very little differentiating of dental schools by prestige. When dental schools' admissions collapsed, what did the lack of rankings and prestige mean for the schools?
Roughly 80% of dentists go into solo practice or enter into office-sharing arrangements with other dentists. The prestige or ranking of a new dentist's dental school had no effect on most students' employment prospects. Prospective students choosing a dental school understood that a school's prestige or lack thereof would neither help nor hurt their employment chances.
Prospective dental students cared primarily about tuition cost and the school's location, generally preferring a school close to their current home or one in a location in which they wanted to practice. Dental schools within the same geographic market thus competed largely on price. Employment prospects were seen to be mostly a function of school location and the quality of education was perceived as being essentially comparable across schools.
But lack of prestige and the absence of a ranking system hurt dental schools at universities that were or wanted to be prestigious. Over half of the dental school closings were attributed in part to the dental school's lack of prestige and therefore lack of mission fit.
If USN disappeared, many law schools would be in the same situation as the dental schools. Most acutely, the vast majority of schools (those other than the 20 or 25 that likely would retain some prestige independent of USN) would likely have to compete for students on price and location, as many or most of the currently unranked law schools do now. Schools in desirable locations would compete well compared to those in less desirable places, but would still have to compete mostly on price with comparably located schools. Competing on price is always difficult to sustain because other schools can usually lower their prices, as well.
Moreover, for law schools at a university that cares about prestige, an increase in USN ranking is a salient demonstration to the central university that the school is being run consistently with the university's values. That consonance is a key factor in whether a school is likely to get more resources from its university and, as dental schools can attest, can be important in universities' decisions on whether to close a school.
Moving up in USN, then, may be a game worth winning, even if it is not a game worth playing. Schools that win are likely to attract more and better (by traditional measures) students and to get higher net tuition per student. They're also more likely to gain more resources from their university. A law school world without USN might not be the ideal world many think it would be.
I discuss the importance of U.S. News and prestige on pages 70-76 here.
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