Massive effects of reputational rankings on law schools

Law schools game weak reputation rankings, which could be fixed, if the law schools, the bar association, or the ranking organization wanted to. If anyone doubts that reputational rankings can have massive effects on ranked organizations, read this.

David Segal wrote in the NYTimes 30 April 2011, Law Students Lose the Grant Game as Schools Win:

How hard could a 3.0 be? Really hard, it turned out. That might have been obvious if Golden Gate published a statistic that law schools are loath to share: the number of first-year students who lose their merit scholarships. That figure is not in the literature sent to prospective Golden Gate students or on its Web site.

Why would a school offer more scholarships than it planned to renew?

The short answer is this: to build the best class that money can buy, and with it, prestige. But these grant programs often succeed at the expense of students, who in many cases figure out the perils of the merit scholarship game far too late.

What makes law school rankings so easy to game? Emphasis on admissions:

The algorithm used by U.S. News puts a heavy emphasis on college grade-point averages and Law School Admission Test scores. Together, those two numbers determine about 22 percent of a school’s ranking. The bar passage rate, which correlates strongly with undergraduate G.P.A.’s and LSAT scores, is worth an additional two points in the algorithm. In short, students’ academic credentials determine close to a quarter of a school’s rank — the largest factor that schools can directly control.
Accept ’em and dump ’em.

Seems like those rankings could also use fewer surveys and more hard data. Like this:

Nobody knows exactly how many law school students nationwide lose scholarships each year — no oversight body tallies that figure.
Well, somebody oughta.

Somebody could, if they were paying attention:

But the A.B.A. seems unaware of the issues raised by merit grants. Its annual survey of law schools is granular enough to ask for the number of hours the library is open, but it doesn’t ask how many students lose their scholarships each year.

The schools already know that number. Why not publish it?

“That is a good question, a legitimate question,” said Bucky Askew, who directs the A.B.A. division that accredits schools. “It hasn’t been an issue brought to our attention. Nobody has written us, contacted us, to say, ‘This needs to be on the table.’ ”

Um, why is the ABA sitting around waiting for somebody to contact them about this?

Well, US News could contact them, right?

Why is merit scholarship retention not part of the U.S. News data haul? “The main reason is that we haven’t thought about it,” said Robert Morse, who oversees the rankings. “It’s not a great answer, but it’s an honest answer.”

Then Mr. Morse thought about it.

“This isn’t meant to be sarcastic,” he said, “but these students are going to law school and they need to learn to read the fine print.”

Dear law students: law school means getting used to being screwed by those who should be looking out for educating better lawyers.

Meanwhile, if anybody doubts that reputational rankings can have effects:

The difference between the early ’80s and today, he concluded, can be summed up in one name: U.S. News, which began ranking law schools in 1987.

If it sounds absurd that America’s legal education system could be whipsawed by, of all things, U.S. News, you have yet to grasp the law school fixation with rankings. Unlike undergraduate colleges, law schools share far more similarities than differences, particularly in the first-year curriculum.

Who knows? Maybe they’ll pay attention to a law professor:

In a forthcoming paper, Professor [Jerry] Organ [of St. Thomas School of Law] proposes a simple system of greater disclosure that, among other figures, would detail the number and percentage of students on scholarships in all three years.

Incoming law students might hope for that, so as to avoid accepting a merit scholarship and losing it after one year, leaving $60,000 to pay for the other two years.


PS: This post owed to Tim O’Reilly.