U.S. News rankings system not as reliable as it seems

By Jeffrey Jenkins

It has arrived. The 2009 U.S. News and World Report is here with the graduate school rankings. For many, this list serves as a guide to help students know what their potential graduate schools are. For others, it can be a demeaning list that seems to marginalize the schools they are capable of getting into.

Of all the various graduate school rankings the U.S. News reports on, the law school rankings list is considered by many to be the most controversial.

“It is widely recognized that the U.S. News rankings are flawed,” said Robert Adler, the associate dean for academic affairs at the S.J. Quinney School of Law.

Whether you consider the list scripture or heresy, the following will at least offer insight. The U.S. News law school ranking methodology is a top-down approach that does not take into consideration crucial factors that determine the quality of a school. U.S. News ranks law schools based on 12 different factors that are weighed in varying degrees.

The two biggest contributors to the rank of a school are the quality assessment and candidate selectivity categories. The quality assessment is gathered by surveying various deans, law professors, judges and lawyers across the country.

Adler said when he participates in the quality assessment survey, his answers regarding other law schools are impressionistic at best. The second is a school’s selectivity which consists of median LSAT scores, undergraduate GPA and the acceptance percentage of a school.

Brian Leiter, a law professor from the University of Chicago (ranked seventh by U.S. News) and alternate law school rankings compiler, also has several issues with the methodology used. On his Web site, Leiter points out that the selectivity category is highly manipulable by law schools, especially the Median LSAT category.

“This criterion is one that favors small schools,” said Leiter. “A school that enrolls 180 students each year only needs to recruit 90 students with an LSAT score of at least 164 to have a strong median LSAT.” This theory also holds true for keeping the median GPA high.

Leiter also said that “more than half of the criteria8212;over 54 percent8212;that go into the final score can be manipulated by the schools themselves, either through outright (and undetectable deceit), or other devices. More than one-third of the criteria that go into the final score favor small schools and penalize large schools.”

In addition to the manipulable criterion gathered, U.S. News does not factor in quality of the faculty. Although 3 percent of the rankings depend on student-to-faculty ratios, no data is gathered on the quality of the faculty. Any reasonable student would rather be in a larger class with a great professor than be in a small class and have a terrible one.

In addition, student input is not considered in the ranking criteria. Who better to offer more credibility to an institution than someone who is in the trenches there and experiences it firsthand? Further student reviews of the faculty would offer prospective students a lot of insight into the quality of the professors of a given institution.

In order for the U.S. News law school rankings to be considered accurate, several modifications are necessary. An institution is only as good as its faculty and therefore it is necessary to make faculty quality a large percentage of the criteria. Student rankings should also be instituted to offer a young and current perspective on the various institutions. Although U.S. News can serve as a helpful guide, it is not as reliable as the magazine would like you to think.

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Correction: This column published April 1 (“U.S. News rankings system not as reliable as it seems,”) said the 2009 U.S. News and World Report graduate school rankings had been released. The rankings that are available are referred to as the 2009 rankings, but were actually released in 2008. The way Jeffrey Jenkins presented his information made it sound as though new rankings were available. This year’s rankings will be released soon and will be referred to as the 2010 rankings.

Jeffrey Jenkins