Insane in the rank game

April 5, 2004

Last week, US News and World Report released the latest installment of its law school rankings. Prospective students will change their plans. Current students will take a few seconds to gloat about an increased ranking or kvetch about a drop in rankings. 99% of the rest of the world will fail to give half a sh!t.

Brian Leiter discusses this year's rankings and concludes that "the system deserves to be gamed, since it is intellectually bankrupt." Leiter offers his alternative rankings of faculty quality, based on detailed surveys completed by 150 leading legal academics.

One problem with the rankings is that they try too hard. Is there really that much of a difference in quality between #1 Yale, #2 Harvard and #3 Stanford that they aren't essentially fungible in terms of overall quality? The difference between #1 Yale and #29 Boston College, however, is significant enough to use to evaluate schools. A less contentious, and arguable more useful ranking system would be to rank schools into tiers, but much more narrowly-defined tiers than US News uses. This would be more useful to prospective students who should evaluate schools on the unique characteristics of each institution rather than on a slavish readings of the rankings.

Via Kevin Heller we learn that the NYC-area schools are generally more selective than their rankings would indicate, based on the US News data. In Prof. Leiter's ratings of faculty quality, Brooklyn, Cardozo and Rutgers are among those schools with "much stronger faculties than their US News rank might suggest."

I'll admit that I'm very interested to see why Brooklyn dropped 12 places in the rankings this year while Cardozo remained in the same position. Note to the world: please stop giving me trivial reasons to consistently second-guess my particular decision to go to law school.

Not surprisingly, the rankings give students something to blog about. Here are some of the better posts:
Carey Cuprisin: Rankings Insanity: "The real insanity is what the furor over school rankings reveals about the priorities of law students."

Sua Sponte: the rankings kerfluffle: "The real issue is that, thanks to a silly system of categorizing disparate experiences, talented people will reap less than what should -- and elsewhere would -- be the full fruits of their labor. And it bothers me, even with all the hemming and hawing about how rankings are crap (which they are), that people still construe them at a macro level as a proxy for merit."

Jeremy Blachman: "Sometimes having more opportunities isn't really that great because there are also more costs and more pressures to take certain jobs, and also how the rankings can distort stuff because what's really the difference between #15 and #18 yet sometimes people make decisions based on that, and how it's bad to go to law school not knowing what you want to do and get sucked into doing what everyone else is doing, but it's not that bad to go do what everyone else is doing if that's what you really want to do."

Craig at cka3n: Nearly obligatory US News thoughts "There are three complaints about the US News rankings that repeatedly surface. I think that each is largely a myth - at least to the extent that they render the US News rankings more noxious than any other rankings."

Heidi Bond: Rank Rankings: "If you cannot make your own rankings of law schools, based on what you want to get out of law school, you should seriously consider not attending. If you say to yourself "Gee, Chicago lost a point in raw score in the US News survey this year," and you think that Chicago is therefore a less worthy school, you should seriously consider not attending law school."

Tung Yin: U.S. News rankings: "My personal view is that the rankings tell us something, but obsessive attention to the precise rankings is not particularly useful. Is Boalt really exactly #13, behind Cornell but ahead of Georgetown? Or is it more useful to think of Boalt as a damn fine school, behind the Yale/Stanford/Harvard/Columbia cluster?"

Ann Althouse: US News and law school admissions: "A school that goes all out for the complicated factors and downgrades the importance of the LSAT and the GPA has to know that it will sink in the rankings and that in the coming year, the people it would like to select using those complicated factors will not be applying or, if they apply, when the see the new rankings in the spring, will not accept."

The Volokh Conspiracy's David Bernstein: "The real problem is not rankings, but that U.S. News has had a virtual monopoly on the rankings, though Leiter has provided more useful (at least for those concerned with the academic quality of the faculty and students at various schools), though less used guidance for students for several years now. One hears of such things happening, but it's absurd, for example, when a student turns Chicago for NYU because the former is 'ranked' sixth and the latter fifth."

Posted by Andrew Raff at April 5, 2004 01:22 AM
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