Yale and Harvard Law Schools withdraw from prestigious ranking system

November 18, 2022 • 10:45 am

According to this New York Times article from two days ago (click on screenshot below), both Yale and Harvard Law Schools have decided to withdraw from the US News & World Report‘s (USNWP’s) ranking of America’s top law schools, a ranking you can see here.  As you may know, USNWP ranks all kinds of schools, including universities as a whole, med schools, global universities, all kinds of graduate programs, and even high schools. (Ecology/Evolution grad programs are even rated: we’re #10 though for many years we were #1.)

These ratings are taken quite seriously by students looking for schools, despite the fact that there have been problems with some of the data. (I’m not exactly sure how they’re calculated, though it’s a mixture of student performance before, during, and after their studies, like starting salary, standardized test performance to get in [LSAT], and perhaps scores on the bar exams.) Further, the article says that 20% of all law school rankings come from grades (Yale doesn’t give traditional grades) and test scores.

Click to read, and see if you can figure out why Yale and Harvard did this:

By the way, the top ten law schools, in order from highest to lower, are Yale, Stanford, The University of Chicago, Columbia and Harvard (tie), University of Pennsylvania, New York University, University of Virginia, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

At any rate, both Harvard and Yale Law Schools (note: not Harvard or Yale themselves) are withdrawing from the USNWP ranking. I’m not sure whether that means they won’t be ranked because they won’t provide the necessary data (most of the data, however, is public), or whether USNWR will still rank them based on what it has.

What puzzles me about all this are the reasons the schools give for withdrawing, as they don’t make a lot of sense. But here’s what the article says:

Now both Yale and Harvard law schools have announced that they will no longer cooperate. In two separate letters posted on their websites, the law school deans excoriated U.S. News for using a methodology that they said devalued the efforts of schools like their own to recruit poor and working-class students, provide financial aid based on need and encourage students to go into low-paid public service law after graduation.

“It has become impossible to reconcile our principles and commitments with the methodology and incentives the U.S. News rankings reflect,” John F. Manning, the dean of Harvard Law, said in his statement.

It’s not clear to me why such high rankings will “devalue the efforts” of the schools “to recruit poor and working class students”, “provide financial aid based on need”, or  will discourage “students to go into low-paid public service law after graduation.”  Presumably a high ranking attracts good students, which means all students who think they can get in, and neither school is poor. Perhaps the fact that the schools publish the starting salary of graduates—$190,000 at Yale for private sector jobs, $70,000 for public-sector ones—means that this differential would attract only students who want a big salary, but they’re going to know this kind of stuff anyway.

It’s widely known, further, that these rankings have flaws.

Many critics of the rankings have said that the data can be easily manipulated, and pointed to the doubts this year over Columbia University’s data.

Over the summer, Columbia announced that it would no longer participate in the rankings of national universities, and said it was reviewing its data — which had resulted in a No. 2 spot — after a math professor had questioned its accuracy. The university ultimately admitted that some of its data, including undergraduate class size and the percentage of faculty with the highest degree in their field, had been inaccurate.

The Dean of Yale’s Law School, Heather Gerken, mentions a different problem not involving accuracy.

Even though Yale Law School has consistently been the top-rated school on the U.S. News list for the last three decades, Ms. Gerken said the rankings had been on her mind as she embarked on her second term as dean.

Asked why she would worry about them when Yale was No. 1, she said: “It’s not about Yale Law School. It’s about legal education and the profession. It’s a moment to step back and think about what we are doing.”

In her letter, Ms. Gerken called the U.S. News rankings a “for-profit” and “commercial” enterprise that is “profoundly flawed.” She said the methodology does not give enough weight to programs like Yale’s “that support public interest careers, champion need-based aid, and welcome working-class students into the profession,” and as a result, skews the rankings of law schools that emphasize that work.

What surprises me about this is that Yale is NUMBER ONE, so if USNWP gave even more weight to public-interest law, they still would be number one! The “working class student” thing still puzzles me, as it implies that there’s some affirmative action for socioeconomic status or ethnicity, but I can’t see how being #1 would discourage such students. Yes, Law School is expensive, but with starting salaries so high, loans can be repaid fairly quickly, and I presume that both Yale and Harvard Law have need-based financial aid.

One suggestions by others is that this has something to do with affirmative action. I’m not at all sure of that, but perhaps it comes from comes from these paragraphs in the NYT:

[Gerken] said that 20 percent of a law school’s overall ranking comes from grades and test scores. “This heavily weighted metric imposes tremendous pressure on schools to overlook promising students, especially those who cannot afford expensive test preparation courses,” she said in her letter. “It also pushes schools to use financial aid to recruit high-scoring students.”

That money, she said, could be diverted to scholarships for low-income students.

. . . There is currently an effort to do away with mandatory testing for admission to law school, but no final decision has been taken. At the same time, dozens of law schools now allow applicants to submit GRE scores in place of LSAT scores. Both are part of an effort to boost admissions for low-income students and students of color.

Finally, the dean of Harvard Law has another explanation: the rankings game force schools to behave in a way that they don’t like, ways designed to boost their standing:

Mr. Manning, of Harvard, said the rankings methodology “can create perverse incentives that influence schools’ decisions in ways that undercut student choice and harm the interests of potential students.”

For one thing, he said, the “debt metric” adopted by U.S. News two years ago might appear to reflect lower debt at graduation because of generous financial aid. But the metric could also mean that a law school admitted “more students who have the resources to avoid borrowing,” he wrote. “And to the extent the debt metric creates an incentive for schools to admit better resourced students who don’t need to borrow, it risks harming those it is trying to help.”

But this decision about financial aid is strange. It implies that Yale is already giving “generous financial aid”, but yet a low “debt metric” would also lead Harvard to admit more rich students.  How Harvard, which has vast resources and endowments, balances admitting poor versus rich students seems to me a decision that is made without regarding the USNWP rankings. At any rate, Harvard is already the fourth best law school in America by this ranking. What are they beefing about?

I have a feeling that something is going on here (and clearly Harvard and Yale colluded in their decision) that isn’t clear and is not specified by either school. But I don’t know what it is. Readers are welcome to speculate. One thought that crossed my mind is that these schools know that relaxing their standards might lead to a lower ranking, and if they’ve decided to do that then perhaps they don’t want to be ranked at all.

13 thoughts on “Yale and Harvard Law Schools withdraw from prestigious ranking system

  1. The fact that they cannot provide a clear explanation tells me that they don’t want their motivations known. Why not?

  2. Judging by some of the “illustrious” alums who are members of Congress and “serving” as U S. governors, the Ivy League schools should be embarrassed enough to stop graduating anybody at all. (See Cruz, Hawley, DeSantis . . .)

  3. It is easy for them to withdraw. Everybody will still view them and other Ivies as top of the rankings. Not so easy for other schools that benefit from providing such information to potential students.

  4. As a former college administrator who dealt with admissions matters at two very different institutions (Associate Dean of A&S at Univ. of S. Florida and Graduate Dean at Miami University), I applaud any steps to move away from the infamous (rather than prestigious IMO) US news rankings. I don’t know about law schools, but I do know that administrators at non-Ivies (and especially up and comers like USF) obsess about how they can tweak their numbers to move up, as opposed to actually improving their academic offerings. And the data and models used are, to put it mildly, suspect. Case in point: When I was graduate dean at Miami, they asked me to personally evaluate programs in computer science. I did know a fair amount about our program, but almost nothing about programs nationwide. And other standards, like acceptance rates, are clearly subject to manipulation. Finally, and more globally, they do much to contribute to “The Tyranny of Merit” (title of a recent important book by Michael Sandel, professor of Philosophy at Harvard) – competition to be at the top of the heap undermines common good) by increasing the polarization between haves and have nots.

  5. Channeling and paraphrasing Don Rickles: “U.S. News & World Report is prestigious. Just ask them – they’ll tell you.”

  6. The NYT made the point that in 1978 Maxim’s of Paris asked to be removed from the Michelin Guide to avoid being downgraded. 🙂

  7. Some of the analysis is off. A few points: Grades and test scores are about admitted applicant test scores and (pre-law school) grades. Bar scores are not included, and mostly cannot be because the scores are not public (pass rates can be generated and are reported to ABA accreditation, and that is something applicants should care about). All of the schools dropping out will be ranked (the list now comes to five or six, all top schools). The economic issue is that the ranking process discounts and penalizes school funded positions and salary subsidies (funding public interest positions and loan forgiveness). The decision won’t make any material difference to Yale and the other schools because their reputations are so great, and reputation is a major component of the ranking process. (Which tells us something about the vapidity of the process.) The funding and public interest issues are important at lower ranked schools, which do get penalized if they give too much support and do have incentives to move to better financed students. This should be familiar from other areas, e.g., international students in other areas. There is no good reason for collusion here — a first mover was all that was needed; law schools (at least higher ranked ones) have long been unhappy about the rankings and ranking process. Once one publicly moved, others were bound to follow. Like lots of consumer pricing.
    You should be more interested in the move to drop LSAT requirements.

  8. They’re going to replace the old ranking systems with woke ranking systems, and Yale and Harvard are going to be at the top.

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