The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Top law schools bow out of U.S. News rankings. What’s the thinking?

A building at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., on Dec. 5, 2019. (Steven Senne/AP)
5 min

In 1983, a weekly newsmagazine called U.S. News & World Report launched an annual ranking of colleges, planting the seed of what became a revolutionary change to the magazine’s business model — and eventually, to that of higher education. The magazine’s rankings of colleges, law and business schools, hospitals and so forth are now well into their fourth decade; they have outlived the print edition of U.S. News itself. And though critics frequently complained that the rankings were silly — how does it make sense to “rank” Amherst against West Point or an evangelical Christian college like Wheaton? — schools vied to improve their position on the merciless ordinal list.

To improve their “selectivity” score, schools sought more applications, for example by upgrading campus facilities and casting wider recruiting nets. Scholarship money and tuition discounts were strategically deployed to boost the average test scores and GPAs of incoming students. Law schools and business schools sometimes hired their own graduates into temporary positions, raising suspicions that they wanted to raise their performance on job-placement metrics. None of which, you will notice, had anything to do with improving the quality of the education. Indeed it arguably made education worse, diverting resources from teaching into pointless, zero-sum competition.

So perhaps we should cheer the news that three major law schools are pulling out of the rankings. On Wednesday, No. 1-ranked Yale Law School announced it would no longer provide U.S. News access to the proprietary data that helps the service rank schools. Harvard (tied for No. 4) quickly signaled that it, too, would be withdrawing from the process. The following day, the ninth-ranked University of California at Berkeley joined the exodus. It’s plausible that a lot of other top law schools will follow.

But perhaps we should also ask why the schools are doing this and what effects their withdrawal are likely to have.

The schools cite only the highest motives. The statement from Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken proclaims that “U.S. News rankings are profoundly flawed — they disincentivize programs that support public interest careers, champion need-based aid, and welcome working-class students into the profession.” Harvard Law School echoes her complaints, saying the rankings “work against law schools’ commitments to enhancing the socioeconomic diversity of our classes; to allocating financial aid to students based on need; and, through loan repayment and public interest fellowships, to supporting graduates interested in careers serving the public interest.”

Yet it’s impossible not to notice the timing. Yale has recently suffered some reputational damage over its hostility to conservatives, leading some to wonder whether the school was pulling out to avoid the embarrassment of losing its No. 1 slot. This also comes right after the Supreme Court signaled that it is preparing to disallow affirmative action programs in higher education. One way to keep from being held accountable for discriminating against Asian students, or in favor of underrepresented minorities, is to down-weight or eliminate objective metrics such as test scores in favor of harder-to-compare criteria such as essays, interviews and recommendations. Since doing so would cause the schools to suffer in the U.S. News rankings, perhaps they’re preemptively taking their ball and going home.

Whether you think that’s a good or a bad thing is apt to depend on your feelings about conservatives as well as affirmative action. But even if you support the schools withdrawing from the rankings on either point, there are a couple of caveats worth considering.

The first is that the alternative to rankings is not some ideal world where every prospective student does deep, holistic research on every school they’re applying to, carefully weighing job placement prospects, cultural fit, faculty research profiles and so forth. The alternative is people going by the relative prestige of the school name, plus recruiting materials that might not (probably won’t?) give students anything like the full story.

That is all very well for Harvard and Yale, which have two of the best brand names in higher education. They can afford to drop some slots, even to get fewer applications, as they might well do when U.S. News starts guessing. They’ll still have a steady stream of wealthy, connected applicants who understand full well the value of their degrees.

As this suggests, it’s also fine for the highly educated children of the highly educated professionals who like to complain about rankings. I myself barely even looked at U.S. News when I applied to business school 20 years ago, because I grew up in New York City and knew a bunch of people who could tell me what various schools were like and how employers viewed their graduates.

But without the rankings, students who don’t have that kind of access would probably apply to Yale’s business school rather than my alma mater, the University of Chicago, since Yale is in general a more prestigious name — but unfortunately, that’s not true of its business school, which U.S. News rankings convey. More broadly, many aspiring MBAs would be utterly lost trying to assess the potential value of a specific degree (outside a handful of names that everyone knows) without the magazine’s didactic list.

U.S. News has provided value to those people, and it’s not going to stop just because Yale and Harvard and Berkeley law refused to cooperate. All that will happen is that the rankings will become less accurate — and less helpful to the very people from outside the current elites that these schools say they most want to recruit.