Let's be honest: We love rankings. Or, at least, we're hopelessly addicted to them. Who sees a movie without checking the score on Rotten Tomatoes? Or eat a restaurant without consulting the reviews on Open Table. Or stay at a hotel without looking at the rating on Trip Advisor.
So it makes perfect sense to pick law schools based on the ranking on U.S. News & World Report, right?
According to recently released research, we're fools for placing so much trust in rankings. The only clear beneficiary of rankings is the U.S. News & World Report franchise, say sociology professors Wendy Nelson Espeland of Northwestern University and Michael Sauder of the University of Iowa. The authors of the book Engines of Anxiety, Espeland and Sauder describe the magazine as a failing operation that got saved when it latched onto rankings of academic institutions. And its ranking of law schools (launched in 1990), in particular, enjoys out-sized power, they say, because it's the "dominant ranker."
Though they don't quite use the word "evil" to describe the rankings, Espeland and Sauder clearly think the effect is insidious. Here are some of their main points:
- Rankings are driving the arms race for high LSAT scores.
- Rankings are killing diversity because of the weight they place on scores and GPAs of entering students. (U.S. News ranking do not take diversity into consideration.)
- The emphasis on high LSAT scores means schools are putting more money into merit scholarships rather than need-based financial aid.
- Rankings are encouraging law schools to lie, cheat and game the system.
- Rankings have made employers more rigid about the schools they'll hire from.
Let's get to the most interesting part: How are law schools lying, cheating, etc? "People tell us that they're under pressure to inflate numbers," says Espeland. The book notes, for instance, that schools have been caught reporting higher median LSAT scores to the magazine than the ABA. Oops.
Then, of course, there's the transfer game. (See my post about getting to Harvard through the backdoor.) "Schools will admit those with the highest scores rather than ones they consider the best students," says Sauder, explaining that the ranking only takes statistics for first-year students into account. But for some promising students who didn't make the first cut, schools will leave a door open for them as transfer students. "Schools will keep in touch with those they've rejected and tap them if they do well in their first year."
What's distorting about the ratings is that it imparts a false sense of precision. "The rankings are often based on finely made distinctions; tiny changes can have a big effect," says Espeland. "In the old days, you might have 45 schools that might be considered among the top 25, but now only 25 schools are in the top 25. That useful kind of ambiguity is gone."
Are there schools that are above the fray—like the T-14? "All schools are worried," says Sauder. "If you're at the cusp of some tier, it will make you very anxious," says Espeland.
And it's not just the schools that are going crazy. "Students and alums are hurt too [in their job prospects] if the ranking dips," says Espeland. "It feeds the anxiety."
So is there a healthy approach to the rankings? "Don't take them at face value," says Espeland.
Well, good luck with that.