November 20, 2022

SWASING | Law School Rankings’ Fall From Grace

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It has been a tough year for U.S. News college rankings. In September, Columbia University dropped from #2 to #18 in the country after misreporting data, allowing Cornell to rise to the number one school in New York. Not complaining about this one, but how this blunder could have happened in the first place called into question the integrity and validity of the rankings. Now, just a few months later, several of the T14 law schools (the 14 highest ranked law schools in the country according to U.S News) have elected to drop out of the rankings altogether. 

On Wednesday, Yale Law School announced that it would no longer be taking part in the U.S News law school rankings. Shortly after that same day, Harvard Law said the same, and the next day, Berkeley Law followed. Later in the week, Stanford, Columbia and Georgetown law schools also shared their withdrawals from participation in the rankings as well.  

The schools that have opted to drop from the rankings all cite fundamental problems with the way the rankings are determined. Among many of the issues voiced by the law schools’ deans, there are a few especially salient points. They explain that the rankings incentivize law schools to admit high-income students over low-income ones in order to reduce the schools’ average student debt upon graduation. The rankings also discourage law schools from dedicating resources to students who will go into public interest law or obtain additional degrees after graduation. U.S. News does not consider these students to be employed (or fully employed), therefore hurting schools that encourage students to pursue these options.  

To add to the whirlwind that is currently law school admissions. The American Bar Association also announced Friday that LSAT scores will no longer be a required part of application materials starting in the 2025 cycle. Law schools themselves can still require test scores, but they will no longer be mandated by the ABA. 

As a current junior at Cornell, I am just starting my law school application journey. I have started to seriously consider the schools I will apply to and have begun studying for the LSAT. To say that I did not use the U.S. News rankings when considering which schools I want to apply to would be false. In fact, I’ve referred to it a lot. As a first-generation student, I am proud of the upward mobility that has gotten me to Cornell, and it would be misleading for me to say that I’m not looking to maintain that upward mobility in terms of where I go to law school. It’s blunt, but it’s the truth. I came to Cornell to open doors for further opportunities, and those doors are labeled with the names of the T14 law schools. The same is true for many of my peers. The fact of the matter is, the law schools within the T14 rankings come with unparalleled name recognition that put you ahead of the game. Now that these schools have opted to drop from the rankings, what does that mean for students like me?

To start, U.S. News shared in a statement that the law schools will continue to be ranked. A lot of the information used in the rankings is public information regardless of whether the schools submit directly to U.S. News. The schools’ announcements to drop from the rankings is more symbolic in nature, with a deeper meaning behind it that says they will no longer cater their admissions process and other functions towards maintaining or improving their rank. For a student like me, this speaks volumes. 

Let’s be frank, regardless of what happens now, the T14 schools still have a solid reputation backing them up, and they won’t be hurting for qualified applicants anytime soon. While the U.S. News rankings certainly helped to guide my law school search, it wasn’t the only factor. One of my biggest considerations has been the quality of resources the schools provide for first-generation students. Often, law schools will flaunt the percentage of students in their class profiles who are the first to college, without actually offering any substantive information on the means through which they support those students. Watching these law schools put words to action and value their students over their rankings will have a huge impact on students like me who are in search of a law school that will support them and help facilitate their growth. The law schools that have not taken this step — Cornell, I’m looking at you — are sending a message to their students, whether intentional or not, that they value their prestige over their students.

Still, as U.S. News argued in their statement, there is value in students being able to compare law schools throughout the application process. During the Obama administration, a scorecard system was created to give students applying to undergraduate programs a resource to compare information on the colleges. The scorecard system makes a point to not rank the colleges, but instead provide what students need to make an informed decision. It includes information on cost, graduation rates, demographics and more. The same should be done for law schools to ensure students are well-informed about their options without law schools feeling compelled to structure their admissions around improving their rank.

As for the ABA’s recent decision regarding the LSAT requirements: I’m ambivalent. The decision was made in part to level the playing field for students who can’t afford private tutors or expensive LSAT prep courses. As one of those students, I respect the attempt, but I’m not convinced the result will be as intended. The LSAT has the potential to highlight the capabilities of intelligent, hard-working students whose resumes are slightly less sparkly because they didn’t have certain opportunities, like fancy internships through their parents’ connections. Additionally, without the LSAT, law schools will place a higher weight on students’ GPAs, which can vary greatly among majors and colleges for a variety of reasons. That said, I am excited to see the ABA take steps towards acknowledging the disparities in LSAT prep options, but perhaps a better solution would be to create more free LSAT resources than the limited options currently available. 

There is a better world of law school admissions out there. One that is more equitable and ensures a legal education is available to all students who are intellectually (not just financially) capable. One in which rankings accurately reflect what a school can do for its students. This is an exciting and dynamic time for law schools and applicants alike, and I look forward to a future where law school is a genuinely attainable option for anyone whose passion drives them to it. 

Halle Swasing (she/her) is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]Goes Without Swasing runs every other Sunday this semester.