A nonprofit organization that studies legal education wants to upend how law schools are evaluated and ranked.
Law School Transparency in a study released March 24 makes the case that the well known system U.S. News & World Report uses isn’t meaningful or effective. The 2021 U.S. News & World Report law school ranking was released March 17.
The Law School Transparency project’s scope rose from the organization’s established focuses on student debt and diversity in legal education, said Kyle McEntee, a co-founder of LST. He said structural barriers get in the way of making law school more affordable and increasing diversity.
“Those are regulation and incentives, where U.S. News is really the elephant in the room,” he said. In his experience of more than 10 years running LST, he said, U.S. News inevitably factors into discourse about innovation in law schools.
McEntee said U.S. News’ ranking has appeal because it distills a lot of complicated information into a simple list. But LST’s new report makes the case that the U.S. News system is flawed because it directly compares schools between which head-to-head comparisons don’t actually make sense.
Geographical differences are one example: Graduates of regional law schools from California and Pennsylvania probably aren’t competing with each other for jobs – data shows graduates tend to stay in their school’s state for their first job but the U.S. News ranking system compares the schools directly against each other.
The report says U.S. News’ ranking system isn’t meaningful or effective. Asked to define those terms, McEntee said, “From the student’s perspective, trying to make a decision about which schools to apply to and to attend. And then from the school’s perspective, whether it’s helping them advance the core goals of educating students and being responsible participants in their community and the broader profession.”
He said whether a law school evaluation system is meaningful or effective comes down to a question of validity. “Do the rankings measure what they purport to measure? And [U.S. News] purports to measure the best law schools without defining it.”
The report discusses how law schools shape their operations with maintaining or improving rank in mind: for example, spending a lot of money because U.S. News measures per-student spending as one factor in its measure of schools’ faculty resources, and encouraging faculty members to take leaves in the spring, because U.S. News measures faculty-to-student ratios and counts faculty sizes in the fall for its faculty-to-student measures. LST argues these types of influences happen at the expense of law schools making innovations based on what seems best for legal education.
Law Week was not able to speak to any faculty members at Colorado’s law schools to discuss whether they believe the U.S. News annual ranking influences how they operate.
LST’s report suggests using an efficiency metric in evaluating law schools to measure tuition revenue collected from students compared to numbers of full-time jobs in the legal profession graduates get in a given year.
As an alternative to U.S. News, LST is developing its own evaluation system to measure factors such as law schools’ “gender and racial representation, tuition transparency, diverse faculty and staff hiring practices [and] concrete steps to create inclusive environments,” according to the report.
“Genuine competition will help unbind schools from the grips of a single ranking regime,” says the report.
Debt and the Pipeline
LST also studies student debt, and the new report discusses the need to look at the affordability of law school as part of the “pipeline” often referred to in diversity discussions.
The report examines racial and gender inequities in how much students pay for law school, a function of awarding scholarships based on merit instead of need. It cites research from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement, a database of information about legal education based out of Indiana University.
Meera Deo, LSSSE director and a professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, said reliance on LSAT scores for deciding who is eligible for merit scholarships is one systemic reason for race and gender-based inequities in how much students pay for law school. Data compiled by LSSSE shows women tend to have lower LSAT scores than men but also tend to have higher undergraduate grade point averages and slightly outperform men academically in law school. Established research has also shown racial disparities in standardized test scores.
“If we look at the LSAT as a litmus test of sorts … we’re really doing a disservice to our women students and to students of color,” Deo said.
Research outlines how merit-based scholarships seem to go to law students considered economic “safe bets”: students who are statistically most likely to finish law school, pass the bar exam and get jobs that pay well enough for them to pay off their student loans.
Deo also challenged the seemingly accepted baseline rule that students shouldn’t take on more debt for school than they expect to make in their first year working afterward. She said that assumption doesn’t consider the unique circumstances of different populations, such as the benefits of graduates from underrepresented populations working in legal jobs that serve their communities, and they may consider the debt they take on for school worth the trade.
“There is a structural problem in the ways which debt creates constraints for particular populations, but because we have that more systemic challenge, I would hesitate to put a rule out there that suggests it should apply equally to everyone,” Deo said. “There are going to be particular situations and individuals who maybe need to take on extra debt for themselves and for their families in ways that [for] others, it wouldn’t even be relevant to their population or to them as an individual.”
McEntee said he couldn’t say whether better access to scholarships for economically disadvantaged students can have a cyclical effect by increasing performance — Deo also said LSSSE hasn’t studied that particular link — but regardless, it’s still unfair for certain demographics to systemically pay more for law school.
“If we can intervene through market forces — and by market forces I mean by creating markets as we plan to do with the index — and through regulation, whether it’s through explicit bans on things or increased transparency to shame schools into stopping these inequitable pricing patterns,” he said, “We could really see a change in where people go to school [and] how they’re admitted, which would provide more opportunities to people.”