Yale’s recent announcement that it would no longer “participate” in the U.S. News rankings of law schools — despite its place at the top of that list — has renewed talk that the era of these annual lists might be coming to an end, especially when 10 other law schools quickly announced they also would no longer cooperate with the publication. These institutions argue that the criteria U.S. News uses hurts their ability to enroll students of color, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and those who might want to pursue careers in public service.
While there are differences in the data and formula the publication uses for its law school rankings compared with its college rankings, the “U.S. News Best Colleges” list also frequently faces similar criticism for the ways it arguably deters colleges from pursuing more diverse student bodies. President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 is one of those critics, calling the rankings “misleading” in a 2021 editorial, even though Princeton has now topped the U.S. News list for 12 consecutive years.
Should Princeton be the next to opt out? No. As the former managing editor responsible for publishing the various U.S. News education rankings more than a decade ago, I believe the rankings are an important, if imperfect tool, for students and families.
Commitments to meaningful change would be more effective than announcements about withdrawing from rankings.
During my time at U.S. News, I had the opportunity to engage in discussions with college presidents, higher education researchers, high school counselors, students and families, and — yes — critics of the rankings. Each of these conversations centered on how to make the rankings better. And each of these conversations convinced me that the rankings are necessary because they at least attempt to answer the $200,000 (or more) question: How can I tell which school might be the best opportunity for me?
Students and families can’t afford to make a decision without as much information as possible. And, for more than three decades now, many people have turned to the various rankings as they consider their options. While data about colleges are available through the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, university websites and brochures, and college guidebooks, the rankings package this information in ways that are more intuitive and help readers make direct comparisons between schools.
Because the U.S. News rankings have been so popular for so long, a disconnect has emerged between perception and reality. Critics of college rankings, such as U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, frame the lists as juggernauts that trample the values and goals of higher education nationally. In a speech last August, Cardona said, “Too often, our best-resourced schools are chasing rankings that mean little on measures that truly count: college completion, economic mobility, narrowing gaps in access to opportunity for all Americans. That system of ranking is a joke!”
But readers apparently value the rankings and information that comes with them. It is a small number of researchers and journalists who compile the rankings, and they take what they’re doing quite seriously. They gather massive amounts of information, verify its accuracy as best they can, then present their findings to readers as objectively as possible. Adding to these difficulties are the challenges of attempting to police whether schools are misreporting their data, as Columbia University — formerly ranked No. 2 on the U.S. News Best Colleges list — recently admitted to doing after one of its faculty members publicly questioned the data the school had submitted.
The rankings are, in effect, a snapshot of the data on colleges for that particular year. Changing that picture for students depends more on the choices that institutions make rather than the lists U.S. News reports. The concerns that the law schools raised as they announced their lack of cooperation with the rankings are genuine issues, but it seems unlikely that the choice not to participate in the lists by itself will change anything. U.S. News and others will continue to compile data and publish rankings with those schools included.
To improve the education and career outcomes of students in law schools — particularly those who are from lower-income backgrounds, first in their family to go to college, students of color, or all of the above — commitments to meaningful change would be more effective than announcements about withdrawing from rankings. For example, several studies suggest that dropping the LSAT and GRE from the application process would enable law schools to increase diversity in their enrollment. Building and strengthening recruitment pipelines with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions would enable law schools to identify talented students and give them a head start on building the skills needed to succeed in law school. Giving lower-income students tuition-free/student-loan-free enrollment up front rather than offering them loan forgiveness options after they have accumulated debt might encourage more of them to pursue public service careers.
From an administrative perspective, changes such as these could take years to implement. What I can say more immediately is that based on my experience as editor of the U.S. News education rankings is that the most likely effect of these withdrawal announcements is a significant boost in viewers of the next year’s law school rankings. The debate on ending the rankings ultimately only serves to keep people talking about them.
Kenneth Terrell ’93 is a writer and editor for AARP.