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U.S. News and World Report

Law School Rankings Spur Allegations of ‘Cooking the Books’

August 28, 2008 07:57 AM
by Christopher Coats
Criticism surrounding the U.S. News and World Report law school rankings adds to a chorus of questions about the nation’s oldest educational ranking system.

The Value of Academic Rankings

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Faced with allegations that law schools have been altering their admissions requirements and methodology to game the U.S. News and World Report annual education rankings, the publication has announced possible changes in their own process.

Although their exact methodology is often the subject of revisions from year to year, the magazine’s rankings are generally based on a series of statistics for the entering class, provided by the schools themselves, including the necessary LSAT score and GPA, among other factors.

According to the Wall Street Journal, some law schools have reclassified less qualified students as part-time or allowed them to transfer into the school in their second year, effectively removing them from the magazine’s current calculations.

This allows some schools to retain their high ranking without sacrificing lower admissions.

Any inclusion of these part-time or transfer students could potentially affect a school’s rankings; a development that could have consequences far beyond admissions.

Insisting they will test and possibly alter the ranking system before next year to account for such cases, U.S. News has previously countered that they should not be held responsible for the actions of the schools.

This earlier defense came last year amid a wave of criticism and outright boycotts from universities that felt that the magazine’s methodology was unfair and allegedly unreliable.

“The existing rankings fall incredibly short of providing a comprehensive picture of the quality of a university or college,” Tori Haring-Smith, president of Washington and Jefferson College, told the Wall Street Journal.

Several schools announced that they would no longer participate in the publication’s ranking process after an editorial by the president of Sarah Lawrence College, Michele Tolela Myers, suggested that U.S. News had simply invented SAT scores when the school had failed to provide them.

Since the college no longer required SAT scores for admission, they did not supply them to U.S. News. Myers alleged that the publication simply inserted an average score to complete the ranking calculation.

Myers concluded that potential students’ reliance on the ranking forces schools to alter their policies to fit the rules they set and control.

In the cases of both the law schools and undergraduate programs, the U.S. News ranking can potentially affect an institution’s fundraising and recruitment efforts, and in the case of graduate programs, impact whether employers seek out their graduates.

Although the publication has planned to test changes to their methodology as early as January, in anticipation of next year’s results, some critics have argued that they will do little to actually change the fairness of the rankings.

Citing previous efforts to change the magazine’s methodology, they have argued as early as 1999 that U.S. News makes such changes not for more reliable results but to add an element of volatility to the program in an effort to increase sales.

While the reasons for criticism vary widely, there is little doubt what a drop in the publication’s rankings can mean for a school.

In 2006, Nancy Rapoport, dean of the Houston Law Center, was forced to resign after her school dropped from 50 to 70.

Opinion & Analysis: Are schools responsible?

The authors of the rankings have previously responded to criticism by stating that it is the law school’s responsibility to provide all the necessary information to U.S. News to assure a fair and comprehensive portrait of the school.

According to a number of legal bloggers, including the aforementioned Rapoport, the responsibility for such behavior falls on the schools, not on the publication.

Although they are educational institutions, the Legal Ethics Forum argued that the practice is no different than the “cooking of figures,” so often the subject of criticism in the business world.

Reference: Understanding the rankings

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