Law Schools Need to Be Ready for Further Changes in the US News Rankings Methodology

by Gary J. Greener

NALP Bulletin, October 2010

In 2010, it is nearly impossible to find a career services professional who doesn’t know about the US News & World Report law school rankings system. From our deans to law school trustees to alumni to students, those of us who are career services professionals are often quizzed about the rankings, what they mean, and what they are based upon. As career services professionals we are thus intimately familiar with the fact that 18% of a school’s score is based upon employment data, and, like it or not, how those numbers will be calculated by US News is about to change for the next edition of the rankings.

Before discussing the changes in methodology, it is best to understand the underpinnings of the US News rankings. Each year, US News sends out surveys to faculty, attorneys, and judges, asking those individuals to rank each ABA-approved law school on a scale of 1-5. The opinions of faculty, referred to as the peer assessment, account for 25% of each school’s score, while the opinions of lawyers and judges account for 15% of a school’s score. The remaining criteria used in the rankings, as well as the weight associated with each criterion, are: median LSAT score at 12.5%; median undergraduate grade point average at 10%; acceptance rate at 2.5%; bar passage rate at 2%; expenditures per student at 11.25%; student to faculty ratio at 3%; library resources at 0.75%; employment rate at graduation at 4%; and employment rate nine months after graduation at 14%.

Putting aside some of the inherent problems with the US News survey and rankings scheme — such as the fact that only 646 faculty, judges, and lawyers responded to the latest survey, meaning that 40% of the survey was decided by 646 people, which accounts for approximately 0.0538%, or about one twentieth of one percent, of all of the lawyers in the country — there is some important news about how employment data will be calculated. As noted above, the at graduation number accounts for 4% of a school’s score, and the nine month figure accounts for 14% of a school’s score. Up until now, if a school didn’t report the at graduation number, US News would supply its own number by taking the nine month figure minus 30%. For example, if a school only reported the nine month figure and it was 92%, then US News would take that number, subtract 30%, and enter 62% as that school’s at graduation number. However, this “automatic minus 30%” scheme is about to change for the upcoming edition of the US News rankings.

In May 2010, Robert Morse, Director of Data Research for US News & World Report, announced on his blog that US News will change the method by which it self-calculates the at graduation number for schools that don’t report that figure. US News cited the potential for gamesmanship as the reason for changing its methodology in this regard. In the current edition of the rankings, 74 law schools, or 39% of those schools that were ranked, did not report an at graduation employment number. US News was concerned that law schools that had a poor at graduation employment number were intentionally failing to report the figure, knowing that the magazine would assign a nine month minus 30% number, which would be better than the actual number that wasn’t reported.

As of the time this article is going to press, US News hasn’t released the new methodology for calculating the at graduation number, but it has promised to do so before publishing next year’s rankings. US News has stated that it plans to “significantly change its estimate for the at-graduation rate of employment for nonresponding schools in order to create an incentive for more law schools to report their actual at-graduation employment rate data.”

As law schools continue to gather information and survey graduates regarding their employment status, they need to keep in mind the importance of gathering as much information as possible, including students’ employment status at graduation. Whether this information is collected just prior to graduation, at graduation, or sometime thereafter, it is becoming more and more important to gather and report this data.

Gary J. Greener serves as the Associate Dean for Career Services at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, California. He has spoken on the topic of law school rankings, and in particular the US News rankings, at past NALP Annual Education Conferences.

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