April 3, 2004

US News and law school admissions. The new US News rankings are out, and I subscribed to their website so I could re-sort by LSAT, GPA, "peer assessment," or whatever subcategory contributes to the overall score that produces the famous, agonized-over ranking. I'm unusually interested, not just because I'm a lawprof and on the admissions committee here (60 files are stacked on the floor of my office at the moment, and I've also got two articles to edit in the next week). I'm especially interested because one of my sons is applying to law school. So I'm well aware of how the rankings affect a school that is trying to assemble a class of students for the next year and how an applicant simply must take the rankings into account. A school could go all out for the numbers, knowing that would produce a rise in the ranking, and perhaps in some later year, it could switch to more complicated factors, knowing the people it wants to select with these factors are more likely to apply and accept if the school has a higher rank. A school that goes all out for the complicated factors and downgrades the importance of the LSAT and the GPA has to know that it will sink in the rankings and that in the coming year, the people it would like to select using those complicated factors will not be applying or, if they apply, when the see the new rankings in the spring, will not accept.

As a US News subscriber, I reranked the list purely on LSAT score and could easily see which schools went all out for the LSAT score, because they would appear in the rankings far above their overall ranking. Georgetown is 14th in the overall ranking, yet appears 7th when you resort by LSAT. Fordham goes from 34th to 16th. On the other hand Michigan sinks from 7th to 12th and Texas from 15th to 22d. My school, which is 31st overall, is sandwiched between two schools that are ranked at 67th overall. But you'll find some other fine state schools down here with us: University of North Carolina, Iowa, Illinois.

If you re-sort by GPA, you'll find Baylor ranked 4th, though overall it is ranked 50th. Berkeley, which people seem to think doesn't deserve to be ranked at 13th overall, is, quite interestingly in 5th place in the GPA rank. North Carolina, which slighted LSAT scores, has compensated with GPA, because here it appears in 6th place (overall rank 27). In 8th place is Florida (overall rank 43). And in 9th place is Nebraska (overall rank 89). When I read admissions files and look at GPAs, I take into account how competitive the college is, what courses were taken, the trend over four years, grade inflation at the school, and so forth. But we could simply pick the highest GPAs. Now, maybe Nebraska, for example, could be explained this way: they take a lot of people from Nebraska who have terrific grades from Nebraska, and that's what they should do. They aren't necessarily playing a US News game. But it's pretty damn obvious how to play the GPA factor--it's the most playable thing in the game. Why are Columbia and NYU at 13th and 14th place in the GPA rank, when they are at 4th and 5th in the overall rank? Maybe they are going lower into the pool from some very strong, competitive colleges and taking people with terrific LSATs (they rank 3d and 4th on the LSAT rank).

My school is in first place on one of the re-sorted list (shared with Marquette): "School's bar passage rate in jurisdiction." 100%. How'd we do that? Why that's the neatest trick in the whole US News game! Just try to beat that, US News competitors!

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