Yale Parts the Rankings Sea

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 12/4

U.S. News & World Report published its first college ranking list almost exactly 40 years ago, in 1983. In the years since the U.S. News list first appeared, it has, for better or for worse, become the most influential college ranking scheme in America, serving as a reference point for prospective students and employers alike.

Although its methodology has often come under fire for the way it relies on peer assessments and self-reported data, the controversy has not been enough to topple the U.S. News list. Whether due to a lack of suitable alternatives or mere force of habit, Americans with a stake in the higher education game continue to refer to the U.S. News list for the latest scoop on America’s top colleges and universities.

Last month, however, the U.S. News ranking faced its greatest challenge yet, this time from a growing number of law schools that claim the law school rankings fail to adequately reward their work to advance equity in the legal profession. At the front of the pack was Yale Law School (YLS), which has been ranked number one by U.S. News since the law school rankings began in 1987. YLS dean Heather K. Gerken announced in a press release on November 16 that “the rankings process is undermining the core commitments of the legal profession” and declared that YLS would be “walk[ing] away from the rankings in order to pursue [their] own path forward.” Harvard Law School released a similar statement mere hours later, followed by most of the other Top-14 (T-14) schools.

The stream of schools dropping out of the rankings has slowed in the weeks since Yale’s announcement, but it has not yet stopped. Just yesterday, New York University Law School, one of a small handful of hold-outs from the T-14 schools, announced that it, too, planned to withdraw from the rankings. Now, only three T-14 schools remain: University of Chicago (#3), University of Virginia (#8), and Cornell University (#12).

In light of this mass exodus, it’s worth asking where, exactly, Yale’s “new path forward” leads—and why other top law schools are so eager to follow. Dean Gerken’s statement listed several reasons for their departure, including U.S. News’s purported failure to recognize YLS’s “critical support for students seeking public interest careers” and to properly calculate student debt loads. One of the most significant reasons, at least for the future of American legal education, came near the end: “20% of a law school’s overall ranking is median LSAT/GRE scores and GPAs … [which] imposes tremendous pressure on schools to overlook promising students.”

In a not-so-curious coincidence, just two days after YLS released its statement questioning the value of quantitative metrics, the American Bar Association’s (ABA) governing board voted to eliminate the mandate requiring accredited law schools to use standardized test scores in admissions. The ABA, it seems, is more than happy to support Yale in its new venture outside the bounds of merit, accountability, and quantitative measures of success.

In this week’s featured article, National Association of Scholars Board Member Richard Vedder discusses the broader trend in higher education that the revolt against the U.S. News rankings reflects:

In their zeal to reduce achievement gaps between races, sexes, and more, higher education is downplaying merit—the concept that those who are likely to do better should get the biggest rewards. This perspective has long determined most Americans’ vocational success. Rewards should be based on competence and achievement, not skin coloration, sexual preferences, religious orientations, family background, wealth, or other such characteristics.

These concerns are not merely philosophical. Lowering standards in America’s professional schools has real-world consequences. As Vedder suggests, the move away from merit in our top law schools will inevitably lead to the creation of “lawyers without the academic background and the diligence needed to master constitutional mandates, statutory strictures, judicial precedents, or regulatory dictates.”

Yale and its compatriots may be able to escape the consequences of abandoning merit and accountability—but the future clients of the attorneys they produce may not be so lucky.

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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