Yale University’s law school ranks at the top of U.S. News & World Report’s list of the best law schools. It has ranked on top throughout the decades that U.S. News has ranked law schools, every single year.
Yale hasn’t typically boasted about its rankings—the top institutions in the rankings rarely do—but it participated in the rankings process.
But that changed Wednesday when Yale Law’s dean announced that the law school would no longer take part in the process. A detailed post by Dean Heather K. Gerken called the rankings “profoundly flawed—they disincentivize programs that support public interest careers, champion need-based aid, and welcome working-class students into the profession.”
Gerken added, “We have reached a point where the rankings process is undermining the core commitments of the legal profession. As a result, we will no longer participate.”
Harvard University’s law school made a similar announcement a few hours later.
To be sure, other colleges have made such announcements over the years. And the law school rankings (and rankings generally) have plenty of critics.
But Yale’s announcement was notable because Yale Law School has completely dominated the law school rankings for such a long period of time.
Eric Gertler, executive chairman and CEO of U.S. News, issued this statement in response to Yale: “The U.S. News Best Law Schools rankings are for students seeking the best decision for their law education. We will continue to fulfill our journalistic mission of ensuring that students can rely on the best and most accurate information in making that decision. As part of our mission, we must continue to ensure that law schools are held accountable for the education they will provide to these students and that mission does not change with this recent announcement.” The statement did not respond to Gerken’s specific criticism of U.S. News’ methodology.
Inside Higher Ed received Gertler’s comment before the Harvard announcement and requested another comment after Harvard said it was withdrawing. U.S. News did not respond.
Gerken took issue with many parts of the U.S. News methodology, which takes into consideration “quality assessment” (by peer law schools and by lawyers and judges) for 40 percent of the score, placement success for 26 percent, selectivity (including scores on the Law School Admission Test or the Graduate Record Examination, student grades and admit rates) for 21 percent, and faculty, law school and library resources for 13 percent.
She wrote that “the magazine continues to take data—much of it supplied by the law schools solely to U.S. News—and applies a misguided formula that discourages law schools from doing what is best for legal education. While I sincerely believe that U.S. News operates with the best of intentions, it faces a nearly impossible task, ranking 192 law schools with a small set of one-size-fits-all metrics that cannot provide an accurate picture of such varied institutions. Its approach not only fails to advance the legal profession, but stands squarely in the way of progress.”
Specifically, Gerken questioned U.S. News’ policies toward public interest law work. “Because service is a touchstone of our profession, Yale Law School is proud to award many more public interest fellowships per student than any of our peers,” she said. “These fellowships have enabled some of our finest students to serve their communities and the nation on our dime. Even though our fellowships are highly selective and pay comparable salaries to outside fellowships, U.S. News appears to discount these invaluable opportunities to such an extent that these graduates are effectively classified as unemployed. When it comes to brilliant students training themselves for a scholarly life or a wide-ranging career by pursuing coveted Ph.D. and master’s degrees, U.S. News does the same. Both of these tracks are a venerable tradition at Yale Law School, and these career choices should be valued and encouraged throughout legal education.”
And she questioned the large allocation of points to the LSAT. “Today, 20 percent of a law school’s overall ranking is median LSAT/GRE scores and GPAs,” Gerken wrote. “While academic scores are an important tool, they don’t always capture the full measure of an applicant. This heavily weighted metric imposes tremendous pressure on schools to overlook promising students, especially those who cannot afford expensive test preparation courses. It also pushes schools to use financial aid to recruit high-scoring students. As a result, millions of dollars of scholarship money now go to students with the highest scores, not the greatest need.”
She also noted that “ only two law schools in the country continue to give aid based entirely on need—Harvard and Yale.”
Harvard’s announcement came a few hours later.
John Manning, dean of the law school, said in a letter to the faculty, “I write today to share with you that Harvard Law School will no longer participate in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, effective this year. (Yale Law School announced a similar decision earlier today). We at HLS have made this decision because it has become impossible to reconcile our principles and commitments with the methodology and incentives the U.S. News rankings reflect. This decision was not made lightly and only after considerable deliberation over the past several months.”
He said that Harvard and other law schools “have raised concerns about aspects of the U.S. News ranking methodology (also highlighted by our colleagues at Yale) that work against law schools’ commitments to enhancing the socioeconomic diversity of our classes; to allocating financial aid to students based on need; and, through loan repayment and public interest fellowships, to supporting graduates interested in careers serving the public interest.”
And Manning joined in Yale’s criticism of the role of test scores in the rankings. “By heavily weighting students’ test scores and college grades, the U.S. News rankings have over the years created incentives for law schools to direct more financial aid toward applicants based on their LSAT scores and college GPAs without regard to their financial need. Though HLS and YLS have each resisted the pull toward so-called merit aid, it has become increasingly prevalent, absorbing scarce resources that could be allocated more directly on the basis of need.”
Harvard is tied for fourth in the latest U.S. News law school ranking, with Columbia University. Stanford University is in second place, and the University of Chicago is in third place.
Stanford did not respond to a request for a comment. Columbia’s law school said, “We have no comment at this point in time,” and Chicago said of law school administrators, “no comment from them today.”