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March madness of rankings

Annual release of law school rankings kicks off debate over the usefulness of the list

It is awaited with great anticipation each March. The colleges are ranked, sorted and pitted against each other in competition, with potential recruits following the action closely.Ranked 1

No, it’s not the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. It’s the annual release of the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Law School Rankings. The 2015 rankings were released March 11, and they contained welcome news for several law schools in North Carolina. Wake Forest and Campbell were the big movers, with each school climbing five places.

Wake Forest ascended to 31st place, and Campbell elevated to 121st place on the U.S. News list. Duke inched up one spot, from 11th to a tie for 10th, and North Carolina held steady at 31st, now tied with Wake Forest and others. (Ties are prevalent — Campbell was tied with seven other schools.)

The top 146 law schools each received numerical rankings, and no rank is published for the remaining schools. Charlotte, Elon and North Carolina Central all remained among those whose ranks were not published.

Just as March can be counted on for scrutiny of minor changes in the ranking, the annual announcement also predictably brings renewed criticism of the U.S. News rankings themselves. Almost everyone involved in legal education has criticisms of the U.S. News methodology, although those criticisms cover a wide, even contradictory, range of concerns. Some think the rankings are too subjective, while others think that the objective criteria used are poor measures of a school’s value.

Objective vs. subjective

Of the criteria that goes into the U.S. News ranking, 40 percent of a school’s rank is subjective — 25 percent is based on a school’s reputation among its peers and 15 percent is based on its reputation among attorneys and judges. The other 60 percent of a school’s rank is objective, including things like  median LSAT score and GPA, acceptance rate, job placement success, bar passage rate, expenditures per student and student-faculty ratio.

Paul Caron, a professor of law at Pepperdine University and author of the popular Taxprof blog, annually publishes a comparison between schools’ U.S. News ranking and their peer reputation rankings. Caron suggests that schools whose U.S. News rank exceeds their peer reputation rank are “over-performing” and those whose U.S News rank is lower are “under-performing.”

Campbell Law School in particular did much better in the objective factors than in the subjective ones. The school’s dean, Rich Leonard, said he believes that those factors are ones most useful to prospective students.

“I think some portions of [the U.S. News ranking] are useful,” Leonard said. “I think the 60 percent that are based on truly objective criteria, I think that’s good hard data that if you look into it carefully it would be useful to know. I have to say that the 40 percent of the rankings that are subjective I have some skepticism about.”

It’s all about value…

But the objective criteria have detractors as well, who argued that those can be gamed by schools to boost their rankings.

One criterion in particular, the expenditures per students has raised concerns at a time when students are increasingly worried about law school debt burdens. Expenditures count for more than 11 percent of a school’s rank. Since they’re largely driven by tuition rates, schools can boost their scores by charging a higher tuition, whereas schools that charge a lower bill are, in a way, penalized in the rankings.

That appears to have happened with the University of North Carolina, which finished tied for 19th in peer reputation but came in tied for 31st in the overall rankings. North Carolina is one of the least expensive schools in the top 50. North Carolina’s dean, Jack Boger, said that the school performed very well on other U.S. News lists that considered a school’s bang for the buck and that he was disappointed that such factors were still not included in the overall ranking.

“The U.S. News ranking at this point has no metric that looks at the relative efficiency or value of the education seen as a function of how much students pay. Here we are four years after the crisis of rising tuition and student debt loads have become of great concern to students, and there is still no part of the U.S. News ranking that affords some greater weight to the schools who do their work more efficiently,” Boger said. “I think students do care at this point what they’re spending on their legal education.”

On its blog last year, U.S. News listed North Carolina as the number two law school in the country in terms of graduates’ median private sector starting salary compared to average student debt burdens.

…and about jobs

Peer reputation rankings are published for every school, so they do at least offer a way to compare schools lumped together in the “Rank Not Published” category. By that metric, Elon finished tied for 158th, North Carolina Central tied finished 168th, Charleston finished tied for 181st, and Charlotte finished tied for 186th. Only one school finished with a lower peer reputation rating than Charlotte.

Campbell also finished tied for 168th in peer reputation. It leaped over several other schools and into the rankings based on its strength in the objective components.

Eighteen percent of a school’s rank is based on its employment rate for recent graduates. Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, is among the group of people who believe prospective students would be better served by data that focused more on career outcomes.

“I look at the metrics and the inputs they use, and they’re not really related to jobs so much, it’s not clear they’re related to anything. So there are all these arbitrary inputs that go into building an even more arbitrary ranking,” McEntee said.

McEntee said that because most law schools largely place graduates in local and regional markets, a national ranking is of limited use because graduates don’t typically compete for jobs with graduates of law schools from faraway states. He said that Law School Transparency is working on a rival metric to compete with U.S. News, but that such an effort was made more difficult by a lack of transparency surrounding employment outcomes.

“Every dean I talk to, it is the bane of their existence. They want the ranking to go away, but their hands are tied,” McEntee said. “But so long as there’s a blackout around their employment data, it makes it difficult to use for anyone trying to create an alternative to U.S. News.”

Students take a broad view

Prospective students are clearly paying attention to the U.S. News rankings, although perhaps not as much as law school admissions offices do. One applicant from Apex who is currently in the process of choosing a law school, Ashley Klein, said that while she paid attention to the rankings, they weren’t as important to her as other factors, such as a good career services office or a strong program in the field of law she wants to practice in.

“I think the US News & World Report law school rankings are a bit overrated,” Klein said. “The rankings don’t do a good job of reflecting the learning environment of a law school, the diversity of enrolled students, or the opportunity of networking with alumni and others in the legal profession.”

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan

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