Yale, Harvard withdraw from US News rankings of best law schools, cites ‘profound’ flaws

Yale’s decision is the latest blow to the US News rankings. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut – In perhaps the biggest challenge yet to the US school rankings industry, both Yale and Harvard have announced they were withdrawing from the influential US News rankings of the best law schools.

Yale was the first to make the announcement on Wednesday, saying on its website that the ratings put too much focus on grades and test scores and not enough emphasis on recruiting low-income students or encouraging low-paid public service law as a career choice.

Harvard later disclosed on its own website that it, too, was no longer cooperating.

Colleges and universities have been critical of the US News ranking system for decades, saying it is unreliable and skewed educational priorities, but they had rarely taken action to thwart it, and every year almost always submitted their data for judgement on their various undergraduate and graduate programmes.

Yale’s law school ranks No. 1 in 2022 and has consistently been the top-rated school on the US News and World Report list for the past 30 years, the dean, Professor Heather Gerken, noted in a lengthy, blistering statement.

Yet, she said, the US News rankings are a “for-profit” and “commercial” enterprise that is “profoundly flawed”.

She said it does not give enough weight to programmes “that support public interest careers, champion need-based aid, and welcome working-class students into the profession”, and as a result, skews the rankings of law schools that emphasise that work.

She said the rankings were misleading in the way they portrayed the employment rate of Yale law students after graduation, an important metric for students who are acutely conscious that they have to start making money to pay off often exorbitant student loans.

Yale awards “many more public interest fellowships per student than any of our peers”, she wrote. “Even though our fellowships are highly selective and pay comparable salaries to outside fellowships, US News appears to discount these invaluable opportunities to such an extent that these graduates are effectively classified as unemployed.”

The metrics also devalued students who wanted to pursue advanced degrees like a master’s or a PhD, Prof Gerken said.

Professor John Manning, dean of Harvard Law, said: “It has become impossible to reconcile our principles and commitments with the methodology and incentives the US News rankings reflect.”

He said the rankings methodology “can create perverse incentives that influence schools’ decisions in ways that undercut student choice and harm the interests of potential students”.

For example, the “debt metric” adopted by US News two years ago might appear to reflect lower debt at graduation because of generous financial aid. But the metric could also mean that a law school admitted “more students who have the resources to avoid borrowing”, he wrote.

“And to the extent the debt metric creates an incentive for schools to admit better resourced students who don’t need to borrow, it risks harming those it is trying to help.”

Mr Eric Gertler, chief executive of US News, said the organisation would not be deterred by Yale’s 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,” he said.

Harvard later disclosed on its own website that it, too, was no longer cooperating. PHOTO: REUTERS

After Harvard’s announcement, the tone became more conciliatory. “We agree that test scores don’t tell the full story of an applicant, and law schools make their own decisions on the applicant pool based on the mission of the school,” US News said.

But it said the American Bar Association still requires standardised tests for almost all law schools.

Yale is followed in the rankings in 2022 by Stanford University, the University of Chicago, and then Columbia University and Harvard University, which were both ranked fourth.

Judging schools

The withdrawal of heavyweight institutions like Harvard and Yale is unlikely to topple the rankings industry. For one thing, only the law schools withdrew from the rankings. And even though US News asks schools to provide their own data, much of the information is publicly available.

“It is unlikely that Yale Law’s action will change the (profit-seeking) behaviour of US News leaders unless a significant number of other name-brand institutions follow suit,” Mr Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, an anti-testing group, said on Wednesday.

The rankings are entrenched in the culture of higher education — with every new annual ranking promoted by many of the schools that decry them. Prospective students have few other seemingly objective, data-based ways to judge schools.

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