Some Commentary on the U.S. News Op-Ed

U.S. News & World Report is not sitting idle while its rankings come under fire. The CEO published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal offering his views on the rankings boycott.

The op-ed starts off with a reminder of how important the rankings are, at least per U.S. News who is in the difficult position of playing a balancing game. It has to argue that it is important to applicants. But it also has to avoid over-emphasizing its own importance, because it doesn't want to acknowledge how powerful the perverse incentives it creates for law schools are.

Here are some bits from the article:

lost in this discussion is the reason U.S. News ranks academic institutions

The answer is money. You can stop the sentence there. The rankings are incredibly lucrative for U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News makes money off the web traffic the rankings drive, off of selling Compass subscriptions to applicants, off of selling data back to schools.

absent U.S. News’s academic rankings, it’s difficult to find accurate, comprehensive information that empowers students to compare institutions and identify the factors that matter most to them

There is plenty of comprehensive information out there. For example, Law School Transparency is a well known source. Sure, you can't find the number of tables in the school library there, but who cares? And unlike U.S. News, none of their information is behind a paywall. Which goes back to our first point: this is all about money for U.S. News.

It is also fairly hilarious for U.S. News to brag about the accuracy of the data it publishes. Let's all remember just two years ago when they had to retract the initial law school rankings. That happened because there were such obvious errors in the reported data that outside observers noticed them immediately. If U.S. News bothered to carefully review their data, that would never have happened.

we reject our critics’ paternalistic view that students are somehow incapable of discerning for themselves from this information which school is the best fit.

Okay, great, so if students can discern for themselves which school is the best fit from the data, what need is there for a ranking? Just give them the data and let them decide for themselves.

Moreover, the perspective of elite schools doesn’t fit with that of the broader law- and medical-school community [...] Excepting the top 14 law schools, almost 75% of the schools that submitted surveys in 2022 did so in 2023.

Saying that in the short turnaround (by institutional perspectives) from when Yale announced its decision to withdraw and the survey being due over 25% of non-T14 schools pulled out is not the ringing endorsement of the ranking U.S. News seems to think, especially when many of those schools who did submit only provided survey data already available via their ABA reports.

we’re incredulous that our critics blame our rankings for just about every issue academia confronts.

No one is blaming U.S. News for everything. Just things they have responsibility for.

whether on free speech

This one is laughable culture war bait. It's just not happening.


Well, U.S. News created a ranking system that rewards schools for a single-minded focus on enrolling candidates with higher test scores. Regardless of feelings towards standardized tests or the equity debate, it is beyond dispute that the population of students an equity-focused system might want more of do not score as highly as others. So, yes, U.S. News had a part to play in the equity discussion.

or the cost of degrees

For decades, rankings have given schools more points for spending more money. It was an actual metric in their formula: more dollars spent equals better rank. Spent on what? Who cares, as long as it can be counted as some form of educational or instructional related... something. How U.S. News can say that they play no role in the increased cost of degrees is beyond us.

Our rankings also don’t prevent any school from pursuing greater diversity or transparency. Nor do they seem to prod schools to shine light on the most opaque part of admissions: how schools decide who they accept.

Wrong. Law school admissions are not, for the most part, opaque. They are, thanks to what the ranking formula rewards, pretty straightforward much of the time: LSAT+GPA=result.

Instead, elite schools object to our use of a common data set for all schools because our rankings are something they can’t control and they don’t want to be held accountable by an independent third party.

Fair enough, I'm sure that it rankles deans to be judged and ordered by people who have on multiple occasions admitted they don't actually know much about law or legal education. And for what it's worth, the ABA holds schools accountable via the data they mandate be reported, so... there's your independent third party.

By refusing to participate, elite schools are opting out of an important discussion about what constitutes the best education for students

There was a whole conference yesterday about how to provide quality data to law school applicants. U.S. News posted a letter about it.

while implying that excellence[*] and important goals like diversity are mutually exclusive

* excellence as determined by their arbitrary formula.

Is it tolerable to leave schools unaccountable for the education they deliver to students? We think not.

Oh, come on. U.S. News doesn't know the first thing about the education schools deliver their students. We will repeat what we suggested someone ask Bob Morse and your other reps at the AALS conference: name the typical 1L courses. We're near certain he could not. And unaccountable? No one needs U.S. News for accountability. Maybe U.S. News served some accountability function a long time ago, but we have data from the ABA now.

We have been paid well over the years to help law schools understand their U.S. News rankings. It's against our interests as a firm, from a revenue standpoint, for schools to boycott the rankings, and for applicants to stop paying attention to them. But we're telling you that is the best outcome for everyone.

U.S. News has no expertise in law or legal education. They have no expertise in education in general. Imagine if a bunch of lawyers got together and decided to rank the best immunology programs. That's the absurdity of what U.S. News does. At least when Above the Law publishes its rankings they come from actual lawyers and law school graduates.

U.S. News' methodology is nonsensical at times. LSAT and GPA are five times as important as bar passage. Career outcomes account for 18% weight, while the reputational surveys of law professors and deans account for 25%. No offense to any law professors or deans reading this, but prospective students care a lot more about whether they'll have a job than how prestigious you think some other school (that you probably know very little about) is. The GRE sub-scores get weighted at different amounts, because... reasons? And so on. Their secret-sauce formula isn't complicated; a reasonably intelligent college freshman could replicate it.

U.S. News has generally ignored criticism for decades, because it could. It was perfectly secure in its position. Now, it's scrambling to address the biggest threat it's ever faced. U.S. News talks a lot about the recent conversations it had with 110 law school deans. Want to know why they had those conversations? Damage control. That wasn't a good-faith effort to engage with the community. Want to know why U.S. News is calling for an increase in publicly available data? Because they can use that to create rankings without being reliant on schools. They've learned that needing schools to give them data directly leaves them too vulnerable.

Don't buy it. If U.S. News genuinely cared about the things they claim they do, they'd leave the rankings behind and operate a data warehouse. They don't, because the motive isn't helping applicants. It's money.