Understanding and Implications of the New USNWR Law School Rankings Methodology


For the first time in years, U.S. News & World Report has changed their law school ranking methodology. Starting this year, the metrics will include a new factor: graduate debt. This new factor will be assigned a 5% overall weight.

The metric has two components.

First, 3% weight will be applied to the average amount of graduate debt incurred by students in the previous year’s graduating class. Only students who have taken on law school debt will be counted in this metric. Higher average debt will hurt; lower average debt will help.

Second, 2% weight will be applied to the proportion of a school’s graduating class who incurred law school debt. Again, higher proportions will hurt; lower proportions will help.

To make room for these new factors, U.S. News has reduced the weighting of two categories. The “Selectivity” factors have been reduced from 25% weight to 21%. Median test scores will now count for 11.25% of rankings, median GPA will count for 8.75%, and acceptance rate will count for 1%.

The Faculty Resources metric has been reduced from 15% weight to 14%.

Good News

There are absolutely some positives coming from these changes.

First, they reduce the influence of admissions metrics. General consensus is that LSAT and GPA play too much of a role in law school admissions, which is largely attributable to the weight those factors have in the rankings.

To their credit, the Law School Admission Council has been advocating for a more comprehensive view of candidate LSAT scores by law schools. But they have recognized the compelling power of U.S. News rankings to push schools into a more mechanistic use of LSAT scores. This change could be helpful in achieving a holistic evaluation of candidate test scores more in line with the Council’s advised use.

As for GPA, hopefully the same logic applies. With less significance in the rankings, schools will be less incentivized to care about it to the sometimes absurd degree they do now.

The addition of the debt metrics is exciting in another regard. It is the first time that the rankings have, in any real way, addressed the cost of law school. Before this, the only metric which even indirectly addressed cost was the Average Expenditures for Aid, assigned a paltry 1.5% weight. That factor was also susceptible to the fact that it was measured on an absolute basis: a school charging $70,000 tuition and offering $40,000 in average aid (net cost of $30,000) received a better score than a school with $50,000 tuition offering $25,000 in average aid (net cost of $25,000) even though the second school is, in fact, more generous. By contrast, measuring the total amount of debt graduates take out provides a strong incentive for schools to address the actual underlying problem: high costs of attendance. They can do that either through increasing scholarships, reducing tuition, or both.

Another positive is that including this metric will possibly lead law school leadership to confront the sometimes overly-high costs incurred by students. Each year when they consider their rankings outcomes, they’ll have to look at the often enormous amounts of debt so many of their graduates are taking out. One can hope this would encourage introspection and an increased commitment to cost control.

Bad News

These new metrics are a step in the right direction, but they aren’t without downside.

For one thing, the Percent of Students With Graduate Debt metric may reward schools who enroll wealthy students. A quick look at the cost of attendance at any law school will tell you that even students receiving substantial scholarships are likely to take out loans. As soon as they do, they’re counted against the school in this metric. Only those students who take out no debt help schools. Typically, those will be students from higher income backgrounds.

As for Average Graduate Debt, this will be a strong incentive for schools to enroll students who won’t be taking out much debt—the same reasoning for possibly wanting wealthier students as above. How exactly that would take form is hard to predict. It’s almost inconceivable to imagine admissions officers rejecting someone because their personal statement discusses their impoverished background. But it’s more possible to think that after a few years fighting this metric in the rankings that a school changes its recruitment strategy somewhat, or that a bit of unconscious bias creeps in.

More realistic seems to be the possibility that transfers might become less attractive. Right now, there’s relatively minimal downside to taking in transfer students. They’re usually top of their class at their originating institutions and thus are competitive in the job search. They almost always pay full tuition, giving schools a nice source of revenue. And they don’t count against their new school for LSAT and GPA purposes. A few schools are notorious for “gaming” the transfer system because of this. However, now transfers come with a downside. The fact they are paying full tuition will typically mean they’re relying heavily on student loans, which will hurt their new school in the rankings.

Of course, it’s also possible this creates incentive to offer scholarships to transfers, which would be a nice change. And schools may simply decide the added revenue transfers offer is worth the rankings hit.

This also creates incentive to reduce “cost of living” estimates. Because students are able to borrow up to the full estimated cost of living amount, schools who err on the side of more generous estimates are likely to be penalized. Because reducing—or at least, not steadily increasing—cost of living allowances doesn’t actually hurt a law school’s bottom line in the same way reducing tuition would, it’s an easy way to shave down on average debt. But it would certainly add to the stress of students. Many law students could attest that current estimates are often unrealistically low, adding stress to the law school experience. Anything that drives down cost of living estimates has the potential to deter lower socio-economic status applicants. And it again offers an advantage to schools who recruit heavily from wealthier students, who aren’t likely to be deterred by low cost of living estimates.

This change also provides more encouragement for schools to push students towards high-paying BigLaw summer associate positions, which pay well enough that students who take such positions can realistically use their earnings to reduce their loans 3L year. However, schools already have more than enough incentive to push students in this direction—we don’t expect this would really change the calculus anywhere but the most elite of law schools, who have the luxury of not worrying whether their students take a summer associateship.

Practical Implications

This will absolutely have an impact on the rankings- beyond just the obvious.

For starters, some schools will see serious benefits. Here are the top ten schools by combined ranking weight attributable to the new metric (based on 2019 data):

School

Debt Rank

Overall USNWR Rank

University of Tulsa

1

111

University of Arkansas - Fayetteville

2

90

University of Missouri - Columbia

3

67

University of Alabama

4

31

University of Detroit Mercy

5

148-194

George Mason University

6

42

University of Kansas

7

70

University of North Dakota

8

148-194

Brigham Young University

9

37

Liberty University

10

148-194


Those are schools who will see a nice rankings benefit from the new metric—assuming their numbers stayed relatively consistent in 2020.

Interestingly but perhaps unsurprisingly, the T14 don’t fare so well in this new metric. The best performing of them in 2019 was Northwestern at 92nd nationally. The rest ranged as low as Harvard Law at 152nd. Given that they don’t need to compete as much on price as other schools, this does make sense. But if that doesn't change, perhaps we see schools who are more willing to spend have a shot at breaking into the T14?

This change makes it somewhat harder for ambitious law schools to quickly change their ranking. Historically one of the easiest ways of doing so was to target dramatic improvement in admissions metrics: LSAT, GPA, and acceptance rate. Schools could also goose their average expenditures. Now, however, those admissions metrics count for somewhat less, making it harder to achieve significant year-over-year changes. And increased spending is often accompanied by more dollars from students but now those dollars, if financed by student debt, will come back to haunt the school.

By reducing the weight of the more volatile metrics, this new metric also increases the stability in annual rankings. That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing.

Conclusion

We're a little skeptical that this new metric will produce major changes. For one thing, institutional inertia is real. For another, any real change in behavior would come from admissions and "cost" which are two areas unlikely to be quickly altered. For admissions, despite the reduced weight it remains the most significant opportunity for ambitious schools to move their ranking. As to cost, there's a lot that goes into a law school budget. The vast majority of schools simply don't have the ability to suddenly dramatically reduce their cost- and hence, reduce their price demand on students.

It's hard to pass judgment right now. We'll probably have to wait a few years to really see how this plays out. We admire the effort to incorporate more outcomes-focused metrics in the rankings. But any time you introduce incentives, you create the possibility of unintended outcomes. Lets hope we see more of the good than the bad!