When a school drops in rank significantly, does that affect how "desperate" schools get?

This is an applicant question, and a timely one due to the recent USNWR rankings release and upcoming seat deposit deadlines. The applicant asking the question, I believe, uses “desperate” to mean, will a school that just dropped in the rankings suffer applicant pool consequences and thus need to go deeper into their own pool to admit? I will get to that a bit later in this post (and there is available data that anyone could look up by looking at schools that have dropped in the rankings in past years and comparing their application count for that year relative to other years’ application counts), but first let me talk a little bit about what drops in the rankings do at the law school level.

Law schools themselves are not self-run. That may sound like a weirdly obvious statement at face-value, but so often we think of schools in terms of “Harvard,” “Duke,” or “Emory,” and so on. While those schools have brands, and in many cases brands that carry a significant amount of value, they are run by administrators with a dean (or, rarely, deans plural) at the helm. Deans of law schools turn over at a relatively fast rate – I have seen it estimated that in any given year up to 25% of law schools may be looking for a new dean, which would mean just about 50 schools. This is important to note. What is more, the vast majority of deans come from the law school professor ranks. While they may or may not have administrative experience (as Vice Deans, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, etc.), their experience is generally not in running a school, but rather their scholarship and teaching. They may have a nuanced understanding of the rankings, an appreciation of them, a vague understanding, or in some cases even a hostility against them. There is a continuum here that they all exist on.

Here is where we get to the point. In year 1 of deanships, there are deans (again, not schools) who may or may not be focused on rankings. Certainly that is up to the person at the helm – in some sense, all the more power to them if they could stay uncaring about rankings. A wonderful scenario might exist if many deans stopped focusing on rankings and did not submit their data to USNWR.

But I have been in this for just about 20 years and have seen the following unfold too many times to count. A new dean ignores rankings, or more often ignores or is unaware of one or more nuanced components that go into the rankings. An example that comes to my mind was from the great recession era when schools were paying unemployed students to work for a year – and thus these students were counted at employed for USNWR rankings purposes. One T25 school did not realize that other schools was happening and thus did not employ any of its own students, and as a result, in comparison to the many schools that did do so, it took a substantial hit in the rankings. The law school itself was no different, but by not being aware of what other schools were doing, they suffered a one year hit in the rankings. The following year they started employing their students and bounced back. There are many many more examples, here are but a few.

I should note that I am not here to argue whether the above example is “good” or “bad” — in the case of employing students during a recession where many can’t immediately get jobs there are strong arguments on both sides. I will say that many academics could easily argue that it is bad, and “gaming” the rankings,” but that is my point. When said academics become deans, you most often see a shift in philosophies — indeed, I have read an article from a dean who talks about just this, how they wanted to ignore the rankings but after their first year it became all but impossible. Rankings impact the behavior of many stakeholders.

Let me be abundantly clear here. Schools that went down in the rankings did not get “worse” overnight. Schools do not get 1 place worse or 12 places worse. They are the same law school they were the previous day. What has happened is that there is a metric or metrics that those stewarding the school either did not account for or willing did not decide to account for. Entirely their decision.

What changes, then, is not the school. It is the aftermath. Which gets to the original question about “do schools get desperate?” The answer, at least from my 20 years of experience in this arena, is that the leadership of the schools either start accounting for the rankings or they do not stay at the helm of the school. In the T25 anecdote I relayed, the dean of the school’s contract was not re-upped. In most cases though they are given a year to change their focus, and change their focus they most often do.

In admissions, which is where this question comes from, you may indeed see a school offering more discounting (scholarship awards) after a rankings drop. The school will want to improve its admissions metrics if admissions is where the USNWR drop came from, and these metrics are, in weight order, LSAT (and proportionally GRE if a school uses it), uGPA, and selectivity. (Note that when our firm is asked to engage in consulting with a law school, it is most often in this area – if you can increase the applicant pool, you can generally float all three of those categories, which is what we do.) If the school cannot give more scholarship awards that year (which is often the case), they will very likely focus on admissions the following year. Expect more fee waivers, scholarship awards, etc. in the next cycle. If employment was the metric that suffered, expect the school to commit resources in that area. Etcetera and so on. If you plan on being a dean of a law school, I suggest you read the book “The Goal” by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, which addresses at length this issue as a managerial part of The Theory of Constraints.

My answer is as follows. Yes, if a school did lose places in the rankings, you may have more leverage that year and the next in admissions. It is unlikely that you would have less. Conversely, if a school jumped up in the rankings, it is possible you would have less leverage, and unlikely you would have more. I would say that if you have not heard from the school, if you are waitlisted, or if you are negotiating scholarship awards, this would be a good time to reach out to a school that just dropped in the rankings. I would always do so in a professional and friendly manner, and I would never mention the recent rankings as part of that.

As a more general matter, we cannot express enough how rankings fluctuations are not representations of the value of a school, but rather the granularity of often imprecise and arbitrary metrics that go into them, and if a school is not mindful of these specific metrics, may take a one-year hit and become more aware of it the following year. Our most recent article on how to choose a school can be found here.

I hope this helps to answer the question posed by an applicant.

- Mike