June 27, 2008
Proposed Change in USNWR Ranking Methodology
Posted by Christine Hurt

Via Tax Prof Blog, the U.S. News & World Report is "seriously studying" two suggested improvements to next year's law school rankings.  The first is to only include ABA-accredited school graduates who are first-time test takers in calculating the bar passage rate of a jurisdiction.  Fine.  The second, however, is a little more controversial:  use the median LSAT and UGPA for both full-time and part-time students for each ranked school.  Hmmm.  (Disclaimer:  Illinois has no part-time program, so our ranking would not be affected unless other schools' rankings went down because of the change.)

The reasoning seems to be that some schools are gaming the system by putting low-LSAT/UGPA applicants into the part-time program, where they either get the same education (by being part-time "day") or perhaps transfer into the full-time class after a year.  The thinking is that these programs aren't really "separate."  I actually do not know if this is true.  I have taught at two different schools with part-time programs (Houston and Marquette), and was on admissions at both schools.  At both schools, admission to each program was completely separated and on different time-tables.  Would the medians have been different?  Yes.  That is not to say that the part-time programs at each did not have standout students who could have gotten into the full-time program at many law schools.  However, part-time programs are very attractive for a variety of candidates.  I vaguely remember discussions of one or two individuals who may have been rejected for full-time admission but called and made a very strong case for themselves and offered to go to the part-time program.  My sense was that these cases were situations in which the admissions committee was not sure that the candidate was up to the challenge of law school, and the candidate basically offered to go through a probationary period of part-time instruction. 

If there is intentional gaming, then I'm not sure how widespread it is.  The comments on the USNWR web page seem to accuse schools like Georgetown and GW of gaming the system, but haven't their programs been large since before the USNWR rankings became the ends and not the means?

However, I'm sure that schools are aware that the medians of part-time students are not involved in the calculation.  This allows schools to accept more part-time students than they otherwise would.  This benefits the school financially and allows non-traditional students an opportunity to go to good law school on their own schedule.  When applicants have been out of school for years, if not decades, assessing them by their UGPA and their performance on an unfamiliar standardized test seems fairly ridiculous anyway.  If the rankings are to change, the schools will ultimately have to make hard choices about their part-time programs, which may not benefit the school or the public at large.

Of course, I can't decide if the better analogy for adjusting the rankings calculations at the margins is the Bluebook's once-every-five-year ritual of a new edition of the phrase "tinkering with the machinery of death."

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