July 10, 2008
Law school rankings and associative goods
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

My colleague Jason Solomon is blogging up a storm over at Prawfs, taking on Brian Leiter, the U.S. News Rankings, and apple pie (OK, not apple pie). Jason’s post is worth reading in its entirety, but to paraphrase, he’s arguing that rankings should reflect a faculty’s educational prowess, rather than its scholarly abilities. I’m not going to dive into the fray, but I will dip a toe into the shallow end of the pool.

Jason sets forth Russell Korobkin’s “coordination function” theory of rankings as follows “Employers look to the rankings to figure out how to find the best future lawyers; prospective students look to the rankings to see where the most desirable employers will hire from.” I posit one additional factor: looking at higher education as an “associative good” (with due credit to Henry Hansmann), the consumer is interested not only in the quality of the product, but also in the quality of fellow consumers. Under this view, the appeal of attending an elite school has less to do with the quality of education, and more to do with the quality of classmates and alumni that students encounter en route to a diploma and post-graduation.

The more desirable schools create more valuable associative connections—an elite club of lawyers—while at the non-elite schools education is naturally more of a commodity. Thus, the interests in ranking criteria will vary from the top to the bottom of the chain. There are also what we might call regional associative goods, schools that don’t fare as well in a national ranking, but dominate a local market. Particularly in local politics, a state school might enjoy higher currency than a fancy-pants out-of-state law school.*

Cynically, one may argue that at the top it doesn’t matter what the rankings are based on; they exist to sort, and as long as a school selects students and faculty generally appropriate to its place in the hierarchy, the status quo is preserved and reinforced. But “non-elite” schools, who sell education rather than connections, presumably would be more anxious to compete on the quality they offer. The problem, I suspect, is credibly signaling that's what they're doing.

*Go Dawgs!

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