November 16, 2010
Law School Rankings – Inputs, Outputs and Social Mobility
Posted by Erik Gerding

Last week, Christine revisited the debate over ranking law schools by comparing one labor-intensive study evaluating schools of education with the US News approach for law schools. This reminded me of a different attempt to rank undergraduate schools by Washington Monthly (see their 2010 rankings released over the summer here; see a NY Times Economix blog on the ranking criteria here). Washington Monthly attempts to provide students with information missing from US News (and sell magazines) by focusing on the following metrics, among others:

  • Measuring how many students and recent graduates pursued public service (by using metrics like Peace Corps and ROTC participation as proxies); and
  • Measuring the caliber of research at an institution (this measure differs according to the type of institution being ranked – e.g. liberal arts college vs. national – but includes metrics like dollar figures on total research expenditures).

But what is most interesting to me about the rankings is the attempt to measure “Social Mobility.” The editors state that they are interested in measuring the success of schools at “recruiting and graduating low-income students.” The introduction to the rankings explains more provocatively that the purpose of the guide is to ask:

. . . not what colleges can do for you, but what colleges are doing for the country. Are they educating low-income students, or just catering to the affluent? . . .

To measure social mobility, the rankings list the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants then compares a predicted graduation rate (based on the magazine’s formula that factors in the percentage of Pell Grant recipients and SAT scores) with an actual graduation rate. It is hard to tell how much stock to put in the magazine’s formula given the web site’s disclosure on methodology, but the very attempt to develop this metric has a number of fascinating implications for law schools.

Measuring teaching: inputs and outputs

First, law schools could learn much from this attempt to measure how well institutions do in their mission of educating students. There is not a direct parallel to law school – we are thankfully past the day when law schools failed a large portion of the 1L class (“Look to your right, now look to your left, one of those students …") But there is a need to find metrics of how well law schools do in preparing students.

The ABA created a minor firestorm late last year when it proposed shifting its evaluations of schools from “inputs” (like library volumes and raw expenditures) to “outputs” (most generally – how well are students prepared for the practice of law). Many law deans raised a ruckus when the ABA announced its intention to shift. There are indeed legitimate questions about whether any given output metric will truly capture what it means to be prepared for the practice of law (for example, using bar passage rates assumes that the bar exam is a good gauge of what it takes to be a lawyer). Nevertheless, it does strike me that students would be well served by more attempts to measure teaching quality.

Of course, as one of my co-bloggers gently pointed out to me at a conference in March, many students may care less about metrics of teaching quality than the signaling value of a degree based on its selectiveness in admissions. In other words, Yale could teach basket weaving, and students would still flock there (to pick a fanciful example). But, I still think student would care about measuring teaching because:

(1) the Yale example may apply less when we move to schools down the rankings ladder;

(2) it would be useful to differentiate two closely ranked competitors in the same market – let’s say UCLA and USC; and

(3) given the shake-up in the legal market, I wouldn’t be too comfortable even that a Yale degree would ensure continued employment – law firms looking to downsize may focus on whether associates can do the work, not just their pedigree.

So, the Washington Monthly endeavour ought to push law schools to develop metrics for measuring educational quality – although the rub is in finding the right metric.

Social mobility

The second interesting facet with the Washington rankings is its goal of measuring whether schools further social mobility. Social mobility is usually not part of what we talk about when we talk about the goals of legal education. Instead, law schools see themselves as preparing excellent lawyers for the practice of law. Admissions officers focus more on diversity than on social mobility.

But shouldn’t we be concerned with social mobility?  If not in admissions decisions, at least in measuring and disclosing how education at one school compared with another affects social mobility?  Some professors may turn up their noses at this idea, but I guarantee that many students care about this topic intensely. Many see law school either as a ticket into the upper middle class or as a means to stay on that precarious social rung. Do law schools deliver? The crisis in the legal job market combined with high tuition and debt loads has made that question particularly fraught.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to answer it.

To measure social mobility we would need to look at both the front and back ends of legal education. At the back end – we can start with what we have -- post-graduation employment rates and salary information. Of course, data ought to be both audited and improved (such as providing information on ranges and standard deviations) to prevent law schools from gaming numbers and to provide better qualitfy of information. In addition, per the Washington rankings, back end success is more than just salary. Students might care about data on clerkship success and the percentage of students pursuing public or public interest careers. Many alternative rankings now provide bits of this information.

A lot more work could be done on the front end – namely measuring the quality of students entering a law school. Beyond LSAT scores, we might think about standardizing a series of admissions questions designed to look at the socioeconomic status of applicants. How many law schools ask of applicants the question that colleges often ask – namely the highest educational degree obtained by parents? Think about what even zip codes during high school could tell us.

We might disagree on whether social mobility ought to be an objective of law school admissions and education, but having better data on it would be valuable both for applicants and for the swath of the public that cares about legal and professional education.

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