What Do the New USNWR Law School Rankings Mean and Should We Care?

law school admissions Apr 16, 2021

Many prospective law students turn to U.S. News & World Report (USNWR) annual law school rankings to research law schools. Some unknowingly rely on their rankings to make decisions about where to apply. In 2021, USNWR changed its methodology regarding how they rank law schools. Below, I break down the metrics that USNWR uses to rank schools, outline specific changes, as well as offer a discussion about how these changes impact the usefulness of USNWR rankings for choosing a law school to attend.


Methodology for USNWR Law School Rankings

USNWR ranks law schools based on four different areas, each comprised of two or more indicators.

  • Quality assessment (two indicators, 40% of ranking)

  • Selectivity (three indicators, 21% of ranking)

  • Placement success (five indicators, 25.25% of ranking)

  • Faculty, law school, and library resources (10 indicators, 13.75% of ranking)

Each indicator is weighted differently. For the final overall ranking, USNWR standardized the data by comparing all other schools' mean and standard deviations. They also weighted, totaled, as well as rescaled LSAT and GRE scores. Ultimately, they assigned the top school a 100, gave the remaining schools their percentage, and numerically ranked them in descending order.


Notable Changes in 2022 Best Law Schools Rankings

The biggest change to the new USNWR rankings is the addition of two new indicators related to debt under placement success:

  • Average debt incurred at graduation

  • Percentage of a school's graduates who incurred debt

The addition of these indicators, which make up 5% of the rankings, demonstrates that the USNWR understands those debt impacts students after they graduate law school, but the addition is not all positive. Here are the most obvious positives as well as negatives that come with the new indicators:


Positive Aspects of New Debt Indicators

  • These new indicators reduce the weight of LSAT scores, GRE scores, as well as undergraduate GPAs. Many believe these factors previously carried too much weight in the rankings. After several years, this could lead to a more rounded view of test scores and GPAs when evaluating potential students.

  • USNWR has finally addressed the high cost of law school by considering debt in the rankings, giving schools the motivation to address this issue through changes in tuition and financial aid packages.


Negative Aspects of New Debt Indicators

  • Some schools might be motivated only to accept wealthy students to keep their percentage of students with debt lower. This overwhelmingly impacts minorities, who often have to borrow money to attend law school. Although admissions officers might not outwardly deny someone who comes from a meager background, bias can slip in and harm those from lower socioeconomic levels.

  • Law schools might not easily accept transfer students. Transfer students typically must pay full tuition, and most rely on student loans, adversely impacting a school's ranking. Schools might decide to offer scholarships to transfer students to combat this issue, but only time will tell.

  • These indicators provide an incentive for law schools to reduce estimates for the cost of living to ultimately reduce the average debt because students can borrow up to the full cost of living. Most costs of living estimates are already low, so this will be devastating for students and deter those with a lower socioeconomic status.



How the Debt Indicators Impact Law Schools' Rankings

Rankings stay pretty close from year to year. When law schools move up and down the list, it's typically only one or two spots. However, when you compare some schools' debt ranking to their overall ranking, you will see that some schools clearly benefited from the debt indicator addition, while others did not.

Ultimately, the new metric rewards schools with low tuition and low debt.  Providing the rest of the indicators remain close to the same, these schools will see an increase in rankings. The first year with debt load already shows the top ten schools with the lowest debt (listed below) experienced a major rise in their ranking.

  1. University of Tulsa

  2. University of Arkansas-Fayetteville

  3. University of Missouri-Columbia

  4. University of Alabama

  5. University of Detroit Mercy

  6. George Mason University

  7. University of Kansas

  8. University of North Dakota

  9. Brigham Young University

  10. Liberty University

Among T14 law schools, Northwestern came in the highest at 92. Others had much higher debt, which ultimately should decrease their rankings.


Why the Addition of Debt Load to USNWR Rankings Doesn't Really Matter

The previous failure of acknowledging student debt load is one of many flaws with the USNWR law school rankings. Many use them as a proxy for quality, which disadvantages good schools that might not be in the T14. Some other reasons USNWR rankings do not matter include:

  • Many people at administrative levels at law schools care about the rankings that they encourage poor institutional behavior, which often contributes to inequity.

  • Many law schools have figured out how to game the rankings system to increase their place on the list artificially.

  • Public and private law schools offer merit-based scholarships to attract smart, wealthy students to increase their rankings. In turn, they cut aid to middle- and low-income students who need it the most.

  • The weight of certain indicators is arbitrary and has no real justification.

Each year USNWR also releases separate rankings of the most diverse law schools. They pulled the list for 2022. More than 160 law school deans wrote USNWR because they left out several groups in their list of minorities. USNWR could not get it right and obviously struggled with their arbitrary designation of certain groups. Ultimately, they decided not to publish the list. This is another example of the long list of things wrong with the organization and how they evaluate schools.

If you are headed to law school, there are better factors to consider than USNWR rankings, such as cost, diversity, location, as well as the availability of financial aid, the school's culture, and how likely you are to get accepted.

Choosing the right law school for you can be challenging, and with so much misinformation out there, you might be overwhelmed. Contact me today with any questions about USNWR rankings as well as better ways to evaluate potential law schools.

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