US News Rankings Season Again

Is the “69th best law school” significantly better than the “77th best law school in America”? Eight places, sounds like something. How about compared to the “82nd best law school” in America? That’s a 13 place difference, surely it should mean something, shouldn’t it? But it’s not as good as the “60th best law school in America” is it?

But what if they are all the same school in different years? And what if the whole ranking system is, save for fairly large differences, pretty much a sham?

As I said a a few years ago:

fishSome years we get a lower score than the year before, and then I think I shouldn’t carp about the whole thing for fear of it looking like sour grapes. Some years we get a higher score than the year before, and then I carp.

The idea of ranking law schools is not ridiculous. The way US News does it is very ridiculous. The survey data relies on the opinions of people who in most cases may be very informed about a few law schools but as a class are not likely to be particularly well informed about many law schools — even though they may be judges, hiring partners, law Deans and professors. And increasingly the survey data is self-referential: people have heard school X has a high/low ranking, so it must be good/bad, right?

At its grossest level, there is no doubt US News captures something real: the top N schools (10? 14? 15? 20? 20+?) really are better than the middle N or lowest N. But are the middle N significantly better than the bottom N? Sometimes, yes, but only sometimes. Here the picture gets very cloudy — not least because “better” ought to be “better for whom”; once you get away from the most elite, best resourced (i.e. high endowment), most prestigious law schools, what is best depends on factors that are personal: urban/rural, North/South, East/Middle/West, large/small, best in town/best town and so on.

The US News systems are designed to churn. Changed numbers sells magazines. Having the numbers stay the same doesn’t. Yet it’s hard to believe many schools change very much from year to year. Yes, once a while a school suffers a crisis or an epiphany, but those are pretty rare events.

There are inbuilt biases in the US News scoring system that favor small schools, and schools in cities with high starting salaries. Not to mention that in South Florida the market has more medium-sized firms than in other cities our size, and those firms rarely make offers until a candidate has passed the bar, notably depressing the ’employment at graduation’ rate.

I sympathize with aspiring students who need a guide to the perplexed when sorting through their options. It’s such a shame that the information market’s first-mover advantage has allowed such a crummy measure to dominate.

Anyway, we went up eight places this year, continuing our record of high volatility that has seen numbers from 60-82 in a small number of years. I suppose the Dean and the alumni will be happy, and that’s always nice. Personally, I’d put UM somewhere in the 45-60 range, but I suppose I’m biased.

Update: Or maybe I’m not. TaxProf Blog notes that Miami’s peer rank (rank by how professors at other schools see it) is 51.

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4 Responses to US News Rankings Season Again

  1. cane says:

    what was going on at UM Law circa 2006-2009 was a crisis, and the changes made to the school since, leaving it unrecognizable to students from that period, are an epiphany in the way of substantial improvement. i know you probably have no idea what i’m talking about, but trust me, it was, on the whole, a disaster. your AdLaw class was one of the few thoughtful successes.

    the changes that have been made are numerous and significant, to the administration, faculty, curriculum, and physical appearance of the school. the school used to be somewhere treading water at the end of the list. now its clearly in the lower middle. if only the school and university wouldn’t let the business model of having a law school profit-center interfere with the admissions standards and class sizes. let us pray.

  2. howard says:

    the law skewl currently needs new facilities, smaller student/faculty ratio, and image of its profs’ scholarship. um should be able to afford those achievements with its second momentum campaign. where um is currently ranked, it doesn’t really differ from nova or st. thomas regarding quality of education for students. i think if um ranked in top 10 or 20, maybe would mean something – but to jump around from 30 to 60 to 80 to 100 or 120, students’ prospects at skewls at all those levels are probably about the same. yawn.

    • I see the facts as being very different:

      1. UM’s legal education is very different from Nova or St. Thomas. Nova is, from what I can tell, very good at what it does, but what it does is very different from what we do. It’s a heavily local-practice-oriented school. We have national ambitions, and a greater commitment to the idea that knowing some theory can help you be a better lawyer–especially if your practice isn’t all routine. We really don’t teach to the Florida Bar (Nova does much more than that, but it does that).

      2. Momentum isn’t going to do all that much for the law school. AFAIK we are not slated for a very big chunk of the money. Enough to build an extension to the building, but nothing transformative. I would be happy to be corrected on this.

      3. We will never get above 30 without a huge influx of endowment. And we’ll never get above 40 without a substantial growth in the endowment. You have to assume a 3% return on endowment, max. Assume the average student, net of scholarships and marginal costs is $30,000 (I just made that number up by the way, I have no idea what the actual number is but I bet I’m within $5K one way or the other.) To replace that student’s 3-year tuition you need $3 million in endowment. ($3,000,000 * .03 = 3 * 30,000.) Want to cut the class in half? That will cost you $600 million. Heck, make it an even half billion dollars and we can knock on the door of the top 20. It is no accident that the top schools either have giant endowments, or are state schools with a different funding dynamic.

      • cane says:

        Of course UM Law’s legal education is very different from Nova’s and St. Thomas’s. It should be!

        UM is a national, research university with an undergraduate division that is ranked 38th in the entire country, in contrast with Nova’s and St. Thomas’s that are likely unranked, as are the law schools themselves. Many of the law school’s alumni are still wondering where President Shalala was all those years after massive changes to the undergraduate division and other graduate programs, which improved significantly (in the rankings) every few years in the past decade, while it seemed like the law school suffered from administrative neglect.

        I realize “howard” made the ridiculous comparison first and then got the discussion, I was hoping to start, further off track by mentioning being ranked in the top 20, when that is patently absurd, based upon the endowment and other issues, including the fact that the law schools among the top 14 haven’t changed since antiquity.

        UM is not competing with Nova and St. Thomas. But FIU is climbing up beneath it. FIU does not have a giant endowment and Gov. Voldermort is doing his part to help ensure that won’t change much soon.

        But if there are going to be two top-100ish ranked law schools in Miami, and one is relatively free, in comparison with the other one, the much more expensive one needs to offer a lot more to attract the good students.

        With Dean White, it appears that UM Law is now steadily on track to (continue to?) do that, after several years of adjustments, to put it mildly, for those of us who endured them. As someone who would like to believe I made the right choice and investment, the idea of FIU Law being ranked higher than UM Law at some point in the future is severely horrifying.

        At the very least, owning the phrase “Miami Law” is probably the best marketing and rankings-based decision the law school has made in many years.

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