To improve their “selectivity” score, schools sought more applications, for example by modernizing campus facilities and throwing out broader recruitment networks. Scholarship funds and tuition reductions have been used strategically to improve average test scores and GPAs for freshmen. Law schools and business schools sometimes hired their own graduates for temporary positions, raising suspicions that they wanted to improve their performance on job placement metrics. You will find that none of this had anything to do with improving the quality of education. In fact, it has arguably degraded education, diverting resources from the classroom into a pointless zero-sum competition.
So perhaps we should rejoice in the news that three major law schools are dropping out of the rankings. On Wednesday, No. 1 Yale Law School announced that it will no longer provide US News with access to the proprietary data that helps service rank schools. Harvard (tied at number 4) quickly signaled that it would also withdraw from the case. The following day, ninth-ranked University of California, Berkeley joined the exodus. It is plausible that many other top law schools will follow.
But perhaps one should also ask why the schools are doing this and what the impact of their withdrawal might be.
The schools give only the highest motives. In the statement, Heather Gerken, dean of Yale Law School, said: “US news rankings are deeply flawed – they discourage programs that support public interest careers, advocate for need-based assistance and educate working-class students in the… Invite profession.” Harvard Law School echoes their complaints, saying the rankings “work against law school commitments to improve the socioeconomic diversity of our classes; allocation of financial aid to students based on need; and through loan repayments and public interest grants to support graduates interested in careers that serve the public interest.”
However, it is impossible not to notice the timing. Yale has recently suffered some reputational damage over its hostility towards conservatives, leading some to wonder if the school has withdrawn to avoid the embarrassment of losing its No. 1 spot. This also comes just after the Supreme Court signaled that it is preparing to ban affirmative action programs in higher education. One way to avoid being held accountable for discriminating against Asian students or in favor of underrepresented minorities is to downgrade or eliminate objective metrics like test scores in favor of harder-to-compare criteria like essays, interviews, and endorsements. Since this would cause the schools to suffer in US news rankings, perhaps preemptively take their ball and go home.
Whether you see this as a good or bad thing probably depends on your feelings about conservatives and positive action. But even if you support the schools dropping out of the rankings on both counts, there are a few caveats worth considering.
The first is that the alternative to rankings is not an ideal world in which every prospective student does thorough, holistic research on every school they apply to, carefully evaluating job placement prospects, cultural fit, faculty research profiles, and so on weighs. The alternative is for people to cling to the relative prestige of the school name and recruit materials that may not (probably not?) convey the full story to students.
This is all very well for Harvard and Yale, which have two of the best brand names in higher education. They can afford to ditch some slots even to get fewer applications, as they might well do if US News starts guessing. You will still have a steady stream of affluent, connected applicants who fully understand the value of their degrees.
As this suggests, it’s also okay for the highly educated children of the highly educated professionals who like to complain about rankings. I barely watched US News myself when I applied to business school 20 years ago because I grew up in New York City and knew a lot of people who could tell me what different schools were like and how employers viewed their graduates .
But without the rankings, students who don’t have such access would probably be more likely to apply to Yale’s business school than to my alma mater, the University of Chicago, since Yale is generally a more respected name — but unfortunately that’s not true of its Business School that provide US news rankings. More broadly, many aspiring MBAs would be completely lost trying to assess the potential value of any particular degree (apart from a handful of names everyone knows) without the magazine’s didactic list.
US News has brought value to these people, and it won’t stop just because Yale and Harvard and the Berkeley law refused to cooperate. All that’s going to happen is that the rankings will become less accurate — and less helpful to the very people outside of the current elites that these schools say they want to recruit the most.