The most widely watched ranking of U.S. law schools may move to stop an increasingly popular practice: schools gaming the system by channeling lower-scoring applicants into part-time programs that don't count in the rankings.
U.S. News & World Report is "seriously" considering reworking its ranking system to crack down on the practice, says Robert Morse, director of data research at the magazine, who is in charge of its influential list.
Such a move could affect the status of dozens of law schools. It would likely reverse gains recently made by a number of schools that have helped their revenue by increasing their rosters of part-time students with lower entrance-exam scores and grade-point averages, without having to pay a price in the rankings.
In some cases the part-timers' course load is barely less than that of full-timers, and they are able to transfer into the schools' full-time programs in their second year. Statistics about second-year students' pre-law school scores also aren't counted in the rankings.
Counting part-timers would roil the law-school rankings, which have a big impact on where students apply and from where law firms hire. A number of law-school administrators interviewed about the potential change contend it could have another effect: narrowing a traditional pathway to law school for minorities and working professionals. Those groups often perform worse on the important Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, and schools could feel pressure to raise their admission thresholds.
A change in criteria would "catch the outliers but punish part-time programs that have existed forever and aren't doing it to game the system," says Ellen Rutt, an associate law-school dean at the University of Connecticut. If U.S. News makes the move, many schools with part-time programs would have a tough choice: Leave their admission standards for part-timers unchanged, which could hurt their rank, or raise the standards, likely shrinking the programs and cutting revenue.
Morse of U.S. News says the magazine will run tests of how the change would play out in rankings, and then decide in January. How colleges adjust their programs in response isn't the magazine's responsibility, he said. The ranking is published in the spring.
Tom W. Bell, a law professor at Chapman University, Orange, Calif., who developed a rankings model that mimics the one used by U.S. News, says that if the change had already taken place this year, some schools could have fallen from the magazine's "first tier" of the top 50 schools to the second tier, and some from the second to the third. For example, Southern Methodist University and the University of Connecticut, tied at 46th, might have fallen out of the top 50, and Hofstra and Stetson universities might have sunk below 100. Representatives for the schools didn't dispute his analysis, done at the request of The Wall Street Journal.
It's become an open secret that many law-school deans strategize specifically to improve their rank in the magazine's annual publication, to try to reap more interest by employers in their students and energize alumni donors. Even movements of one point in median LSAT scores, or a few hundredths of a point in median undergraduate grade-point averages, can change a school's position on the list.
One of the top beneficiaries of the current U.S. News criteria is Phillip Closius, former dean of the University of Toledo's law school. He led the school's rise from the list's fourth tier to its second tier within a few years. After he took the helm of the University of Baltimore law school last year, that school also quickly climbed the rankings, to 125 this year from 170 last year, he says. (Schools in the third and fourth tiers aren't publicly ranked -- instead they are grouped together -- but deans can find out where they placed.)
Closius' winning strategy in both places: Cut the number of full-time students accepted into the program to boost the median LSAT scores and GPAs, which together account for more than 20 percent of a school's ranking. In their place, the schools add more part-time students, who can transfer to full-time the second year.
Closius says having some students complete fewer classes at first gives them a better chance of academic success. He says he also made other changes that improved the school's ranking, including keeping better track of graduates' employment status after graduation. The moves benefit students, he says: At Toledo, more large law firms began interviewing students after the school's ranking climbed, and at Baltimore, he recently got multimillion-dollar grants and donations for a new building.
"U.S. News is not a moral code, it's a set of seriously flawed rules of a magazine, and I follow the rules ... without hiding anything," he says.
A number of other law schools across the country have similar approaches. At Seton Hall University, for example, Wyckoff, N.J., native Al Manzo is entering the part-time day program after graduating from college this past spring. He's taking one less class this semester than the full-timers, but will make it up next summer and join the full-time program. Seton Hall, ranked 66th, declined to say how many students were in its part-time day program. Loyola University Chicago and St. John's University, among others, include some similar students in their part-time day programs.
"If it wasn't for the part-time program, I wouldn't be going to the school," Manzo says. He adds, "The LSAT and GPA score isn't the most effective way to determine success in law school."
Prospective students are voracious readers of the annual U.S. News rankings, as are some prospective employers and alumni donors. Generally, the lower a school's ranking, the smaller the percentage of its graduating class will land high-paying jobs at bigger firms or prestigious judicial clerkships -- though a recent study by the National Law Journal of the 2005 graduating classes across the country shows that a higher rank doesn't always translate into better job prospects at the biggest U.S. law firms.
Even a slight drop in the rankings can put a law-school dean's job in jeopardy, especially during a tough job market for graduating lawyers. During the current economic downturn, hundreds of lawyers have been laid off. Meanwhile, longer-term economic trends in the legal profession have pushed down starting salaries for most young lawyers, leaving many recent graduates from lower-tier schools with dismal prospects.
Initially, "the effect of a drop in the rankings is psychological, but it can have real institutional consequences," says Bill Henderson, a law professor at Indiana University-Bloomington who tracks the legal job market. For some schools that fail to effectively manage their U.S. News ranking, the drop could cause a snowball effect over several years in which there is a "falloff in good applicants and eventually a tapering off of employers," he says.
The rankings played a role in the 2006 resignation of Nancy Rapoport, who was dean of the University of Houston Law Center, which had fallen to 70th from 50th in the span of a few years. (It's now tied for 55th.) Rapoport, who is now a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says managing the rankings as a dean is "like trying to meet analysts' quarterly expectations by massaging the numbers."
A change could upend some students' expectations. When John Powell was deciding where to attend law school earlier this year, he skipped over a Bay Area school because it fell out of the top 100 this year. "If I'm coming out of a school that's falling in the rankings, it's not going to look good for me" in terms of job prospects, Powell says. So the 22-year-old opted for the University of the Pacific, tied for 95th, in his hometown of Sacramento, Calif.
If U.S. News had made the change for this year's rankings, Pacific could have dropped to 100th, or even to the third tier, though Pacific says the median LSAT score and GPA of this year's incoming part-time students are stronger than last year's. Still, Powell says he made the right choice because area law firms are familiar with the school -- and he'd be happy with a local job.