It turns out – and this is the basic premise of the Race to the Top project that I helped start recently -- that a major obstacle to the improvement of legal education generally is the lack of competition on quality among peer institutions, and that this lack of competition also leads to other bad consequences for law schools like spending lots of money on buying LSAT scores and shifting full-time students into "part-time" programs. And the easiest way to address both sets of problems is by taking the U.S. News rankings more seriously, not less, and focusing on this survey.
What would such competition look like? In the Voter's Guide we sent out earlier this week to U.S. News voters, we said: "For example, take Penn and Northwestern, two national schools that compete for students and are close in the overall rankings. Both have very high student satisfaction and bar passage rates. But consider the curricular differences in areas particularly important in preparing students for practice: Northwestern has top-10 (or close) legal writing, clinical, dispute resolution and trial advocacy programs in last year's U.S. News surveys of faculty in these fields. Penn is not ranked in any of these areas, and is one of the few remaining law schools that uses third-year law students to teach 1Ls legal research and writing. Northwestern is also moving towards an increasingly innovative, practice-oriented curriculum, all of which suggests that Northwestern has a higher-quality J.D. program than Penn."
This kind of head-to-head comparison is completely lacking -- there's been no information out there on the relative quality of the education provided at different schools -- and as a result, U.S. News voters simply replicate the previous year's overall US News rankings when filling out the surveys. Glossy brochures notwithstanding, these quality assessment ratings rarely change from year to year, and when they do change over time, it is in response to a shift in a school's overall ranking (driven by higher LSAT scores, for example), not any underlying shift -- of reality or perception -- on the quality of the JD program. By the way, if you don't like the criteria used above to compare schools, would love to hear what existing data you would look to instead in assessing the relative quality of a school's JD program.
To understand why the lack of competition on quality has other bad consequences, recall there are four basic components of the U.S. News formula:
40%: Quality Assessment, from surveys of law professors (25%)
and lawyers/judges (15%)
25%: Student Selectivity, from LSAT Scores (12.5%), UGPAs (10%),
and Acceptance Rate (2.5%)
20%: Placement Success, from Emp rates at graduation (4%), 9 months
out (14%), and Bar Passage (2%)
15%: Faculty Resources, from Expenditures per student (11.25%),
Student-Faculty Ratio (3%), and Volumes in Library (.75%)
So since schools can't move up on the quality factor (40%) in the rankings, what do they do? They start competing on the next biggest category in the U.S. News formula -- LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs -- by emphasizing these things more in admissions, and throwing money at (buying) higher credentials. Bill Henderson provides evidence of this trend here. How much money is your school spending on "merit-based" financial aid, and how is merit determined? I'm guessing it's not based on valuable graduate training in another discipline, interesting work experience that indicates potential excellence as a lawyer, or being the first in the family to go to a professional school.
Are we really any better than Baylor, which literally paid people to retake the SAT? I'm not so sure. Here's our deal: take that Kaplan course if you can afford it, work really hard studying for the LSAT, and if you're speedy enough, we'll give you a full ride. Sounds like paying for LSAT scores to me; we're only a tad more subtle.
The good news is we can fix this if we want to. It's actually not this pesky magazine controlling our priorities -- we (law professors and lawyers) control the U.S. News rankings, 40% of it, the largest category by far. If we have real competition on quality, there will be less need for schools to compete on other things. We just need to get enough information flowing to make competition on quality possible, and then start filling out the survey accordingly. I hope those voting this month and next will start now.
Labels: Race to the Top