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March 9, 2023

Grading Education: Tough questions arise as Yale Law School sparks national rankings revolt

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken and Harvard Law School Dean John Manning at a Boston meeting about the future of higher education rankings.

It’s one thing to start a revolution, quite another to pick up the pieces and create a new system.

That’s what Yale Law School and other top institutions are encountering as they cope with a revolt against higher-education rankings sparked right here in New Haven.

Since Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken announced in November that the top-ranked school would pull out of the U.S. News & World Report ranking system, more than 40 other law schools have followed suit.

In Connecticut, both Quinnipiac and UConn law schools have announced they will no longer take part in rankings, taking all three of the state’s law schools out of the system.

Medical schools — including those at Harvard and Stanford — and a liberal arts college have also joined the movement, pushing back against U.S. News, a for-profit media company that bills itself as a trusted arbiter of education quality. (Yale’s medical school had yet to announce its plans as of early March.)

Now students, parents and education leaders are looking beyond U.S. News rankings to ask, what’s next? How can prospective students find the best fit for their futures amid a sea of conflicting data?

Revolution on Wall Street

Yale Law School (YLS), located at 127 Wall St. in the heart of Yale’s New Haven campus, seems an unlikely place for a revolution against the U.S. News ranking system.

Yale Law School has ranked at No. 1 since the U.S. News & World Report rankings of law schools began in 1990.

After all, YLS has held the No. 1 spot since the media company started its law-school rankings in 1990. That unprecedented run at the top has helped burnish the school’s reputation and attract 4,202 applicants with top credentials to strive for the fewer than 200 spots in the class of 2025, the most recent to arrive in New Haven.

For Gerken at YLS, the decision to pull out of the rankings was fundamentally about equity and what she called “profoundly flawed” elements of the system that punished schools for admitting working-class students and supporting those seeking careers in public-interest law.

Instead of supplying data to U.S. News, YLS would instead commit to providing data directly to prospective students, she said in announcing the pullout on Nov. 16.

“We have reached a point where the rankings process is undermining the core commitments of the legal profession,” Gerken said. “As a result, we will no longer participate.”

Quinnipiac Law School Dean Jennifer Brown echoed Gerken's critique in announcing the school’s pullout on Jan. 19, stating that programs at the Hamden school to augment training of budding lawyers in problem-solving and serving clients aren’t acknowledged in higher rankings.

“We are perennially disappointed with the failure of the U.S. News and World Report methodology to measure or reward these efforts to ‘educate the whole lawyer,’” Brown said. “Your methodology rewards wealth, discourages racial and other forms of diversity, undermines student mental health, and ignores or obscures factors that should matter most to prospective students.”

Quinnipiac Law was ranked in the No. 147-192 tier in the 2023 edition of the U.S. News Best Law Schools listing. UConn Law School ranked No. 64 in a three-way tie with Penn State and the University of San Diego.

“The decision not to participate derives from our long-held belief that the U.S. News rankings do not appropriately measure or adequately capture UConn Law’s strengths and values or the life-transformative educational experience we offer our students,” Dean Eboni S. Nelson said in announcing the school’s decision on Jan. 30.

Opting out

YLS’s decision to be the first law school to opt out of the U.S. News ranking is not surprising considering both Yale’s mission and standing, said Colin Diver, former dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and author of the 2022 book “Breaking Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What to Do About It.”

Colin Diver, a former law school dean and critic of rankings.

“I think the real reason is that the top-tier law schools are getting increasingly ill at ease with the reputation they have as essentially feeders of the privileged,” Diver said. “I do think that people like Heather Gerken truly care about serving a broader purpose and being able to go home at night and say, ‘I did something to advance the cause of justice.’”

YLS was well situated to lead the revolt, Diver added.

“In some ways it had nothing to lose in terms of market position by pulling out, and it had something to gain, which is that they could associate themselves with a truly noble cause,” he said.

Diver said he was surprised at how quickly other schools joined YLS’s rejection of U.S. News rankings. Only a handful of schools had opted out of the system over the decades prior to Yale’s announcement, even as a large majority of higher-education leaders criticized the rankings and bemoaned their impact on strategic decisions behind the scenes.

“I've been kind of a lonely voice in the wilderness about rankings for quite a long time. Now, all of a sudden, I have a lot of company. Really good company, in fact,” Diver said.

Even with the initial momentum, however, the pace of U.S. News rejections had slowed dramatically by March, Diver noted. And only a single undergraduate liberal arts institution — Colorado College — had pulled the plug. The “Little Ivies” in the region like Wesleyan and Amherst had yet to announce defections as of early March.

“I think quite a lot of schools are probably just deciding we're going to wait and see what happens because pretty soon the rankings will come out,” Diver said. “The liberal arts colleges, they're also very social-justice oriented and they are affected by the rankings. … I was sort of hoping that some of those schools would break out of the pack.”

Looking ahead to a new system

Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken.

Now Gerken and other top law school leaders are focusing on how to help students pick the right school even as they opt out of the popular rankings system. Students and parents need help to sort through the megabytes of data available from multiple sources on schools, education experts agree.

“The [U.S. News rankings] exodus has also called attention to the lack of other easy-to-find, reliable information to help consumers make one of the most consequential and expensive investments in their lives,” said John Marcus, writing for education news site The Hechinger Report.

“This is an important moment to take a step back and to think about the way forward for legal education,” Gerken said at a March 1 event on the topic of the U.S. News revolt at Harvard Law School. “For too long, we have been cabined by a ranking system that tries to squeeze what cannot be measured into a system that has an impossibly wide range of institutions inside of it.”

Gerken pledged to release more data directly to prospective students and work with colleagues at top law schools to create a more transparent and easily compared data set.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona was much more blunt at the same Harvard event: “It’s time to stop worshiping at the false altar of U.S. News and World Report,” Cardona said. “It's time to focus on what truly matters — delivering value and upward mobility.”

“It’s not enough to abandon a broken system,” said Cardona, a native of Meriden and the former Connecticut state commissioner of education. “The real work is building a better one for everyone.”

The federal Education Department has already created an alternative to commercial ranking schemes in its College Scorecard website, which allows students and parents to compare undergraduate and graduate schools and programs. Professional schools like law, medicine and business need to invest in a similar tool, Cardona said.

Diver said that the Yale-led revolt has the potential to at least lead to better and more accessible information on law schools for prospective students.

“What’s needed is a credible, not-for-profit program of collecting reasonably reliable data that can then make it possible to readily compare different schools,” Diver said. “Something that at least provides single-stop shopping for people who are interested in data about law schools.”

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