Since 1983, U.S. News and World Report has published rankings of the nation’s law schools. For almost as long, there have been complaints about the way the rankings are done and what value they offer to prospective students.
Last fall, Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken announced that Yale — which consistently earned the top spot in the rankings — would no longer participate in the process because it is “undermining the core commitments of the legal profession.” Berkeley Law quickly followed, as did more than 60 law schools.
If U.S. News’ rankings are weakened, what, if anything, should replace them? And what are the right metrics for measuring a law school’s quality, for both prospective students and potential future employers?
In this episode, Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky talks to a blockbuster panel to discuss how we got here, what the revolt means, and what the future may hold: Dean Gerken, now in her second term leading Yale Law School; Colorado College President L. Song Richardson, who pulled her school out of the college rankings; and Colin Diver, a former dean at Penn Law and president of Reed College who’s been a longtime critic of the U.S. News rankings and the author of the 2022 book Breaking Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education, and What to Do about It.
More Just from Berkeley Law is a podcast about how law schools can and must play a role in solving society’s most difficult problems.
The rule of law — and the role of the law — has never been more important. In these difficult times, law schools can, and must, play an active role in finding solutions. But how? Each episode of More Just starts with a problem, then explores potential solutions, featuring Dean Erwin Chemerinsky as well as other deans, professors, students, and advocates, about how they’re making law schools matter.
Have a question about teaching or studying law, or a topic you’d like Dean Chemerinsky to explore? Email us at email@example.com and tell us what’s on your mind.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: Hello, listeners. I’m Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of Berkeley Law, and this is More Just, a podcast about how law schools help solve society’s most difficult problems. Since 1983, US News and World Report has published rankings of the nation’s law schools. But just as long, there have been complaints of the way the US News has done these rankings, their adverse effects on higher education, and the usefulness for students choosing schools.
Last November, Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken announced that Yale, which consistently earned the top spot in the rankings, would no longer cooperate with US News and provide them the requested information. Because in her words, it is undermining the core commitments of the legal profession.
Many other law schools, including Berkeley Law, decided not to cooperate with US News. In fact, about 60 law schools out of almost 200 made this choice. But the problems with US News rankings are not limited to law schools. Colin Diver, former Dean of the Pennsylvania Law School and President of Reed College, long has criticized the rankings, has written a book about it. Song Richardson, former Dean of UC Irvine Law School and now president of Colorado College made the decision that her college would no longer cooperate with US News.
Now that the latest rankings have been released, what happens as we move forward? I’m joined by these three terrific individuals for the discussion. As I mentioned, Heather Gerken, it’s her second term leading Yale Law School. Colorado College president Song Richardson was my colleague and later Dean UC Irvine School of Law. As I mentioned, Colin Diver is former Dean of Penn Law, President of Reed College, and the author of the 2022 book Ranking Ranks, How The Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What To Do About It. Thanks to each of you for being part of the conversation.
Heather, I’d like to start with you. You made the courageous decision last November that Yale was not going to cooperate with US News. You then open the door for other law schools like mine to follow. Why did you make this choice?
HEATHER GERKEN: I made it for a simple reason, which is it’s my second term and as I took a step back and thought a little bit about the work that we were doing and our relationship to the broader spectrum of legal education, I realized that the central barrier to much of the reform that needs to take place in legal education is the US News ranking system and the power that it wields within legal education.
And so there were just two examples. One was the way they treated students doing work in public interest areas, and in particular 15% of our class gets out to go and work for a year on our dime at a nonprofit. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to train a generation to serve. US News counted all of those students as effectively unemployed.
Now, that didn’t really matter for us because we’ve never paid any attention to the rankings, but what it was doing was preventing a healthy competition to the top. That is, everyone should be competing to tell their students to do this wonderful work, to tell their students they have these opportunities. But other deans for reasons I understand entirely could not afford to do that. It’s not that they couldn’t afford it financially. They couldn’t afford it because of the effect it would have on their ranking and their employment in particular.
And the second one, and this one actually is really deep, is that US News has had a terrible effect on financial aid inside of law schools. And so just to give you an example. In 2016, and that was before many of the problems really started to kick in, 71% of the students who were receiving financial aid in law were not receiving it based on need.
So imagine that. They didn’t need to fill out a single financial aid form to get aid. They were getting what are called so-called merit scholarships, which are largely given out based on scores. Because again, law schools are feeling this enormous pressure to keep their rankings up and to boost their rankings, and so they’re pouring financial aid into the hands of students who may not need it at all and depriving the students with real financial needs of the opportunities to go to law school.
And I’m all in favor of competition and thinking about scores in terms of admissions. But once someone gets admitted, they should be able to come to the table and have a seat at that table, and we ought to move heaven and earth to remove those barriers. But instead what US News has done is drained money out of real financial aid and put it into a pot of money that is just basically redistributed among students who may not need it and there have been no winners in this.
The law schools– some go up a little, some go down a little, but eventually everyone does it. But the real losers in it are clear, and that is low-income students who are being deprived of the opportunity that they’ve earned to attend law school.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: Thank you. So powerful and so persuasive. Song, you were a law school dean and now you’re president of Colorado College. You were one of the first college presidents to make the choice to not cooperate with US News. How do your reasons compared to what Heather was saying in terms of the decision she made for Yale?
SONG RICHARDSON: Thank you, Erwin, and it’s so great to be here with all of you. As I listened to Heather explain the reasons why Yale decided to leave US News and World Report, so much of it resonates with me. And so much of what Heather said are exactly the reasons why Colorado College decided to pull out.
As we were thinking at the college– and by the way, I have never been a fan of the rankings. But in the law school world in which I was dean, it was something that felt like you almost had to be a part of. And when I came to Colorado College, one of the things I loved is we didn’t pay attention to it anyway. We never did anything in order to move up in the rankings.
And I had tried to get our community to pull out of the rankings prior to what Yale did, but since we didn’t pay attention to it, we didn’t do it then. And I was so happy, I can’t tell you, when Yale pulled out and then Berkeley followed and other law schools followed, because it gave us the momentum.
And so part of the reason we decided not to cooperate, not to provide data to US News, is we believe it’s time to do things differently in higher ed and to move away from the antiquated ways of thinking that’s represented by US News and World Report. And if not now, when?
And so I said to some of my fellow college presidents, I don’t– and I understand why it’s difficult for schools to not cooperate with US News. And I also said, though, if not now, when? If we’re going to still complain about US News, then now is the time to do something about it. And frankly, I still don’t understand why that’s not happening.
But we left because we could not reconcile our values and our aspirations with what US News measures and the behaviors that Heather talked about, the behaviors that those measurements motivate. And so we left because we didn’t want to continue to perpetuate and be complicit in the system that encourages applicants to evaluate schools based on a ranking that we believe is biased, that we believe uses criteria that are associated with wealth and privilege.
And finally, we left the US News rankings because as Heather described, its measurements create perverse incentives for schools to spend money in ways that don’t add to the educational and learning experiences of our students. One of those things is the focus on standardized test scores.
We believe that our education can transform students, no matter what it is that they may have done while they’re in high school, especially when it comes to class rank and standardized test scores that are so often associated with wealth and privilege and the ability to hire mentors to help people study for the SAT if we’re thinking about college, and other ways in which the US News measurements are simply based on antiquated criteria from our perspective. That’s why we no longer cooperate.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: Thank you. Colin, you’ve been both a law school dean and a college president like Song. You’ve also been critical of the rankings for a long time and wrote a terrific book about it. What do you see as the primary problem with the rankings? Is it the same as what Heather and Song have described, or are there things that you see that they haven’t yet touched on?
COLIN DIVER: Well, thank you for asking me and for inviting me. As you know, Reed College, of which I was president, pulled out of the US News rankings back in 1995, and that was before I became president. But when I became president, I had to decide whether to continue that policy. And I not only continued it, but I wrote a number of articles and national commentaries about how Reed College had not only survived but thrived despite its position with regard to the rankings.
Initially, I thought– and particularly, of course, when I was a law school dean, which was before that– that the problem with rankings was primarily methodological. And God knows, there are many serious methodological problems with the US News rankings. But I came to realize that the deeper problem is that any attempt to come up with a single one-size-fits-all measure of multiple diverse institutions is bound to be unsuccessful and to be seriously distorting.
While I was president of Reed College, I was also a trustee of Amherst College, my Alma mater. And people used to say, well, Reed and Amherst, they’re pretty much the same. So what’s the problem? Rankings are a good way of deciding which of those two schools are better.
And I said, no, they’re fundamentally different. Yes, they are small liberal arts colleges, but they have really fundamentally different missions and cultures and histories. And no ranking that did justice to Amherst would do justice to Reed and the same was true vice versa.
So the problem was that the great wonderful institutional diversity that characterizes American higher education was essentially being obliterated by this single one-size-fits-all template that the editors of US News were imposing on our sector. The particular template that they chose, as Heather and Song have described, was to glorify privilege and prestige and pedigree and wealth. That may work for a number of institutions, but it doesn’t work for most of the institutions that don’t fundamentally serve those goals. And that was true of Reed College.
It seemed to me that what US News was doing was saying to the applicant audience, and indeed the entire public, that what really counts in higher education is privileging the privileged. It’s cementing the existing system of privilege, which is a terrible distorting view and undercuts what most of us, I think, on this panel think is the real purpose of higher education, which is to lift people up which is to provide social mobility and to promote democracy.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: Let me try to play devil’s advocate for a moment. There is an argument for rankings in providing information, especially to those who are less privileged. I’m the first generation, first in my family to ever go to college [INAUDIBLE] my parents or brother or sister did. I didn’t have access to somebody who could tell me these law schools are better than these law schools on this basis or that basis. Don’t rankings provide some information to people that they wouldn’t otherwise have?
HEATHER GERKEN: I mean, I actually built a ranking. I helped build a ranking of election performance. So I believe in rankings. I believe in numbers. I believe in accountability. I think there are two important things to focus on here, though.
The first is Colin’s point, which is different students have markedly different goals in going to law school. And so what I love about the ABA website is that it gives you a huge amount of data. The ABA has been a real leader in putting out accessible transparent data. There are websites where you can go and sort of choose your own adventure, figure out what matters most to you, and make your choices on that basis. But a one ranking to rule them all is not serving those students well.
The second problem is that US News ranking itself is so deeply flawed. And so there are better ways to build a law school ranking, and many of us– and I look to all of you, Erwin and Song. I know the Dean spent years, years trying to tell US News about the problems in its ranking, the perverse incentives it was creating, offering better ways of measuring it, and it did nothing.
SONG RICHARDSON: Yes.
HEATHER GERKEN: Nothing. And it was too late. And it doesn’t even have seemingly the capacity to. I mean, they do not have any expert in legal education on their staff. When they were forced to collect data themselves, they obviously made a mess of it, which is what happened in releasing the rankings and pulling them back and all the mistakes.
But at bottom, they don’t even understand the fundamentals about legal education. So they are sending out a false signal. It breaks my heart. So you’re a low-income student, and they are sending out a false signal, for example, about things like scholarship. So they’re not telling you how much scholarship goes into need and how much goes into merit.
They’re not telling you about loan forgiveness programs. A lot of them, the metrics that they are providing give a false signal to low-income students. And in addition, and let’s not lose track of this, they have fundamentally destroyed the financial aid system that ought to exist in the United States for low-income students.
And if you think about that trade-off, more transparency, better knowledge versus not actually getting the financial aid you need to go to law school, you can fix the information deficit on the first, and law schools are really working toward that. But you cannot fix what they have done on the financial aid side. It has decimated financial aid in law schools.
It is just tragic at a moment when economic inequality is at the center of conversations everywhere that this profession which needs to bring everyone to the table has created so many barriers based on economic inequality. And that’s what they’ve done. So low-income students have been very badly served by US News.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: I wanted to emphasize something Heather said at the beginning about how the deans have been going to US News about this for years. I flew to Washington D.C. about 10 years ago to meet with Bob Morris, the Chief Data Strategist, and his staff to complain about they’re not counting students in school-funded fellowships as fully employed.
Our experience is that 94% of the students who receive those fellowships stay doing public service and public interest work. They are so important in launching public service careers. I was stunned at how little Bob Morris and his staff knew about how these fellowships operated, where these students were.
And over the last decade, I’ve repeatedly sent letters, one as recently as last spring, complaining over this all to no avail. So your point of this having been raised for a long time before schools ultimately decided not to participate is very true. But Song, I cut you off.
SONG RICHARDSON: No, you didn’t, but I’m glad you raised, both of you, raised those points, because what we all know is yes, it is wonderful for students to have information so that they can make rational, reasonable choices for where they will thrive. What we know about US News and World Report though, is that it’s a business.
Fundamentally, that is what it is, which is why Erwin and when other deans went to speak to US News about giving real information of how flawed the methodology was, there was no incentive for them to do anything else. Because as much as they say that what they want is to give information to students that’s relevant and important, they also are a business. Which is why now when schools are pulling out, especially law schools– you’re doing it way more than anyone else is– now there is a threat to their business model and to their legitimacy.
And so in addition to what you shared, Heather, about the problems, the other issue is their data and their metrics and the way they rank schools is opaque. So while they claim that they’re giving all schools what the percentages are that they are using to count and issue the rankings, that’s not the case, which is why schools like us when I was a law school dean who wanted that data, we provide data to US News, and then, guess what? We had to pay them money to get access to the data so we could figure out how they actually ranked us. That is ridiculous.
So when they say what they care about is transparency for students, I find that a little bit hard to believe. And some of the changes that they are making now, like the ones they just announced, they just announced these changes in their rankings which I’m sure we’re going to talk about, that occurred because they are feeling pressure.
But at the same time that they announced these rankings, these changes in methodology, I received in my email box today the US News beauty contest questionnaire, the one where we all get to rank other schools. We know that people game that system. And because of this questionnaire of what do you think the reputation of other schools are, this often causes other schools to spend lots of money to market themselves.
So again, they’re making some changes which I think are great. I like them. I’m very curious about what the percentages are that they’re going to put with these new changes that they’re making. But simultaneously, they’re still doing the same old thing, the reputation rankings.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: But Colin, you say that you can’t summarize things in a single number, and there’s a wealth of information that’s available about college, about law schools. But how is somebody supposed to assess the relative quality of one school relative to another? Because knowing some of the information that’s available doesn’t really give you a sense of is the faculty at this school better than the faculty of another.
I think we’d all agree not every school is equal to every other school. So what US News says is we’re helping to provide that information to students, and it’s one factor that students should consider. How do you respond to the US News argument?
COLIN DIVER: First of all, your question a little bit earlier was, what about lower income or academically deprived students who don’t have ready access to lots of information, perhaps don’t have good college counselors, certainly can’t afford private college counselors. There have been numerous surveys that have shown that overwhelmingly the primary users of US News college rankings are economically and educationally privileged students. So the fact is that they are not really doing a very good job of serving the academically and economically deprived students.
The second thing is that there is a wealth of data available. Of course there’s the ABA data on law schools, which is readily available on the ABA website. For undergraduates, there’s the College Scorecard and there are numerous college guides. And US News itself, of course, provides lots of data about the schools they rank.
The problem is that rankings are not data. Rankings are constructs that these self-appointed educational arbiters create, come up with, and they’re not based on any educational theory or educational principles or scientific research. They’re based on the gut feeling of a bunch of essentially amateur journalists.
Those numbers are what they use to draw eyeballs to their website. And I grant you that that’s one way in which they reach a lot of people who might otherwise have trouble finding other sites. I wish that, for example, the College Scorecard were better advertised, because it doesn’t have a ranking but it has lots of data and it has lots of useful data.
Now, it’s true it’s very, very hard, if not impossible, to quantitatively measure academic quality, that is the quality of instruction for example, the quality of a curriculum, even the quality of research. There are many different ways to try to do that, some of them better than others.
I happen to think that the percentage of small classes is a pretty good quantitative measure or proxy for educational quality. I find it interesting that US News has just announced two days ago that they’re going to drop that from their college rankings. And I’m thinking, well that was one of the very few that I thought more or less directly tried to measure educational quality. Why would you get rid of it?
And I think I know the answer. Because the recent embarrassment suffered by Columbia University last year when one of their math professors blew the whistle on the fact that they had been making up data on various measures, including class size, convinced US News that it’s just too easy to fudge the class size data.
And also, as we know, class size is measured by US News only in the fall, so that gives rankings-obsessed administrators the well-documented incentive to move large lecture courses into the spring, which is bad because those are introductory courses and students are then having to delay for a semester before they can take them. So there are some measures, I think, that are better than others, and I’m sorry that US News doesn’t use any of them now.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: Song mentioned that at least for law schools, US News changed its methodology this year. They said they were shifting to an outcome-based methodology. They decreased the role of the reputational survey. They decreased LSAT and GPA medians.
They did say they were going to give way to school-funded positions as employed. They increased the weight on employment. They increased the weight on bar passage. Is this sufficient? Have they met the major criticisms, Heather, that you had?
HEATHER GERKEN: I was pleased to see some of these changes, particularly that Yale Law School went from a low employment school to a full employment school in a single day, even though students have been fully employed for generations.
SONG RICHARDSON: Congratulations.
HEATHER GERKEN: But that just gives you a sense of the fact that we had asked them to do that for years and years and years, and it was the right thing to do. The American Bar Association had recognized it was the right thing to do, but it took dropping to get something simple like that is really unfortunate.
I just will say that, Erwin, that everything that we have seen from US News since we dropped has convinced us of the importance of our decision and cemented our decision not to take part in these rankings and not to bless them. Because by participating in them we legitimate them and we perpetuate the deep problems that they have, which the financial aid piece of it remains. There are many other deep flaws in the system.
But also to say that there were 100 deans, I think, that they spoke to across the last year in an effort to sort of bring people back. I have not– I have yet to speak to a dean whose confidence in US News increased after that conversation, and just watch what happened.
This is the first time where they haven’t had the deans not just buying back the data as Song said, which has happened for a long time, but not subsidizing their data collection by putting it on a silver platter for them. And it was a mess. They haven’t invested in the basic infrastructure to have the expertise to know what data to collect and then to collect it.
And then just to go to Colin’s point, I mean, if we want to talk a little bit about the lack of principle. When you ask US News why it does what it does it is almost never able to justify it in a way that is consistent in principle. They have acknowledged publicly, as The Wall Street Journal reported, that they actually peek at the rankings after they’ve done their weightings and then redo them, which is again–
The editor-in-chief of Science Magazine called that fraud, because it’s not the way that if you have a set of principles, when you’re building a ranking, you build your principles. They’re the ones that guide you and you stick by what the ranking is. And just to give you an example, the remarkable Dean Lawson from University of Washington Law School and I wrote an editorial and just talked a little bit about principles. If you care about economic equity, which they say they do, there’s a lot of stuff that is in the rankings.
So one clear thing, we ought to know just one basic question. How many of your students come from below the poverty line? Because right now, the Pell Grant ranking in my view, those Pell Grant numbers have generated a really healthy race to the top among colleges. We ought to have something similar in law schools. We ought to know how many of your students come from below the poverty line.
We ought to know another very simple important piece of data, which is how much of your financial aid is really financial aid that is going to the hands of students who need it the most, and how much of it is actually merit-based aid which is going to students who may or may not need it. There are some basic things that are missing from it.
And the reason they’re missing from it is because they are not– they don’t start with a set of principles and then move forward. They basically grab what data they can and then don’t really have a justification. I mean, year to year, they change the ranking and you never know why and you get inconsistent information about why that was so.
It’s because they aren’t driven by a broader theory of education. They aren’t driven by an expert knowledge of legal education. It’s a ranking system that hasn’t been created by experts.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: Song, if I could follow up, is there a way that US News could change its methodology for college rankings that you would want Colorado College to participate? How much of this is about their methodology, and how much is its very existence of a numerical ranking which as Colin was saying is objectionable?
SONG RICHARDSON: I agree with Colin. I think it’s impossible to do an apples to apples ranking of schools that are so fundamentally different from each other. That doesn’t answer the question then of how do students find the schools that’s right for them.
And given how savvy our kids are these days and the way that they go and find information about schools online themselves or even what The New York Times just did, which I really liked, you can put in the criteria that you think are important and a whole list of schools will show up for you, that to me is a better way for students to find and parents from the college perspective to find the school where their kid or where they themselves can thrive.
By virtue of having rankings like US News, you are fundamentally telling students something that’s just not true, that a ranking of number one and a ranking of number 20 is actually comparing apples to apples. And I think I agree completely with what Colin said is an impossible task.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: US News responded aggressively and said that those schools that were choosing not to participate were trying to undermine accountability. I’m curious that your response to that. And also I wonder, Colin, in response to what you said, what Song said, whether the answer shouldn’t be more rankings from more sources? That the problem at least in law with regard to US News is it was regarded as definitive, maybe even authoritative.
And if there were multiple rankings on many different measures it would make US News less important and yet there would still be information from students. I’m curious. Would you be comfortable with that or would you rather say we shouldn’t have rankings at all?
COLIN DIVER: No, I would be comfortable with that. I have said in a number of places, including in my book, that I have no objection to ranking on the basis of a single criterion. So if a person is really seriously interested in graduation rate, fine. You can find a graduation rate ranking. If you’re seriously interested in social mobility or return on investment, again, you can find rankings based on that.
The other thing is I have no particular objection to ranking by at least refined categories. You can have a ranking of women’s colleges. You can have a ranking of HBCUs. But at least then you’re comparing apples to apples. Obviously different kinds of apples, but at least apples to apples.
But a ranking that purports to compare, as The Wall Street Journal one does, 700 or 800 institutions and says that Ohio State University is better than Kenyon College is just laughable. It’s just ridiculous. And so I’m not against all rankings. I’m against one-size-fits-all rankings and I’m against rankings that try to collapse all of the wonderful variety of measures of academic performance into a single number.
So sure, let 1,000 flowers bloom. That’s what I would like to see happen and what I hoped would happen for 20 or 30 years, and it unfortunately still hasn’t happened.
SONG RICHARDSON: And I just want to jump in for a second about the critique that US News, the one you mentioned about we are jumping out of US News because we are worried about transparency and accountability and we don’t want students to know. Wow.
When I read that, it was shocking to me because what I wanted to say is, what about you? Why don’t you be transparent with us about every single thing that you are measuring, how you are measuring it. And then as you mentioned, Heather, when you decide that you’re going to tinker with the rankings because the way they came out isn’t what you thought it should be.
If we want to be transparent, then let’s be transparent about exactly how you measure what you purport to measure. That I would love to see. And I think if we do that, and if they did that, people who are so reliant on the rankings right now– because it is convenient shorthand. It really is.
We have information overload. It is really easy to focus on US News. People would start to realize that the emperor has no clothes. They would actually see what is really going on and maybe wouldn’t rely on it so much. But right now, a lot of people don’t even know about it.
And I want to mention one more thing. The other difficulty is, for law schools anyway, employers look at the ranking of the law school too. Judges look at the rankings of the law school to when they’re choosing who to hire for clerkships, when they’re trying to determine what school they’re going to go to to recruit.
So the difficulty of US News and World Report is not simply what schools students choose to go to that will allow them to thrive, but what jobs can they get in the legal profession when they leave when so many other companies and areas rely on these rankings too. That’s another downside, pernicious effect of it.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: And Heather, [INAUDIBLE] your response to what Song and Colin just said. When you saw US News very aggressively say law schools are trying to undermine accountability, what was your response?
HEATHER GERKEN: It was a really strange response. I mean, first, Song is exactly right. For an organization that is entirely non-transparent and unaccountable, I mean, we just witnessed weeks of chaos where they released a ranking, they pulled it back, they refused to tell reporters why they pulled it back, what was changed, what were the mistakes that were corrected, I mean it’s a very strange form of accountability where you actually don’t have any transparency from them on these kinds of questions and people have to buy their data to try to guess what the formula is.
And this is a group that holds itself out as data reporters. And of course, as all of you know, being a data reporter is a very serious thing. There are expert journals across the country. They’re cloaking themselves in the legitimacy of data reporting, but they’re not actually adhering to the practices of data reporting.
And so that’s a strange thing, but let’s also talk about the accountability of law schools. The American Bar Association holds law schools accountable. Not just in the deepest sense which is they accredit us, and Song, I don’t know if you went through this, but going through an ABA accreditation process is very serious. It takes an enormous amount of resources to pull together the data that they want. It’s incredibly thorough.
But they also hold us accountable year to year because they are, I think, in the lead of most professions in terms of publishing data in a transparent way. So there is just an enormous amount of data out there that is ready to go for any student who wants it and any institution that wants to create a ranking from it. That’s because the ABA has really been focused on this. It has been a real leader on it. So of all the schools to rebuke for this, it’s strange to go after the law schools.
Also just note that the schools themselves are all good faith actors and we want to hold ourselves accountable. And so one of the really interesting things is almost every school that I know as soon as they dropped from US News created a Yale by the numbers or school by the numbers page where we put all of our data together in one place so that students could see it and have it right there so they didn’t have to hunt for different parts of our website or hunt in different parts of the ABA.
Because we want students to have this information and to make an informed choice. No one wants a student to come to their school who really shouldn’t be there and should be going someplace else.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: Let me ask a quick follow-up, Heather. Imagine that some of the listeners to this podcast are prospective law students and you need to explain to them why they shouldn’t be looking at US News as they’re going about choosing law schools. What would you say to them?
HEATHER GERKEN: I would say to them at this point US News just sending out a at least non-transparent signal, but a false signal in many instances about things that most students really care about. That US News has no expertise whatsoever. So if you’re going to rely on someone’s ranking, you should at least know that they have expertise in the area.
Also I’ll just say if you’re a good ranking system, you listen to critique. Every year you want it to get better, but you want it to get better because you listen to what’s going on. All of the changes that US News made were only in response to the fact that the law schools dropped out. That is not the sign of a healthy organization that is really trying to improve itself.
Critique is what it means to be an expert. That you can defend your decisions. That you test them out every year. So if you’re going to look for data, go to the ABA website, go to many of these sort of aggregating groups where you can figure out what really matters to you and figure out what those numbers look like. The information is out there.
And this is one of the biggest decisions in your life. This is one of the biggest professional investments you will make. Pulling up a ranking in 3 seconds and looking at a ranking that is a good one to make a law school decision is not the way to make a decision about law school. You should be engaged in a much deeper, more thoughtful process, and the information is there for you to do it.
You should do the work and that’s professional work and welcome to the professional world. That’s what you should be doing as you make all your decisions. You should not be spending more time on choosing a phone or your apartment than you should on choosing a law school. You should invest in that, and there’s a lot of data and information out there.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: I’d like to ask each of you the question of what next? What happened this year in law schools, in top medical schools, in some colleges was unprecedented in identifying the problems with US News. How do we go forward from here? How do we sustain and expand?
Colin, I’ll start with you, because you’ve been writing about this for such a long time and now what you’ve been saying is coming to fruition. How do we go forward?
COLIN DIVER: I guess I have to write another book, Erwin. I have to say, I am so thrilled to be in the company of educators who have not only criticized the rankings, but who have acted on that criticism. As president of Reed College, it was very lonely for a very long time. I used to criticize them very publicly.
I went to meetings of professional associations like the Annapolis Group, which I assume Song is familiar with. I kept telling people they should drop out and they didn’t. So I’m thrilled that there’s been this much progress.
What I’m hoping, I don’t know if it’s more than just a dream, maybe it’s a hope, is that now that US News is sending out the reputation survey and the statistical questionnaire to the undergraduate institutions, they’ve just sent them out as Song mentioned, maybe more of the presidents and provosts out there of the undergraduate institutions and deans will say, wait a second, why are we doing this?
Those law schools and some of the medical schools showed some courage. Even a few of our own colleagues showed some courage. Maybe we should as well. So I’m hoping that will happen.
I’m also, frankly, in the law school world hoping that there are some alternatives to US News. US News is so powerful in the law school world because it really is a monopolist. In the undergraduate world, it isn’t a monopolist. There are multiple rankings. It is the most powerful of those, but it is not a monopoly.
And my hope is that as there’s more competition for rankings, the power of any one of them, including US News, will diminish. So I hope my colleagues in the law school world will try to engineer some alternatives that are credible and hopefully run by a nonprofit, because the profit motive distorts rankings no matter who does them.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: Song, do you see a path for getting more colleges and universities to follow your lead and not participate?
SONG RICHARDSON: I do. And in addition to everything that Colin said, I think what we need when I speak to other college presidents about the fact that they dislike US News but they can’t drop out, is the pressure that they are getting from their alumni, their parents, and students, current students, who don’t want to see the rankings drop.
And I think fundamentally I believe in people’s desire to get accurate information about where they can thrive. And I just think not enough people are aware right now of all the fundamental flaws with the US News ranking system. I think that’s– and so if we can keep the pressure up and continue to get news and articles out there about how the lack of transparency and how the problematic incentives that US News rankings place on institutions, I think if people really understood that, we could start getting more presidents of colleges to join.
Because frankly, it’s appalling. And I understand why, but there’s less than five of us who have pulled out of US News even at schools like Yale. Even your schools, your colleges haven’t done it. I find it intriguing. I can’t quite figure it out. So I think if we could just get more information out there, more information like Colin, your book, more of what Heather is saying, more of what you’ve been saying, Erwin, so that people really understand what these rankings stand for, I think that can make a difference.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: Heather, how do we do that? And what do we do in the law school world? How do we make sure that next year it’s not just the 60 from this year but more? My fear is that if it goes in the opposite direction and schools go back to participating with US News, we’ll have lost a once in a lifetime opportunity to really undermine what’s a very pernicious ranking system.
HEATHER GERKEN: I should say that I think the American Bar Association is committed to this and eager to help build better models and more opportunities and expand the amount of data that are available. I think there are a lot of other organizations ready to step in because the vacuum has started to be created. It really does feel like a sea change.
I am not worried about it going back. I am worried about the responsibility that we have to make sure that better data and more data is out there going forward. You can’t just tear something down. You have to build something new to replace it, and I am sure that the law deans are committed to that.
But I will also just say I think it’s so important, and so I so admire Colin and Song here, to lead with your values. Two years ago, we were the first school in the country to create full tuition scholarships not based on, quote unquote, “merit”, but based on income. So for the 10% of our student body, I’ll give you our number, 10% of our student body roughly comes from families below the poverty line, and we put out those merit scholarships and this year we’re creating it for 200% above the poverty line. That’s 15% of the class.
And I thought, because often when Yale moves, people move with us, I thought people would move with us. And what I realized quickly is there is a reason why only Harvard and Yale Law School are the last law schools in the country to give out scholarship fully based on need, and it’s because of the pressures that US News creates. And I think it’s just time to lead with our values.
And I will say that it was a very nerve-wracking day the day that I dropped. I’m sure Song and Colin can know exactly what that feels like. But the response has been overwhelming from not just our alumni. I mean, it’s just astonishing. Other than the cupcake truck and a week-long break at Thanksgiving, there are very few things that garner such enormous agreement.
But also I should just say from students. So our students, current students and our new [INAUDIBLE], are extraordinarily proud of what we’ve done. They recognize that this is a blow against economic inequality. This is our duty and responsibility. This is us leading with our values.
And we had– most of our peers had flatlined or went down in terms of applications. We went up and we had the second highest yield in our history. That is because we pulled out from US News, not despite the fact.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: I’m so grateful to each of you. So thank you. I hope listeners enjoyed this episode of More Just. Be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you have a topic you’d like us to cover, send an email to morejust– M-O-R-E-J-U-S-T– @berkeley.edu and share your thoughts. Until next time, I’m Berkeley Law Dean, Erwin Chemerinsky.