The college prestige hierarchy seems to be crumbling. And that could have revolutionary implications for the future of American education.
Just this week, several officials running some of the country's top law schools announced they would no longer participate in the U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of what the outlet considers to be the nation’s best schools for studying law.
In separate statements posted online Wednesday, the deans of Harvard and Yale suggested the rankings were severely flawed and discouraged schools from taking efforts to improve the diversity of their student populations, and thereby the legal profession as a whole.
Without access to the schools’ admissions data, U.S. News can’t continue to create its list by relying on questionable metrics of success as it has in the past.
In the legal world, there’s a dichotomy between people who work in the potentially glitzy world of corporate law and those who perform less glamorous yet essential work in the public sector. Schools looking to emphasize the latter, which usually means pulling from a more culturally and regionally diverse group of potential students, say U.S. News' rankings punish them for doing so.
"Since the very beginning, Yale Law School has taken the top spot every year," Yale Law's dean, Heather Gerken, noted in her statement. Still, she said, the school doesn't give priority to its ranking over its commitment to programs and efforts that could hurt its score.
"In recent years, we have invested significant energy and capital in important initiatives that make our law school a better place but perversely work to lower our scores," she added. "That’s because they disincentivize programs that support public interest careers, champion need-based aid, and welcome working-class students into the profession. We have reached a point where the rankings process is undermining the core commitments of the legal profession."
Harvard Law School Dean John Manning released a similar statement, saying the rankings "work against law schools’ commitments to enhancing the socioeconomic diversity of our classes; to allocating financial aid to students based on need; and, through loan repayment and public interest fellowships, to supporting graduates interested in careers serving the public interest."
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley's School of Law, announced on Thursday his school would also withdraw from the ranking system.
“Do we think that there is a benefit to participation in the U.S. News process that outweighs the costs? The answer, we feel, is no,” Chemerinsky said in a statement.
Writing for The Nation, legal scholar (and frequent guest on "The ReidOut") Elie Mystal explained why vaunted law schools pulling out of the U.S. News ranking system would hurt the rankings' credibility:
The U.S. News rankings are influential, and problematic. The metrics used by U.S. News are only obtainable through data that is self-reported by the schools. By pulling out, Yale and Harvard will deprive U.S. News of the data it needs to make its rankings sausage.
Without access to the schools’ admissions data, U.S. News can’t continue to create its list by relying on questionable metrics of success, such as test scores, as it has in the past (at least not if it wants to include Harvard, Yale and Berkeley in its rankings).
That undermines the semblance of legitimacy this dubious ranking system has, which could encourage other law schools to ditch the list and give priority to more revelatory and inclusive admissions standards, which would mean admitting students from an inherently diverse pool of candidates.
That may be the biggest implication here.
The rankings boycott could also help schools circumvent a forthcoming decision by the conservative-leaning Supreme Court that could outlaw race-conscious school admissions policies, which has been a major means of diversifying America's college campuses. If Harvard, Yale and Berkeley succeed in pushing other law schools to ditch the list and adopt more inclusive admissions standards, they may have found a way to push back against the conservative effort to whiten America’s colleges and universities.