Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


U.S. News monopoly needs to end

U.S. News and World Report released their 2007 law school rankings Friday. While our law school's ranking of 32nd overall should be commended, the existence of these rankings should not.

Many of us are not strangers to this annual feature of U.S. News, as it provides consumers of knowledge with a glimpse into our nation's best undergraduate and graduate programs. But the time has come for us to cease our overdependence on this publication.

My detestation for the monopoly held by U.S. News on the rankings of our nation's law schools is not held in solitude. Law professors have discussed this problem at length. And a perusal of any well-known blog by a legal scholar — including that of UW Law School professor Ann Althouse — will turn up a significant amount of discussion surrounding these rankings.


Unlike law professors, though, students have chosen to succumb to the rankings game — often by default.

As a TA for a criminal law course, I've realized that an overwhelming majority of my students hope to attend law school after graduation. While they search for their ideal school, most will analyze the U.S. News rankings. Unfortunately, though many of these students are deserving of attending a top-ranked law school, it seems that because of the exclusive reliance on these rankings, their LSAT score will inevitably determine their fate.

The situation we currently find ourselves in is nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Students use the U.S. News rankings when applying to law school, and the law schools in turn "game" the system to increase their rankings so as to attract "brighter" students because admissions committees know applicants rely extensively on these rankings.

So, how do law schools actually game the system? It's quite easy.

Law schools work tenaciously to increase their school's median LSAT score. In a 2005 interview with University of California-Berkeley Law School's Transcript — the alumni newsletter — Beth Cobb O'Neil, former vice president and associate executive director of the Law School Admission Council noted, "Rankings are very important to students, and U.S. News uses [the] average LSAT score as a major factor in such rankings. Thus schools are more likely to take anyone with a high score."

But the gaming extends beyond this.

If you've ever received a fee waiver from a law school, the waiver is often times little more than a metaphorical game piece. Fee waivers are another way law schools game the rankings. Take a closer look at the methodology section of the U.S. News rankings. The most weight is given to "selectivity" and "quality assessment." The selectivity ranking is composed of the school's median LSAT score, GPA and rejection rate.

If a law school seeks an incoming class of 200 students and receives 3,000 applications, they will extend offers to about 600 applicants. This puts their rejection rate at 80 percent. But hand out several hundred fee waivers and you'll see the number of applications increase significantly, thereby increasing the rejection rate.

And of course, yield protection is also a favorite among admissions committees. Many quality applicants will get waitlisted or rejected from lower-ranked schools even though they are qualified because the committee knows the applicant will most likely get accepted to and attend a higher-ranked school. This game also increases the school's rejection rate.

So what is this increasing reliance on the LSAT score doing to the quality of the incoming law class? Nothing.

Before Grutter v. Bollinger reached the U.S. Supreme Court, a bench trial for the affirmative action case was held in federal court.

Jay Rosner, an executive director with The Princeton Review, testified that research suggests the LSAT predicts only about 16 to 20 percent of the variance of first-year law school grades. This leaves at least 80 percent of variance unaccounted for by the exam. While undergraduate GPA accounts for even less variance in first-year grades, the GPA and LSAT taken together only predict about 25 percent of the variation in academic performance.

Given this dismal statistic, why must law schools rely almost exclusively on a measure that fails to explain about 75 percent of the variance in first-year law school grades?

Even the Law School Admissions Council — the organization responsible for the administration of the LSAT — has been an outspoken critic of law schools' increasing reliance on numbers for admission decisions.

But, the concern expressed by LSAC should be taken with a grain of salt, as LSAC continues to make the LSAT scales increasingly difficult. In other words, it's becoming harder to obtain a high score even though the exam has remained relatively constant over time in terms of difficulty.

Given the problems that result from U.S. News rankings, what can be done about our nation's admissions debacle? David Bernstein, a law professor and regular blogger on The Volokh Conspiracy, suggests that we should expand the market for law school rankings. Instead of prospective applicants running to pick up a copy of U.S. News with the latest rankings, respected publications such as Newsweek, Wall Street Journal and The American Lawyer should jump on the rankings bandwagon.

This is a start, but more is needed. Some law professors have started to do their part. Now it's up to the applicants to voice their discontent with the behavior of our nation's law school admission committees.

Darryn Beckstrom ([email protected]) is a doctoral student in the department of political science and a second-year MPA candidate in the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

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