Do Rankings Matter? the Effects of U.S. News & World Report Rankings on the Admissions Process of Law Schools

Article excerpt

In recent years, there has been a tremendous proliferation of quantitative evaluative social measures in the field of law as well as society generally. One of these measures, the U.S. News & World Report rankings of law schools, has become an almost obsessive concern of the law school community, generating a great deal of speculation about the effects of these rankings on legal education. However, there has been no attempt to systematically ascertain what, if any, effects these rankings have on the decisionmaking of students and schools in the admission process. This article documents some of these effects by conceptualizing rankings as a signal of law school quality, investigating (1) whether students and schools use this signal to make decisions about where to apply and whom to admit, and (2) whether the creation of this signal distorts the phenomenon-law school quality-that it purports to measure. Using data for U.S. law schools from 1996 to 2003, we find that schools' rankings have significant effects on both the decisions of prospective students and the decisions schools make in the admissions process. In addition, we present evidence that the rankings can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for some schools, as the effects of rank described above alter the profile of their student bodies, affecting their future rank. Cumulatively, these findings suggest that the rankings help create rather than simply reflect differences among law schools through the magnification of the small, and statistically random, distinctions produced by the measurement apparatus.

Over the last 15 years, there has been a great increase in the number of rankings of educational institutions published by widely circulating magazines and newspapers both in the United States and internationally.1 Part of a general trend toward increased accountability and transparency through the development of social measures,2 this proliferation of rankings has generated much concern about their validity, how students use them, and how the behaviors of schools are changed in reaction to them. Nowhere is this concern more palpable than in the field of legal education. Perhaps because there is a single publication that dominates the field of law school rankings-U.S. News & World Report (hereafter, USN)-or because every accredited law school (as opposed to just the top 25 or top 50 schools in most other fields) is ranked on a single dimension, law schools and their governing organizations3 have made very public efforts to caution their constituencies about and discredit the rankings. But while this concern about the rankings has created a substantial amount of speculation and debate about the methodology, validity, and appropriateness of the rankings of education institutions (e.g., Klein & Hamilton 1998; Berger 2001; Schmalbeck 2001), there have been few studies-and none that have focused on the field of legal education4-that have attempted to determine whether or not these rankings actually affect the decisionmaking of the prospective students who are the primary audience of these publications or the behavior of the schools that the rankings evaluate.

The question of the effect of these rankings, however, is an important one, and the implications of the answer stretch beyond the boundaries of education. Rankings, in the language of economists, act as signals-observable indicators, such as price (Milgrom & Roberts 1986), advertising (Ippolito 1990), or warranties (Boulding & Kirmani 1993), of the underlying quality and properties of that which is being represented (Nelson 1970; Spence 1974). Signals, according to this view, are especially valuable in markets such as legal education, where quality is hard to measure and information is difficult for outsiders to gather themselves. Thus, rankings are especially useful to prospective law students because they provide clear (although, as we will discuss below, not necessarily accurate) indications of the underlying quality of law schools, a function that both proponents of rankings (e. …