Surviving the Rankings Game

The U.S. News & World Report grad school rankings for 2009 came out a few weeks ago and revealed some interesting developments. (By the way, what is with the “2009” rankings coming out in April of 2008? Have academic rankings gone the way of automotive companies?).

For me, the most interesting development of all could be found in the Law School Rankings, where the 5-10 spots continue to undergo a major transformation.

First, a quick note to say that I am a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, which helps explain my attention to this sort of detail and my concern over some recent trends that pretty much boil down to two things:

1. Chicago does not care about rankings

2. Everyone else does.

These two trends have, obviously, led to significant changes at the top of most ranking systems, with U.S. News being no exception. While Chicago has continued to keep the ranking process at an arm’s length, other programs have embraced it, even staffing positions that deal exclusively with ranking services. Not only that, but many law schools have made strategic decisions to boost their profiles by pouring scholarship dollars into securing the best GPA/LSAT yields they can muster.

The combination is an effective one indeed. Schools are influencing public (and private) opinion in order to score higher in the subjective areas, while increasing their academic profile in order to score higher in the more quantitative ranking components.

Meanwhile Chicago is going the other direction. The administration has taken an “anti-rankings” stance that is both admirable (in that they refuse to game the system) and destructive (in that it is hurting the school). The problem with refusing to engage in the rankings world is that everyone else cares about this. Employers, investors, voters, and pretty much any other “er” is going to put some stock in rankings like U.S. News, which means that students will care about it. They have to, because it is their future on the line. Students can’t afford to rest on their laurels or sleep easy knowing how great the faculty is. They have to think about the rate of return on their educational investment. And if that return isn’t as promising at Chicago as it is at Columbia, then the student is going to Columbia. Period.

As recently as this decade, Chicago was ranked third in the country among all law schools by U.S. News. When I was admitted for the fall of 2004, the school was fourth (Stanford had moved up), just ahead of Columbia and NYU. By the time I reached my 3L year, the New York schools had moved ahead and dropped U of C to sixth. Last year, Penn moved into a tie for sixth.

Now, Berkeley has vaulted into the #6 spot, leaving Chicago in a tie for seventh with Penn.

No matter how you feel about academic rankings in general, or U.S. News specifically, going from third to tied for seventh in under 10 years is a pretty terrible.

Even worse, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the school slides in the rankings, it starts to lose out on the top students. Then, the quality of each class starts to drop. Before long, the school is sliding down the charts, not because of an aversion to “The Rankings Game,” but because they simply don’t have the same caliber of students.

And that’s what I fear for Chicago. It is a school with a lot of great qualities and a very pure approach to academia. But it is also a law school with a crappy old building, an increasingly archaic approach to education (one of the last schools to cling to the Socratic Method, one of the first to turn off wireless Internet in the classrooms), and a stodgy campus setting. If the University of Chicago starts to lose its level of prestige – which is derived largely from rankings – then what is left to keep the best and brightest from going elsewhere?

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