More on Rankings: Three Purposes

June 1st, 2015 / By

I want to continue my discussion of the law school rankings published by Above the Law (ATL). But before I do, let’s think more generally about the purpose of law school rankings. Who uses these rankings, and for what reason? Rankings may serve one or more of three purposes:

1. Focused-Purpose Rankings

Rankings in this first category help users make a specific decision. A government agency, for example, might rate academic institutions based on their research productivity; this ranking could the guide the award of research dollars. A private foundation aiming to reward innovative teaching might develop a ranking scheme more focused on teaching prowess.

US News and Above the Law advertise their rankings as focused-purpose ones: Both are designed to help prospective students choose a law school. One way to assess these rankings, accordingly, is to consider how well they perform this function.

Note that focused-purpose rankings can be simple or complex. Some students might choose a law school based solely on the percentage of graduates who secure jobs with the largest law firms. For those students, NLJ’s annual list of go-to law schools is the only ranking they need.

Most prospective students, however, consider a wider range of factors when choosing a law school. The same is true of people who use other types of focused-purpose rankings. The key function of these rankings is that they combine relevant information in a way that helps a user sort that information. Without assistance, a user could focus on only a few bits of information at a time. Focused-purpose rankings overcome that limit by aggregating some of the relevant data.

This doesn’t mean that users should (or will) make decisions based solely on a ranking scheme. Although a good scheme combines lots of relevant data, the scheme is unlikely to align precisely with each user’s preferences. Most people who look at rankings use them as a starting point. The individual adds relevant information omitted by the ranking scheme, or adjusts the weight given to particular components, before making a final decision.

A good ranking scheme in the “focused purpose” category supports this process through four features. The scheme (a) incorporates factors that matter to most users; (b) omits other, irrelevant data; (c) uses unambiguous metrics as components; and (d) allows users to disaggregate the components.

2. Prestige Rankings

Some rankings explicitly measure prestige. Others implicitly offer that information, although they claim another purpose. In either case, the need for “prestige” rankings is somewhat curious. Prestige does not inhere in institutions; it stems from the esteem that others confer upon the institution. Why do we need a ranking system to tell us what we already believe?

One reason is that our nation is very large. People from the West Coast may not know the prestige accorded Midwestern institutions. Newcomers to a profession may also seek information about institutional prestige. Some college students know very little about the prestige of different law schools.

For reasons like these, prestige rankings persist. It is important to recognize, however, that prestige rankings differ from the focused-purpose schemes discussed above. Prestige often relates to one of those focused purposes: A law school’s prestige, for example, almost certainly affects the employability of its graduates. A ranking of schools based on prestige, however, is different than a ranking that incorporates factors that prospective students find important in selecting a school.

Prestige rankings are more nebulous than focused-purpose ones. The ranking may depend simply on a survey of the relevant audience. Alternatively, the scheme may incorporate factors that traditionally reflect an institution’s prestige. For academic institutions, these include the selectivity of its admissions, the qualifications of its entering class, and the institution’s wealth.

3. Competition Rankings

Competition rankings have a single purpose: to confer honor. A competition ranking awards gold, silver, bronze, and other medals according to specific criteria. These rankings differ from the previous categories because their sole purpose is to accord honor for winning the competition.

Many athletic honors fall into this category. We honor Olympic gold medalists because they were the best at their event on a particular day, even if their prowess diminishes thereafter.

Competition rankings are most common in athletics and the arts, although they occasionally occur in academia. More commonly, as I discuss below, people misinterpret focused-purpose rankings as if they were competition ones.

US News

As noted above, US News promotes its law school ranking for a focused purpose: to help prospective students choose among law schools. Over time, however, the ranking has acquired aspects of both a prestige scheme and a competition one. These characteristics diminish the rankings’ use for potential students; they also contribute to much of the mischief surrounding the rankings.

Many professors, academic administrators, and alumni view their school’s US News rank as a general measure of prestige, not simply as a tool for prospective students to use when comparing law schools. Some of the US News metrics contribute to this perception. Academic reputation, for example, conveys relatively little useful information to potential students. It is much more relevant to measuring an institution’s overall prestige.

Even more troublesome, some of these audiences have started to treat the US News rankings as a competition score. Like Olympic athletes, schools claim honor simply for achieving a particular rank. Breaking into the top fourteen, top twenty, or top fifty becomes cause for excessive celebration.

If the US News ranking existed simply to aid students in selecting a law school, they would cause much less grief. Imagine, for example, if deans could reassure anxious alumni by saying something like: “Look, these rankings are just a tool for students to use when comparing law schools. And they’re not the only information that these prospective students use. We supplement the rankings by pointing to special features of our program that the rankings don’t capture. We have plenty of students who choose our school over ones ranked somewhat above us because they value X, Y, and Z.”

Deans can’t offer that particular reassurance, and listeners won’t accept it, because we have all given the US News rankings the status of prestige or competition scores. It may not matter much if a school is number 40 or 45 on a yardstick that 0Ls use as one reference in choosing a law school. Losing 5 prestige points, on the other hand, ruins everyone’s day.

Above the Law

I’ll offer a more detailed analysis of the ATL rankings in a future post. But to give you a preview: One advantage of these rankings over US News is that they focus very closely on the particular purpose of aiding prospective students. That focus makes the rankings more useful for their intended audience; it also avoids the prestige and competition auras that permeate the US News product.


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