ATL Rankings: The Good, the Bad, and the Maybe

June 4th, 2015 / By

In my last post I used Above the Law (ATL)’s law school rankings to explore three types of ranking schemes. Now it’s time to assess the good, bad, and maybe of ATL’s system. In this column I explore the good; posts on the bad and maybe will follow shortly. ATL’s metrics are worth considering both to assess that system and to reflect on all ranking schemes.

Employment Score

ATL’s ranking gives substantial weight to employment outcomes, a factor that clearly matters to students. I agree with ATL that “full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar passage (excluding solos and school-funded positions)” offer the best measure for an employment score. Surveys show that these are the jobs that most graduates want immediately after law school. Equally important, these are the jobs that allow law schools to charge a tuition premium for entry to a restricted profession. Since schools reap the premium, they should be measured on their ability to deliver the outcome.

For a focused-purpose ranking, finally, simple metrics make the most sense. Prospective law students who don’t want to practice can ignore or adjust the ATL rankings (which assume practice as a desired outcome). A student admitted to Northwestern’s JD-MBA program, for example, will care more about that program’s attributes than about the ATL rank. For most students, ATL’s employment score offers a useful starting point.

Alumni Rating

This metric, like the previous one, gives useful information to prospective students. If alumni like an institution’s program, culture, and outcomes, prospective students may feel the same. Happy alumni also provide stronger networks for career support. The alumni rating, finally, may provide a bulwark against schools gaming other parts of the scheme. If a school mischaracterizes jobs, for example, alumni may respond negatively.

It’s notable that ATL surveys alumni, while US News derives reputation scores from a general pool of academics, lawyers, and judges. The former offers particularly useful information to prospective students, while the latter focuses more directly on prestige.

Debt Per Job

This is a nice way of incorporating two elements (cost and employment) that matter to students. The measure may also suggest how closely the institution focuses on student welfare. A school that keeps student costs low, while providing good outcomes, is one that probably cares about students. Even a wealthy student might prefer that institution over one with a worse ratio of debt to jobs.

The best part of this metric is that it gives law schools an incentive to award need-based scholarships. Sure, schools could try to improve this measure by admitting lots of wealthy students–but there just aren’t that many of those students to go around. Most schools have already invested in improving employment outcomes, so the best way to further improve the “debt per job” measure is for the school to award scholarships to students who would otherwise borrow the most.

Over the last twenty years, US News has pushed schools from need-based scholarships to LSAT-based ones. What a refreshing change if a ranking scheme led us back to need-based aid.

Education Cost

Cost is another key factor for 0Ls considering law schools and, under the current state of the market, I support ATL’s decision to use list-price tuition for this measure. Many students negotiate discounts from list price, but schools don’t publish their net tuition levels. The whole negotiation system, meanwhile, is repugnant. Why are schools forcing young adults to test their bargaining skills in a high-stakes negotiation that will affect their financial status for up to a quarter century?

We know that in other contexts, race and gender affect negotiation outcomes. (These are just two of many possible citations.) How sure are we that these factors don’t affect negotiations for tuition discounts? Most of the biases that taint negotiations are unconscious rather than conscious. And even if law school administrators act with scrupulous fairness, these biases affect the students seeking aid: Race and gender influence a student’s willingness to ask for more.

In addition to these biases, it seems likely that students from disadvantaged backgrounds know less about tuition negotiation than students who have well educated helicopter parents. It’s no answer to say that economically disadvantaged students get some tuition discounts; the question is whether they would have gotten bigger discounts if they were armed with more information and better negotiating skills.

Negotiation over tuition is one of the most unsavory parts of our current academic world. I favor any component of a ranking scheme that pushes schools away from that practice. If schools don’t want to be ranked based on an inflated list-price tuition, then they can lower that tuition (and stop negotiating) or publish their average net tuition. My co-moderator made the same point last year, and it’s just as valid today.

The Bad and Maybe

Those are four strengths of the ATL rankings. Next up, the weaknesses.


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