How Deans Should Game the Above the Law Rankings

May 1st, 2014 / By

The popular legal news website Above the Law just announced its 2014 Top 50 Law School Rankings. ATL’s methodology focuses exclusively on outcomes: only jobs, total cost, and alumni satisfaction matter.

I generally disfavor rankings. Ranking systems appeal to a desire for clear answers even when clear answers don’t exist. Through a simple list format, rankings project the appearance of authority and value even when they provide neither.

Inherent issues aside, ATL’s rankings at least focus on elements that should and do matter to prospective students. As a result, the ATL rankings incentivize schools to act in ways that measurably help students. That’s a welcome change.

If you’re a law school dean that wants to increase its standing in the ATL rankings, here are the two most critical steps:

1. Lower Tuition

The ATL rankings factor in total educational cost, which combines living expenses, tuition, inflation, and the interest accumulated during law school. Unless a law school moves across the country, student living expenses are relatively inflexible. To compete on the education cost metric schools must either lower tuition or convince ATL to use net price instead of sticker price.

In using sticker price, ATL penalizes schools that use a high tuition, high discount model. That’s basically every school (but maybe changing). Schools that shift to a more transparent pricing model will benefit in next year’s rankings without taking in less tuition revenue.

2. Maintain or Reduce Class Size

Although class sizes are not directly measured by the ATL rankings, each employment metric either controls for graduating class size (SCOTUS clerkships; Article III judges) or relies on an employment percentage for which graduating class size is the denominator. Graduating class size is a function of incoming class size, net transfers, and students dropping out or taking longer to finish school than anticipated.

Smaller incoming classes demonstrate a modicum of social and professional responsibility in a visible manner. This buys trust from incoming students. But the urge to take more transfers to generate more revenue must be appealing these days as schools try to make up for lost 1L revenue. After all, transfers pay more, do not impact LSAT or GPA medians, have low marginal cost, and integrate rather silently. Large transfer classes also seem appealing if you believe that enrollment cuts have been too deep—an increasingly common, yet disturbing belief.

Due to ATL’s methodology, schools cannot hide from enrollment levels that adversely affect employment outcomes. Neither can schools make up for over-enrollment by funding jobs for graduates. As such, resisting the temptation to grow enrollment will benefit schools on rankings that unapologetically penalize schools for graduating too many students into a crowded entry-level market.

* * *

Schools game rankings. That’s just a basic fact about modern higher education. At least with ATL’s rankings, gaming the rankings produces measurable, positive results for students and the profession. It sure beats an incentive to burn money on blackacre to secure a higher ranking.

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