Saturday, June 03, 2006

Why to Model USN&WR's Law School Rankings

In the most recent of my ongoing series of rankings-related posts, I described how I "reverse engineered" U.S. News and World Report's 2007 law school rankings. I here explain why I reverse engineered them. In brief, I undertook to study the rankings for the same reasons that people study hurricanes, volcanoes, or the like: In awe-struck appreciation of the phenomenon's power and in the hope that I might help innocents avoid disaster. Others might have different reasons for modeling the rankings, I grant. None, however, should expect to find a shortcut to the top.

My obsession with USN&WR's rankings began modestly enough. I simply wanted to know how close my employer, Chapman University School of Law, had come to escaping from the fourth tier. Three years ago, in the "2004" rankings (published in the spring of 2003), Chapman made a third tier debut in the USN&WR rankings. In the 2005 rankings, to the consternation and bewilderment of its faculty, administration, and students, Chapman dropped to the fourth tier. When that condition persisted into last year's rankings—the "2006" rankings—I began to wonder exactly where we scored relative to other law schools. I imagined that we lay somewhere near the top of the bottom tier, naturally. I could not know, however, because USN&WR lists schools in the third and fourth tiers alphabetically; it does not disclose their scores. I thus set about building a model of the rankings, so that I could assign Chapman a particular score relative to its peers. That resulting model confirmed my hunch—and disclosed a great many other interesting things about the rankings.

You might suppose that Chapman's administration urged me to reverse engineer the rankings so that we might thereby discover the secret to moving up. That supposition, however, would give them too little credit. I came up with the idea on my own and, while they've humored my interest, the Dean and Associate Dean have never asked me to pursue it. They must have realized from the start what I figured out only by dint of long hours of research: There exists no secret short-cut to the top of the rankings.

Unhappily for Chapman, USN&WR's peer and bar reputation indicators together count for a whopping 40% of each school's score. As Prof. Brian Leiter has explained, USN&WR's reputation indicators unfairly disadvantage small law schools, law schools outside the Northeast, and law schools that already suffer low reputation scores. That's three strikes against Chapman. In addition, as a new school, Chapman undoubtedly falls prey to, ahem, strategic survey responses. USN&WR ignores "don't know" answers to its reputation surveys, you see, which means that the reputation score of a new school turns for the most part on a few responses from those who know it as an upstart rival. It will thus take far longer than it should for Chapman to escape the fourth tier.

Though it may sound odd coming from somebody obviously obsessed with the topic, I routinely counsel my Chapman colleagues to not worry about the USN&WR rankings. True, our unfairly low ranking makes our work more difficult. There is not much we can do about it in the short run, however, and we gain nothing by flailing about in desperate attempts to improve our USN&WR score. Indeed, apart from gratifying my idle curiosity, I've found my model most useful as a curative for various misconceptions about how this or that administrative nostrum will "really help us in the rankings." Very little but patience will, alas. Judging from my model, Chapman has begun moving up in the rankings. Although it's not yet close, our USN&WR ranking will eventually catch up with our merits. In the meantime, we—like other law schools—do best to focus on what really matters: Turning our students into well-informed and ethical attorneys.

Earlier posts about the 2007 USN&WR law school rankings:


Glen Whitman said...

So did your reverse engineering reveal why Chapman dropped from the third to the fourth tier? Was it due to a change in the formula or a change in the values of the component variables?

Tom W. Bell said...


As I wasn't reverse engineering the rankings back then, I cannot be very certain why Chapman dropped in the rankings. I suspect these two causes, though: 1) Early in its history, when it had of necessity built up most of the infrastructure for a full-blown school but not yet admitted a full student body, it enjoyed especially good expenditure/student and stu/fac indicators; 2) The year that we dropped a tier, USN&WR inexplicably reduced the number of students in the third tier, effectively moving up the cut-off for the 4th tier.

Arctura said...

Apparently Chapman Law is back in Tier 3 now, and US News have started ranking Tier 3 schools as well (no longer just alphabetical).

Ian said...

If you look at the faculty profile of Chapman Law School, you will see most of them are from top law schools such as Harvard and Yale. In fact, you don't see much difference between Chapman and Hastings, if you only look at the schools faculty graduated from.

Ian said...

If you look at the faculty profile of Chapman Law School, you will see most of them are from top law schools such as Harvard and Yale. In fact, you don't see much difference between Chapman and Hastings, if you only look at the schools faculty graduated from.