Sunday, September 24, 2006

ABA to Make Law School Data More Accessible

I have good news for my fellow rankings geeks! The American Bar Association has agreed to make the quantitative data contained in The Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools available in a format congenial to number-crunching. David Rosenlieb, the ABA's Data Specialist, told me last Friday that the organization's website will soon offer the data in a downloadable Excel file.

Formerly, the ABA had made that data available only in comparatively unwieldy hardcopy or PDF formats. That made using the ABA data to duplicate and double-check the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings unnecessarily difficult. By making the quantitative data from the Official Guide available in a downloadable Excel file, the ABA will have partially fulfilled one of the reforms I suggested for improving the way the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings work.

I am very grateful to David for acting on my proposal. Notably, however, the ABA must do still more to empower researchers to replicate the USN&WR rankings. USN&WR follows the ABA's lead in collecting financial data about the law schools it ranks. Specifically, the USN&WR rankings use five categories of ABA-defined financial data:
  • Total Instruction and Administration;
  • Library Operations;
  • Law School Miscellaneous Expenses;
  • Tuition Reimbursement, Grants, and Loan Forgiveness; and
  • Indirect Financial Aid.
Although the ABA collects that same financial data, it does not publish it in the Official Guide. Instead, it makes the data available only to the Dean of each of its member law schools, in statistical "take-offs" it marks as confidential. That will have to change if, as I've suggested, the ABA makes publicly available all the data that it has and that the USN&WR rankings use.

Why does the ABA hesitate to release that vital financial data? When earlier I described the details of the ABA's data collection and dissemination practices, I surmised that it restricted access to schools' financial data in order to increase its revenue. More recently, however, my better-at-deciphering-law-school-politics half (who runs USD Law School's very cool Entrepreneurship Clinic) came up with an alternative explanation for the ABA's secrecy: Law schools probably want to keep the magnitude of some expenditures--especially those relating to law profs' salaries--hidden from alums and other potential donors. Better, from a fund-raising point of view, to draw a veil over law school expenditures and instead focus on revenue shortfalls.

Whatever the reasons for the ABA's reticence, I hope they do not dissuade it from publicly disclosing law schools' financial data. As I've explained to David, it would suffice for purposes of replicating the USN&WR rankings to combine the categories described above into three numbers for each school: Total Instruction and Administration; Library Operations plus Law School Miscellaneous Expenses; and Tuition Reimbursement, Grants, and Loan Forgiveness plus Indirect Financial Aid. (The ABA would also have to release that data from each of the last two years.) That sort of obscuring tactic might help assuage concerns that disclosing the data will eat into the revenues that the ABA gets from its take-offs and that law schools get from ignorant donors. David has told me he will look into the issue. For now, we rankings geeks can only wait with bated breath.

[Crossposted to MoneyLaw.]

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