Approximately 25% of the U.S. News evaluation of American law schools is based on the quality of the student body, and the lion’s share of that criterion is based on the grade point averages and LSAT scores of the student population. Ten per cent of that assessment is related to the acceptance rate. This grade point and LSAT part of the evaluation system has quite pernicious effects. It used to be that the vast majority of law school financial aid was distributed on the basis of need. No more. Now schools throw money at those students that can help the collective GPA or LSAT at the particular levels of the class that U.S. News employs. Morever, the money is doled out in a highly strategic way. There is little point in offering money to a student accepted at a higher ranked school. Indeed, serious gamers of the system might deny admission to a student who clearly will get into such a high ranked school, so as not to inflate the acceptance rate.
The tragedy of this financial competition is that it involves an enormous waste of money by the law schools who are in competition with each other. Most of the time the competing law schools only hold even, but they have spent millions of dollars on students who need the money far less than others. Alternatively, portions of that money could be spent on enhancing the law school in other respects. Understand, I appreciate why the law schools engage in these financial aid policies. If they did not, they would not hold even; the quality of their student body would decline (at least on conventional criteria); and they would fall in the rankings. The problem is that U.S. News rankings system places pressure on law schools to give less money to those in financial need by employing a redistributive system aiding those who are more likely to come from privileged financial backgrounds.
Suppose, however, that U.S. News says this is an unfortunate byproduct of our survey – certainly not its intent – but we surely need to determine the quality of a student body if we our rankings of law schools is to be remotely accurate. It is not at all clear to me that U.S. News needs to use GPA, LSAT to evaluate law school student bodies. The relative attraction of law schools is dominated by the U.S. law school rankings. In the absence of some unusual reason, students tend to go to the highest ranked law school they can get into. And since law schools primarily, but not exclusively, admit the top three quarters of the class on the numbers (numbers count in the bottom quarter, but more discretion than that employed in the rest of the class is often operative).
What does this mean? U.S. News can reliably assume that the quality of student body (from a numbers perspective) is strongly correlated with the rankings based on other factors. If U.S. News were to drop the LSAT and GPA criteria from the survey, law schools would be free to spend money on programs that would make their schools fairer and better. The U.S. News survey purported is designed to help consumers. By actively harming the law schools, however unintentionally, U.S. News disserves the students they serve as well.