Tuesday, April 24, 2007


US New and World report came out with their college ranking a couple of weeks ago. Despite a lot of talk from college administrators alleging that rank does not matter and that students should choose schools by finding the place that best fits them; administrators sure spend a lot of time discussing how they did. In contract last week, while listening to NPR, I heard a professor at some California school (UCLA, USC or something) argue that schools should stop participating in the ranking process. He urged school to return the surveys US News sends them unopened. He alleges a couple things: one that the rankings don’t actually tell students anything about eventual school they will attend; two, they subsidize a huge money maker for US News and get nothing in return; and three, they make the school take efforts to manipulate their standing such as raising the SAT and LSAT scores required to attend which really have no impact on the teaching quality at the school but just restrict access in exchange for rank. I tend to agree.

Not that I haven’t benefited from these US News Rankings. Both the U of I and my grad school at Seattle U promote how they do in the rankings. And they should. Seattle U Law moved up higher in the top 100 to something like 80th or 82nd this year. To put this into perspective, U Washinton’s law school in ranked 40-something while Gonzaga Law and U of Idaho law school were unranked and are in the 3rd tier. In addition to this top 100 ranking, our legal writing program is ranked number 2 in the nation this year, we were number 1 last year, and haven’t been ranked lower than number 2 in the last 5 years. These ranks will go into our marketing brochures, it will look good on resumes, and the school should be proud to be the ranked so high in so short of a time (the school is only 35 yrs old, it’s only been at SU since the ‘90s.).

Desipte how well Seattle U is doing in the rankings, should I believe them? Do I really believe that Seattle U is a better school then Gonzaga or Idaho just because we are ranked higher? Do I really believe that our legal writing program is better than Harvard’s or Yale’s? No, not really. Don’t get me wrong, I think we are a good school. I am not really sure, however, that just because US New and World reports says so that I actually go to a qualitatively better school and that I will be a better lawyer than someone from Gonzaga Law. Nor do I think that a Yale grad would really be intimidated by my ability to transition a rule paragraph to a legal discussion so seamlessly in a memo, do you? So, if the rankings don’t measure whether I will be a better lawyer by going to a better school, what are they based on?

In my opinion, perception drives the ranking process. Why is Seattle U legal writing ranked so high, for example? Well, because we wrote the book. Yes, the most popular legal writing handbook used in law schools was written by Seattle U professors. It’s a good book for sure, but does that mean the program is necessarily tops? More likely is that when some Dean at some Law school at “Insert East Cost State U” receives his survey and he gets to the legal writing program question that he just writes down Seattle U because he see the legal writing book on his shelf, he knows that it is the book his school teaches from, and therefore concludes Seattle U program must be good. He does this despite that he had probably never met a lawyer from Seattle U, probably knows nothing about the school except for the book we wrote, but he had to put down something and had no other reference for quality. I think this is the way it works, but maybe I’m just cynical.

This doesn’t mean that I would discourage people from Seattle U. It is a great program. Here you will learn the law, you will make friends, and from what I’ve seen our graduates are in demand. However, I don’t think this has anything to do with our rankings and I don’t think a new student would make a good education choice if they merely looked at the US News list and noticed we had moved up a couple places this year. I think students should realize that Deans are hypocritical when they say it doesn’t matter what a school’s rank is and then turn around and crow about how good their rank is. You should listen to the first half of the message, it doesn’t really matter what a school’s rank is. If it is accredited, if you are smart, and if you like the place then you will do great. In fact, you are much more likely to do well than if you pick a place merely on rank and then find out you hate it. (I would say this logic applies to every school below the top ten in the list. If you have the chance to go to a top ten school, go, despite if you don’t really like the place – financially it will be worth it. As for school 11-200, make sure you pick the one that fits you best, not the one that was randomly scored the highest by some dean at Timbuktu U).

No comments: