Yale begins an exodus from a tradition of rank

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I am pleased that Yale Law School, where I have taught for more decades than I care to remember, has decided to withdraw from the US News and World Report rankings. No, I had no advance warning, but the decision is one I’ve endorsed for years.

Yale’s example was quickly followed by law schools at Harvard, UC Berkeley, and Georgetown. As of this writing, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania are expected to be next. More defectors are sure to be waiting in the wings. Each school that leaves the company deprives US News of vital data it uses to compile its rankings. After three decades of dominance, the rankings could be on the verge of collapse.

Some cynics wonder if the sudden “run” on the rankings is an elaborate ploy to circumvent whatever affirmative action decision the Supreme Court decides, but no conspiracy theories are needed to explain what’s happening. College and professional school rankings, although they’ve been around for over a century, were a bad idea from the start.

Rankings exist for one simple reason: they save on search costs. For example, if you want to find a good Thai restaurant, you can spend a lot of time trying this or that. But it’s less time and other resources to turn to Google or Yelp. Then it makes sense to rely on reviews from others. If the ratings are wrong, the loss is small.

But higher education is different, and the notion that there can be a rank of order is bizarre. As one law school dean put it, “This business of grading law schools is an age-old evil. Reducing complex institutions to these numbers is stupid.” Those words were not spoken this week – the criticism dates back to 1989.

Why have so many of us been dissatisfied with the system for so long? Here are just a few of the many reasons.

First, the criteria will always be arbitrary. Every quantitative measurement is based on a qualitative assessment of what is worth measuring. Regarding law schools, critics have long asked pertinent questions: “Does per-student spending deserve nearly the same attention as mean LSAT and GRE scores?” Is the relative undergraduate attorney graduate rate really less important than the student-to-faculty ratio at your law school?

Choose any criterion. A key component of the US News ranking includes a rating of each school by peers and another by attorneys and judges. However, many deans are unlikely to have sufficient information on more than a handful of institutions. It’s a bit like being asked to review a restaurant you’ve never eaten at. (Yes, respondents have the opportunity to say they don’t have enough information, but we lawyers don’t like to admit that.)

Second, remember Goodhart’s law: even if the criteria are correct, once the details of a ranking system are revealed, the list will inevitably lose importance as institutions seek to improve measures important to ranking. US news ratings have led to a significant reallocation of resources as law schools compete for a higher spot — a reallocation determined not by what serves students best, but by what impresses the rankings most becomes.

This process jeopardizes the very purpose of a university. In his 2009 book on the commercialization of higher education, former Harvard president Derek Bok warned that the growth in rankings was part of a larger abdication to outsiders of decisions about what college is for and what it should look like — decisions , which should be taken by the faculties .

I could go on. For example, there is history. At first glance, the origins look innocent. Although law school rankings are often credited to the political scientist Jack Gourman, who developed a methodology and published his findings in the mid-1960s, there have been earlier efforts. In 1957, the Chicago Tribune published a list of the top 10 law schools, compiled according to the views of those “who know most about legal education”—an apparently arbitrary criterion.

The larger college grading project got off to a hated start. The first listing in the modern sense was made in 1910, at the height of the Progressive Era, by the psychologist James McKeen Cattell, who in turn was driven in large part by his attraction to eugenics. His idea was that the handful of people (that is, “people”) who are naturally gifted with the greatest intelligence should attend the best schools so that they might be trained to direct things. Hence, the rankings existed to help members of the ruling class decide where to send their sons.

We’ve come a long way. But we still make many of the same mistakes. In particular, we continue to pretend we can measure, with micrometric precision, where each college or trade school ranks, when in practice those numbers will always be a product of our biases.

I take US News at its word when it says it intends to continue the “journalistic” endeavor of listing the schools it believes are the best. I am in favor. And while I’m more data-driven, I’m hoping for a shift away from quantitative assessments towards qualitative information. If such a move means more work for potential applicants – well, some of us will see that as a feature and not a bug.

More from the Bloomberg Opinion:

• Why we need law schools: Noah Feldman

• RIP to LSAT? Let’s Kill the Bar Exam Too: Stephen Carter

• Propose against law schools that fail the bar: Megan McArdle

This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion. As a law professor at Yale University, he is most recently the author of Invisible: The Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Take Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.

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