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NIH Scientist

U.S. News and World Report claim they use 18 parameters to determine college rankings. Yet, there is a remarkable correlation between the rankings and the value of the institution's endowment. This is a measure that is entirely objective and can't be "gamed." What is the significance of this correlation?


Very interesting post.

I think that the US News rankings are useful, to a point. They are not a perfect indicator of the quality of a particular program. But they do incorporate some important measures (academic reputation, GPA/test scores of admitted applicants, placement prospects) that correlate strongly to the quality of an institution. They also foster competition among universities, which is good. However, the "selectivity" rankings can be misleading: Harvard and Yale, because of their names, probably get applications from hundreds (thousands?) of students who have no chance of gaining admission. The fact that those students made a futile attempt to gain admission should not lift Harvard's ranking over, say, Stanford's or Chicago's. I think that the rankings should concentrate on the quality of the students actually admitted. Also, NY (and NE region) schools get a boost from the component for average salary of graduates, because NYC salaries are higher than those elsewhere.

It is interesting that no real competitors to the US News rankings have emerged. Perhaps that is because students believe that they know enough, based on the general reputation of schools plus the US News rankings. There doesn't really seem to be a thirst for more information.

In my opinion, rankings are far more important for the school from which one receives a terminal degree. If a college student plans to go on to grad school or professional school, his admission prospects will rest largely on his LSAT, GMAT, GRE, or MCAT scores. Because of grade inflation, a good student will have a high GPA almost anywhere (except maybe at a school like Chicago, which grades undergrads harshly on a curve). Employers, unlike grad/professional schools, seem to care less about numbers and more about the name of the institution. For better or for worse.

I do believe that all this is changing, because of the skyrocketing cost of tuition at private universities. I think that the "public ivies" will steal many students from the ivy leagues in the coming years. $45K per year is too high a price to pay for much of the middle class.


What about the wisdom of crowds - doesn't the sheer fact of high ranking mean that other people will find it desirable, and that therefore the peers in the classroom will on balance be better performing? Aren't the rankings in effect self-perpetuating because a higher-ranked school will attract better students?


Interesting subject….
"A final question is why, given the imperfection of U.S. News & World Report's college ranking system, yet the boost that publishing its rankings has given the magazine's circulation, no significant competitor has appeared on the scene, at least for the magazine's college and law school rankings (the latter are particularly influential)."

I have a simple answer to your question: Elitism. The ranking system contributes to elitism; is anyone truly surprised by the law schools ranked in the top ten by U.S. News & World Report? Graduates of the highly ranked institutions tend to be in influential positions. For some, the rankings simultaneously confirm their self worth, and enable them to ignore the circumstances surrounding their own admittance. Yet, due to their own influential position, these people often continue to perpetuate the myth rankings created.

Because of the influence of rankings in our society, I continue to regret the choice I made for law school. Even though I'm seven years out, passed two bar exams on my first try, and work at a highly regarded, nationally recognized firm, I am acutely aware of my colleagues' reliance on law school rankings and thus, their opinion of me. I never anticipated the name on my diploma would be an insurmountable obstacle in terms of professional respect.


Shouldn't the informational value of the rankings be dropping over time as schools learn to game the system? For example, while at some point it may have been useful to use the alumni giving rate as a proxy for alumni satisfaction, once it is known what the proxy is, wouldn't school have all kinds of incentives to increase the value of the proxy, rather than the underlying quality reflected in the proxy? That is, in this example, rather than improving school experience resulting in happier and wealthier alumni who give to the school, a school might simply ratchet up its "collection" efforts from existing alumni and thus increase its giving rate. It would then rise in the rankings without improving in any relevant way.


Judge Posner argues that the vicious cycle of the rankings system encourages the best students to attend to the highest ranked schools, even when those schools may not have better programs for individual students. This failing of the current ranking system, if Posner's analysis is correct, should be short-lived. The highest ranked schools will in fact become the best schools, if they are not already, because, in the same way they fool parents, students, future employers and graduate schools' admissions officers, these highest ranked schools will also fool those who wish to go into academia-- ie, those who will be teaching the programs. It will become a self-perpetuating myth: the highest ranked schools will become, if they are not already, the best schools, both from an educational and a social perspective. (Who cares more about the ranking of their school than the professors who teach there?) Which is troubling to me, because I firmly believe UChicago Law should be ranked above NYU and Columbia law schools. I have not yet heard a valid argument for why either of those schools is better than U of C... but if USNews' self-perpetuating myth is not challenged by market forces, isn't it likely that these ranked positions will stay relatively the same? Of course they will fluctuate-- USNews sells copies of their rankings mag based on rankings volatility-- but over the span of a decade I imagine we would see a consistent average ranking for most schools within the top 25 of any given field.


As for rankings, it may have some cachet during the first couple of three years of professional practice, but after that it comes down to experience. I'd rather have the likes of a Darrow from Allegheny College defending me in Court than an Ames or Langdell from Harvard. ;)


In response to this statement of Posner's "As a result, the value added by the college experience may be smaller than if rank were based solely on the quality of the college's programs...the clustering of the best students at a handful of highly ranked schools may, regardless of the quality of the schools' programs, contribute to the human capital formation of these students by exposing them to other smart kids and embedding them in a valuable social network..." I think that the feedback loop works the same for Prof's. There is an incentive to work both for a highly ranked institution and also to work with the brightest students, so that the rankings in time may in fact improve the faculty. A high/low ranking can be a self-fulfilling prophesy.


Though not nearly as influential as US News, Prof. Leiter at UT Law has compiled his own ranking system of US law schools based on faculty quality. http://www.leiterrankings.com/ On the site, you can find a detailed breakdown of the methodology used by US News to rank law schools. What is interesting about US News is that the rankings seem to have little to do with academic quality (as Leiter points out).

It should come as no surprise then that there is a substantial difference between how (some, perhaps many) schools fare when measured by the US News and when they are judged by "faculty quality."


Judge Posner writes:

"In particular, colleges that depend very heavily on alumni donations have stronger incentives than colleges that do not to avoid exaggerated claims that may cause disillusionment on the part of students after they graduate."

I'm not so sure about this. It seems to me that most of the "marketing" material comes from private institutions that depend on tuition and donations for their continued existence. They have a greater insentive to "puff" their programs to everyone: prospective students, current students, alumni, employers, and the media. Of course, a Harvard grad expects a good job in return for his/her tuition. However, if the Harvard marketing department effectively sells the school to Wall Street and U.S. News, then the jobs will follow. And satisfied customers (alumni) will respond with donations.

Public colleges, on the other hand, have less need to market themselves. The name of the school, "University of State X," sells itself to the residents of the state. Marketing is necessary only when State Univ. X seeks to transform itself into a regional or national university, which requires a network of donors in addition to state funding.

So, I think, begging for cash leads to puffing. And private universities beg like crazy, as any alum could attest.

In truth, I'm not quite so cynical. Only a little bit so. :-) I think that rankings, marketing material, and anectodal accounts of various universities tend to paint a pretty good picture of the institutions. Most students know what they are buying in exchange for their tuition. Tellingly, the ranks of "dissatisfied" customers are relatively small.


This year I have been applying to law schools and I have begun to despise the USNews rankings.
First, I remain unconvinced that better ranked schools offer better instruction. It seems obvious to me that professors are not hired and given tenure primarily because of their teaching ability. Quantity and quality of publication seem to be everything. I wish it were possible to measure the ability of lawyers as a general matter, and then we would be able to tease out differences in lawyer ability due to differences in law school instruction and not selection biases. It is probably true that the average Havard Law graduate would have been a pretty good lawyer if they had attended State U Law.
Second, a personal anecdote. I have a full tuition scholarship at a top ten-ish public school. Should I reject that and pay a differential of $120,000 in order to attend a top-ten school? Personally, I would like my lawyer to prefer to save $120 large over gaining 10 places in a ranking of ambiguous meaning. That's a prudent lawyer. So I have made my decision, but I still ocassionally have cold sweats about the fact that people may well judge my decision to be a negative.


FWIW and having gone through recent school picking with my son:

A. That you're likely "right on" in doubting that "good school" means better teaching in such a discipline. My guess is that it's talent within that creates the best lawyers, actors, engineers etc. Who can recall where "star" lawyers went to school?

B. (From a lawyer friend) It's rare in court that superstar lawyers have much to do with a decision. Typically the facts are 90% except in cases that are complex fence-sitters.

C. If it's $120k real dollars to invest, as you've probably figured, take a look at the future worth of that stake. Say at 7% return a doubling every ten years? Or what a humble abode would be worth a decade from now? As compared to paying back double the face amount in debt?

D. I suppose one exception! That IF getting in to the "top ten" gives you an opp to join some "white shoe" firm (and you'd not be disgusted with yourself for the work you might have to do) then it could be "worth it". BUT! beware, as going to Yale does NOT mean getting in with the ruling dynasties and Skull & Bones set...... they're a bit clic-ish.

Good luck! and try not to hock your soul! Jack


Seeing as it is March, I'd like to offer the prophesy that I represent a new trend; The Bracket Buster. I chose a T-4 school. Why?

1. I know exactly why I'm here. "Law", like "Medicine" is not the nebulous term it used to be. More students are going to figure out sooner why they want to pursue the field. As soon as they do; the specialty schools and faculties will drive the student body.

2. I listened before I invested. You think there's no competition for U.S. News or other rankings? How about the hundreds of thousands in the online social networking communities? That's all they do is rank, in their own words, their real-world school experiences. The applicants of today are all online and networking, and with Web 2.0 tagging upon us, all of these conversations are easily referencable for any future applicant.

3. I'm not looking for a job, they're looking for me. I may represent the most rare circumstance in law today, the person who waited ten years from undergrad who passionately pursued a niche field and whose law degree will only increase my value in the marketplace. I expect many more people to follow suit. As I'm now a parent too, I plan to teach my child that the pursuit of intellectual happiness comes before intellectual prowess. I see too many kids channelling tremendous mental energies into nonsense like video games. If just some of that same passion can be applied to the workplace (any workplace), then the law degree will only serve to bolster that persons value and 'bracket bust' the other applicants for the same job from the top tier school.

What's the proof? Ask any top-tier partner whether they'd rather have the 26 year old fresh out of Harvard with no clue why they're applying or the 36 year old specialist who they can put in front of a client tomorrow for a particular purpose and you'll get the same answer that one such partner recently gave to me. [Unless they're just looking for qualified indentured servants, which many unfortunately are.]

Am I suffering from March Madness? Maybe, but time will tell.

J Berman

I go to Syracuse Law (apparently Tier 3), and I think I'm completely capable of taking anybody on from one of those supposed Top 25 law schools.

Ian Samuel

One question that has always puzzled me is why law schools and universities do not simply set a market-clearing price for their tuition. It is bizarre, for example, that virtually all law schools charge the same tuition to their students. NYU Law's tuition is $38,980/year; Cardozo, a law school ten blocks north but ranked substantially lower, charges $36,900/year.

Instead of setting the market-clearing price (the point at which applicants would equal available seats), either through a higher flat rate or a Dutch auction, schools elect to pre-screen applicants to select the "best" class. This practice is of questionable utility, because in the alternative, students would borrow the tuition in nearly all cases and the investment-worthiness of the students would instead be evaluated by financial lenders, who have more expertise in the area.

One objection that might be raised is that this would disfavor students entering careers where most of the benefits are not internalized in their salary (often referred to as "public interest" careers), as they would not be able to afford it. A tempting response is that perhaps this is a problem with the ways certain professions are compensated; but a more realistic, and charitable, response is that the loan forgiveness programs could operate just as they do now. Law schools themselves could repay these loans, or charitable foundations with an interest in seeing low-compensation work done, or whomever.

This is relevant to a ranking discussion because in most markets, consumers can choose their product by using price information, and rankings can take into account return on investment. Willingness-to-pay valuations (WTP), additionally, are a sort of mini-rankings system themselves.


I'll respond briefly to the comments from the prospective law students here:

It is true that a law school does not define the lawyer. There are Harvard grads who are unimpressive, and there are very impressive graduates of Tier 3 or 4 schools. However, the country's best lawyers tend to be either grads of the top 25 or the stars of the class from the second tier of private and public universities. And, lawyers do care about where other lawyers went to law school. They probably care more than they should.

When I applied to law school, I was advised to attend the highest-ranked school to which I gained admission, regardless of the cost. Granted, the cost then was about half of what it is now. The reasoning behind the advice was that your resume carries the school's name for the rest of your career. And potential employers will care. Probably more than they should.

To be a bit more precise, the top 6 in the US News survey are probably comparable in terms of the quality of the faculty, the quality of the student body, and career/clerkship prospects. Beyond that, there are about 15 schools who can legitimately claim to be in the "top 10," and about 30 or 40 schools that claim to be the top 25. Students can't go wrong with any of those schools, but if the aim is an appellate clerkship, a professorship, a top gov't job, or a "white shoe" firm job, there is a difference among categories. With the caveat that a "star" at a tier 2 school has the same or better prospects as an average tier 1 student.

Of course, then there are the "lower tiers." The quality of many, many law schools is excellent, but students will have to prove themselves to enhance their career prospects.

In my view, there are many allures to a top-tier school. The profs are the "rock stars" of the profession: you will learn cutting edge legal theories. The students are all very bright and hard working, so the intellectual environment is intense. It prepares students for the next level. The placement prospects are excellent. Judicial clerkships with excellent judges are attainable. And, there's the pride that top tier schools inspire in their alumni.

As an analogy, think of the difference between playing football at Notre Dame and "Small State U." How many from each school become stars at the next level?

That said, a full scholarship to "excellent State U." has advantages over $40K a year to tier 1 private. Especially if one does not wish to become an indentured servant. :)


Just as an aside on the law school ranking game. When I graduated from college and was thinking about a career in Law, my grandfather sent me to see an old retired Judge, who will remain nameless, and ask him about it. His words to me were, "Well... in your case, find the top five schools in the country and apply. Then after that, make sure you graduate in the top five percent of your class and if you can't do that, don't bother. We've got way too many lawyers as it is and gets harder every day to make a decent living in this racket."


Ian Samuel: You have me wondering, in a world so name and brand crazy it wears it's clothes tag-side out, and where "lawyers care more than they should" just where we'd end up as a society if the means of getting into Harvard were that of out-bidding other (qualified?) applicants as you suggest.

Would having paid such an ante then be even more the cost of a clerkship or gaining entree into the old boy's club firms?

I'm sensing here that THE game of "Libertarians" is that of an mutterly unrestrained lassez faire, devil take the hindmost version of world-wide capitalism (combined with what favors one can buy from Congress??) with precious little guidance from democracy or any sense of community. Do I have it about right?


As one who graduated from a bottom tier school but has succeeeded at the "racket" (I don't think of it as such) I can only say that I'm not surprised by the comments I see here. There has to be more to life than angst about getting into a top tier school. After all, there wouldn't be top law schools without those in the middle and the bottom. And remember that those in the middle and bottom fulfill an important function: they are "opportunity" schools that give a chance to those such as non-affirmative action applicants, those with average grades or those returning to school to start a second career. In the end, the ability to make a living as a lawyer is determinative of success, not a resume. Your clients don't care where you went to school once you pass the bar and neither should you.


I'm surprised how many people take the time to point out that good lawyers [or doctors, or accountants, or other professions] can come from lower-ranked schools. Was that ever in doubt? To pursue the sports analogy someone started, obviously there are NFL pros that come out of tiny non-powerhouses. But there are many more from Ohio State, Notre Dame, and USC. Colleges and graduate schools are essentially becoming expensive signaling devices. While in individual cases a school means little, on average, you can guess that better professionals went to better schools, simply because the people who would eventually become the best professionals self-select into the best schools. [Like the best high school football player largely go to the best college football programs.] The rankings are a nice shorthand to see where the better students are likely to have gone, and, for recruiters, where the most talent is likely to be found. The rankings do create a self-fulfilling prophecy in that regard. Hence there is very little movement in the top 25 or top 50 or top 112 or however many US News ranks. The reason there is no competitive ranking system, other than that USNR is not entrenched, is that the rankings are largely uncontroversial. While someone might rank a school a few spots either way, there is largely a consensus on how these rankings should look, and USNR gets close enough to where correcting a few aberrations simply isn't worth it.


How much damage do you think those such as George Bush has done to the imagery of demanding standards and supposed excellence at Yale and Harvard business school? Also, should employers be wary of hiring other gobs of mediocrity who got there on the very strongest of all "affirmative" action? that of family connections or daddy being an alumni or big donor? Or, have we become such a plutocracy that investing in a "son of" is likely to bring about a larger return than than merit?

There seem two seemingly exclusive mythologies at work (that we should avoid falling for in the future?) one was "Yeah, he ain't much but he'll surround himself with "good people". The other "Well he did graduate from Harvard and is the only presidential candidate to hold an MBA".


robert, Touche'! In the real world, it's really all a matter of maintaining and expanding the client list and getting the billing hours right. ;)


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