The most widely watched ranking of U.S. law schools may move to stop an increasingly popular practice: schools gaming the system by channeling lower-scoring applicants into part-time programs that don’t count in the rankings.
U.S. News & World Report is “seriously” considering reworking its ranking system to crack down on the practice, says Robert Morse, director of data research at the magazine, who is in charge of its influential list.
Such a move could affect the status of dozens of law schools. It would likely reverse gains recently made by a number of schools that have helped their revenue by increasing their rosters of part-time students with lower entrance-exam scores and grade-point averages, without having to pay a price in the rankings.
In some cases the part-timers’ course load is barely less than that of full-timers, and they are able to transfer into the schools’ full-time programs in their second year. Statistics about second-year students’ pre-law school scores also aren’t counted in the rankings.
Counting part-timers would roil the law-school rankings, which have a big impact on where students apply and from where law firms hire. A number of law-school administrators interviewed about the potential change contend it could have another effect: narrowing a traditional pathway to law school for minorities and working professionals. Those groups often perform worse on the important Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, and schools could feel pressure to raise their admission thresholds.
A change in criteria would “catch the outliers but punish part-time programs that have existed forever and aren’t doing it to game the system,” says Ellen Rutt, an associate law-school dean at the University of Connecticut. If U.S. News makes the move, many schools with part-time programs would have a tough choice: Leave their admission standards for part-timers unchanged, which could hurt their rank, or raise the standards, likely shrinking the programs and cutting revenue.
Mr. Morse of U.S. News says the magazine will run tests of how the change would play out in rankings, and then decide in January. How colleges adjust their programs in response isn’t the magazine’s responsibility, he said. The ranking is published in the spring.