U.S. News & World Report has released it most recent rankings of graduate programs in the United States. U.S. News Best Grad Schools f0r 2022 covers several areas of advanced study, including professional, doctoral and masters programs at U.S. institutions.
Rankings are provided for more than 2,000 separate programs in law, business, medicine, nursing, other health specialties, engineering, education, fine arts, library and information studies, public affairs, math and physical sciences, social sciences and humanities. The ranking factors that are used differ for the various areas, but subjective peer assessment is used for all disciplines, and in some cases, it is the sole indicator.
This year law schools are drawing particular interest, in part because after years in which the number of law-school applicants declined or was flat, the current cycle has seen a dramatic uptick in applications. Various explanations for this renewed interest have been offered, including changes in the administration of the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), an improved job market for lawyers, and the number of high-profile social issues attracting national attention – running the gamut from social justice and immigration to criminal investigations, congressional hearings, and election law.
Whatever the reasons, going to law school is “in” again, and law school rankings convey high-stakes information for applicants, graduates and the schools themselves.
As with its other higher education rankings, U.S. News periodically revises its methodology, and it did so for this year’s law school rankings. In fact, in what became something of a controversy, the methodology was changed at least three times in the weeks prior to the official March 30 release.
According to Law.com, the embargoed version of the rankings provided to law schools on March 16 were reposted later that same day with a new version of the overall rankings that changed the positions of 35 schools. Much of the change apparently involved correcting mistakes and revising how certain factors were weighted. All the eleventh-hour fiddling does raise nagging questions about the process underlying the selection and quantification of the indicators.
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Here is a summary of the current methodology, which for most factors uses data from 2019 or 2020.
Quality (40%) is composed of two sources of expert opinion about the overall quality of the school: a) an assessment on a scale of 1-5 by academic peers such as law school deans, other law school administrators and recently tenured faculty (25%); and b) the judgements (also on the five-point scale) of legal professionals such as hiring partners of law firms and practicing attorneys and judges (15%).
Selectivity (21%) is a proxy for student excellence, made up of three indicators: a) combined median Law School Admission Test and Graduate Record Examination scores (11.25%); b) median undergraduate GPA (8.75); and c) acceptance rate (1%), which is the combined proportion of applicants to both the full- and part-time J.D. programs who were accepted for the 2020 entering class.
Placement Success (25.25%) is comprised of five indicators: a) employment rates for 2019 graduates 10 months after graduation (14%): employment rates at graduation (4%); c) bar exam passage rate (2.25%); d) average debt incurred in obtaining a J.D at graduation (3%); and e) the percent of graduates incurring law school debt (2%).
Faculty, Law School and Library Resources (13.75%) is made up of a) instructional, library and student support service expenditures (9.75%); b) spending on other items including financial aid (1%); c) the ratio of law school students to law school faculty members (2%); and d) several different indicators of library resources and operations (1.75% in total).
The top 20 Law Schools (All of the law school rankings can be found here,)
- Yale University
- Stanford University
- Harvard University
- Columbia University
- University of Chicago
- New York University
- University of Pennsylvania
- University of Virginia
- University of California – Berkeley
- Duke University
- University of Michigan
- Northwestern University
- Cornell University
- University of California – Los Angleles
- Georgetown University
- University of Texas
- Vanderbilt University
- Washington University (St. Louis)
- University of Southern California
- Boston University
The law school top-20 list is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, compared to U.S. News most recent ranking of national universities, which focuses on undergraduate education, public universities do slightly better in the law school rankings. Only one public university – UCLA – made the most recent top-20 national university list, while five public law schools are included in the top 20.
Second, outside of the top 20, the full rankings show more institutional shuffling among law schools from the prior year than is typically found for universities as a whole. Among the top 20, the top five spots remained the same as in 2021. In fact, law school rankings have had notorious stability at the top, where 14 schools maintain their positions (except for minor changes in exact order) year in and year out. This year proved an exception: Georgetown fell out of the top 14, and UCLA moved in.
The biggest changes this year among the top 20 schools were for Duke and Vanderbilt, which each moved up two places; while Northwestern dropped three positions.
But for law schools ranked between 21 and 100, several big re-orderings occurred. Most noteworthy were these six schools making double-digit jumps up in the rankings: Howard University (+16), University of Oregon (+16), University of Mississippi (+13), Drexel University (+12), Wayne State University (+11), and the University of Tennessee (+10). Double-digit declines occurred for Rutgers University (-15), the University of Kentucky (-11), the University of Nebraska (-11), and Loyola Marymount University (-10).
Like it or not, law school rankings matter, probably more than those aimed at undergraduates or even for other types of graduate schools. Their prestige perpetuates itself. Major law firms prefer to hire from the top 14 schools, and so, of course, students want to go to one of them. Likewise, the most highly regarded law professors are drawn to these institutions, which sustains the self-fulfilling cycle. Even among local markets, the relative portion of the law school that recent graduates attended can be an important factor in their landing the most competitive jobs.