each year, the US News & World Reports‘s rankings of top colleges, law schools, and medical schools land to a chorus of groans and cheers. The rankings began in 1983, and were originally drawn solely from peer reviews of institutions. Did the provost at Brown think better of the University of Virginia than the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill? Since then, the publication has tinkered with the rankings several times—taking into account factors such as how many students an institution rejects each year, how much it costs to attend, and the student-to-faculty ratio—to give more rigor to its methodology.
College leaders have mixed feelings about the listing. They criticize the formula for the things it doesn’t count—such as aid for low-income students and graduation rates—while simultaneously lauding their institution’s own position on the leaderboard, at least for those at the top.
But in recent months, even some leaders of the top-ranking institutions have reassessed their relationship with US News. In November, the dean of Yale Law School, Heather Gerken, announced that it would no longer contribute data to the rankings. Pointing to the lack of emphasis on public-interest fellowships and recruiting working-class students, Gerken wrote in a statement, “We have reached a point where the rankings process is undermining the core commitments of the legal profession.” Soon after Yale’s announcement, Harvard Law School—which recently came in fourth on the list—also said it would pull out of the rankings. All but two of the top 14 law schools have since joined the exodus.
I spoke with Gerken about the decision to no longer participate in the rankings, what it means for the future of legal education, and whether undergraduate institutions should follow her law school’s lead.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Adam Harris: I was reading the letter that you wrote about why you decided to drop the rankings. For years, people have been really critical of the rankings. Why did you think that now was a good time to stop contributing to those rankings, and what was the final straw?
Heather Gerken: There are two things. I’m just beginning my second term, so this is an opportunity to sit back and reflect on the work that we’ve done—and this is very much part of that larger work. It’s also a moment when economic equity is at the heart of conversations about higher education. And it seems to me this isn’t just a time for Yale Law School to step back but for everyone to step back, and really think hard about what we’re doing.
Harris: So this was something you were thinking about during your first term as well?
Gerken: Yes. I believe in trying to give institutions a chance to change, and so like many other deans, we spent a lot of time talking to US News about the core problems with the rankings, and I’m sorry to say that we got nowhere with it. Since our announcement, we’ve had this remarkable response from the world of education, from the alumni community, from our students and faculty, but subsequent conversations with US News have really cemented our decision to leave the rankings.
It’s a commercial entity. It doesn’t have expertise and legal education, and it has produced a set of rankings that don’t give a full and accurate picture for the huge, varied set of institutions. And as you know, as I said in my statement, I’m particularly concerned about low-income students and students interested in doing public-interest work.
Harris: And when you say it further cemented your decision, do you mean their reluctance to change those fundamental parts about the rankings?
Gerken: Yeah. If you want to fix the rankings, it will require a major overhaul. And US News has said publicly, even with regard to the public-interest fellowships, that it is not going to focus on this. So it just cemented the decision to think that this is not where students should get their information from.
Harris: One point that some folks who have supported the rankings raise is that if institutions don’t share as much information with the rankings, then the students who might still turn to the rankings for guidance will work with less information. What do you think about that argument?
Gerken: I believe in transparency. I believe in data. I helped build a ranking myself. So I just want to say I plan for Yale Law School to lead here. I know exactly why it matters to get people good information. And we are committed not only to do that for ourselves, but to help lead the conversation about how all law schools should do this.
The American Bar Association has an enormous amount of data already, so we have a good place to build from, but there’s more work to be done.
Harris: And so, in the interim, you’re pointing prospective students to the information that’s already out there from ABA, etc.?
And this is part of a bigger mission. I mentioned that this is the second term of my council, and everything that we did for the last five years has dramatically changed this law school. From diversifying the student body—when I began, it was roughly steady over 10 years at 32 percent of students of color, and we’ve recruited the six most diverse classes in our history. The current class is 54 percent students of color. We’ve increased the number of students who are first in their families to attend professional school by 80 percent. We’ve more than tripled the number of veterans on campus—they’re now 7 percent of our student body. So there’s been a sea change inside the law school. And now we are building out infrastructure to give them the support they need.
Harris: What do you hope will change following your decision?
Gerken: The problem in legal education is that we are drawing, as a collective, from too narrow a pool of students. So only 15 percent of lawyers are people of color. One of the biggest reasons for that is the cost of attending law school and the many, many obstacles that exist for students who come from low-income backgrounds. These are some of the most talented, entrepreneurial students on the planet. We should be reaching out and bringing them into our midst and providing them the support they need to thrive. That is the only way that legal education can move forward. And that is what our profession needs.
US News is part of the set of obstacles, but there’s a lot more for us to do. So I will just say financial aid being put in the hands of the students who need it most matters absolutely. That’s where we should be devoting our resources, and we should also be providing students the training they need inside of law school,
to go out and change the world, change their communities, make a difference. Everyone needs to be at the table for that conversation.
We also need to meet students where they are. For example, we know that students who come from below the poverty line—students from low-income backgrounds—often come to law school without a professional network. At some places, they just kind of give people a manual (on how to build a network) as if that’s going to fix the problem. Here, we are building out a system to provide our network of lawyers and leaders to our students to serve as mentors to give them a helping hand that everybody needs along the way.
Harris: To this point, all except for two of the top 14 law schools have now pulled out of the rankings, and Campbell University’s law school, in North Carolina, just recently pulled out of the rankings too. Do you think that the same collective action needs to happen—or is possible—at the undergraduate level as well, where there’s also been a large outcry against these US News rankings?
Gerken: I’m obviously focused on legal education; it is the rank I really understand. But I will just say that everyone should be taking a step back at this moment and thinking about whether or not they are doing enough to further equity in this country. This is a moment when universities have to be part of that conversation. Part of that conversation is what they do internally; part of that conversation is how they train their students to go back and serve their communities in their country; and part of it are questions like participating in the ranking.
One of the things that has really moved about the last few weeks is how powerful the response has been, and how each dean, as they enter the conversation, adds another piece to it. What you see is a set of deans who are really thinking hard about the future of legal education, the future of our profession. And although you know these are all independent decisions, you can see that the conversation is actually iterative, and it gives me a lot of joy to see so many people thinking hard and taking part in this conversation, because it matters absolutely for our future.