08/27/2008 04:20 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

U. S. News & World Report College Rankings: Let the Games Begin

U.S. News & World Report, the 600-pound gorilla of college rankings, may have to overhaul its law school rankings because law schools have figured out how to play the game better than the magazine that dreamed up the rules in the first place. U.S. News & World Report uses the performance of full-time law students to determine its pecking order, and that pecking order, in turn, can determine the job security of a law-school dean. So a couple of them created a clever detour: They channeled their less-impressive students into a less-demanding part-time program their first year; hid them there, in effect, until they hit their stride, and then transferred them into the full-time program their second year. The rankings don't take part-time or second-year students into consideration. Bingo.

The law schools aren't breaking any rules. In fact, they're protecting minority students who sometimes score lower on their LSAT exams. If U.S. News & World Report decides to take all students into account for future rankings, law schools are going to face an ugly choice. To protect their rankings, they will have to hold all students to equal admissions standards, which means sacrificing diversity.

There's another numbers game at play here that makes doing the right thing harder than it looks. Prestigious law firms often hire from the top of the rankings down. Slipping from the tier-one division to tier two has real ramifications in terms of where or whether a law school's graduates get their first jobs. Try explaining to the majority of your students, most of whom have gone into hefty debt for a shot at a great job, that the top-ranked school they applied to has become an also-ran.

If you have a child who has not yet graduated from high school, don't be smug; your notion of what constitutes a top school is at risk, too. There's long been a rumor that certain top-of-the-list schools manipulate their undergraduate statistics to improve their rankings - failing to report the test scores of minority recruits, of athletes, of foreign students, of anyone who might drag down the overall ranking. You and your loved ones may be about to endure an extended nervous breakdown for the chance to deposit your beloved offspring at a top school that might well descend into the double-digit rankings if there were any way to enforce full disclosure.

And yet right this moment, all over the country, parents of high-school seniors are
acting as though that son or daughter will be doomed to a life of mediocrity if they can't get into a single-digit U.S. News & World Report college or university. College counselors complain that every family comes in with the same list of ten target schools, some of them wildly inappropriate for the kid in question but all of them stamped with that ranking seal of approval. Seniors apply to schools without even knowing what region of the country they're in (no, I'm not kidding; I just heard about a boy who was surprised to learn that Duke University, which was on his short list, was in the south), because the school reeks of prestige.

I don't get it. Who anointed the U.S. News & World Report rankings? I ask this as a survivor of the college-app wars; I ask this because I find myself sympathizing not with my fellow journalists but with the law-school deans and the undergraduate deans and whoever else has engaged in a little guerilla warfare. You might want to think again before you rely on the ratings to shape your wish list: It's going to be tough to scrape that little decal off the back window of your car if a rankings shake-up puts a dent in your brand image.