Tulane Law School joins college rankings exodus

Aidan McCahill, Associate News Editor

Tulane University Law School is one of several law schools that have decided to remove themselves from the U.S. News and World Report rankings. (Lucy Tolman)

In the opening chapter of his book, former Tulane University President Scott Cowen describes a pervasive system in higher education.

This system, he argues, can “radically alter an institution’s strategic aims” in everything from resource allocation, to admissions and athletics.

The system in question? College rankings.

“We’ve lost control of our own story,” Cowen said in the 2018 book, “Winnebagos on Wednesdays: How Visionary Leadership Can Transform Higher Education.” And through letting others decide the metrics, we “occasionally strayed from doing what is best for our students and the communities in which we exist.”

He said the “chief culprit” is the U.S. News and World Report, which began compiling its “Best Colleges” list in the 1980s. 

Initially a guide for prospective students to compare undergraduate and graduate programs, the ranking has become a dominant force in higher education. Today, they offer advice to over 40 million visitors a month online, predominantly from their “Best” lists, which also allow people to compare hospitals, cars and financial services. 

Over the years, U.S. News has come under fire for not only struggling to quantify the college experience but also shaping the way administrators make decisions.

“The USNWR rankings are problematic in a host of ways,” Tulane spokesman Mike Strecker said. “They cannot measure directly what they claim to be trying to quantify — the quality of the student experience.”

For undergraduate programs, the rankings system is composed of nine main criteria. “undergraduate academic reputation,” which makes up 20% of the score, relies on peer surveys given to college administrators to rate institutions. Other factors include “alumni giving rate,” “student selectivity” and “faculty resources.” 

Recently, law and medical schools across the country have attempted to boycott the rankings by refusing to send data. These include Stanford University, Harvard University and Yale University Law as well as medical schools, among others. 

In January, Tulane University Law School joined the growing list. 

In a statement that month, Dean of Tulane Law David Meyer announced the school will no longer provide information to the U.S. News rankings, “following careful review and based on mounting concerns about the accuracy and utility of the ranking for prospective students and others.” Meyer cited the system’s continuous changes and internal inconsistencies in the ranking’s methodology as a major factor in the decision. 

Meyer also pointed to multiple instances of colleges submitting inaccurate data. Last year, U.S. News downgraded Columbia University’s rank from second to 18th after a math professor said the university submitted inaccurate data about class size and faculty spending. At Temple University’s business school, a dean was imprisoned for conspiracy and wire fraud after submitting false data in 2018. 

Critics contend that factors such as financial resources, spending per student and faculty, has encouraged colleges to raise tuition and expand administration in order to spend more and gain spots in the rankings. 

Others say the rankings promote elitism by rewarding wealthier schools. Southern Methodist University jumped 11 spots from 2008 to 2017, following a fundraising campaign that increased its endowment by over $1 billion.

The U.S. News and World Report forces us to play an underhanded game,” Jewish studies professor Brian Horowitz said. “There was an idea that, after Katrina, for our health, we needed to be [ranked] 40 … How we get from 50 to 40 demands that we conform with … the methodology to look really good.” 

Horowitz said this included focusing on admitting students with the highest SAT scores or in the top 10 of their highschool class. Others say Tulane attempts to increase its selectivity and reputation by creating low acceptance rates through mass sending of free applications and rejecting qualified students who do not apply via Early Decision. 

Strecker said Tulane does not consider rankings in admissions. 

Our free application is about removing a barrier to applying for admission that helps to fuel equity in our process,” Strecker said. “The most valuable aspect of Early Decision is that over the last several years, the environment on campus has shifted where the majority of students currently enrolled designated Tulane as their first choice — which has a remarkable impact on the positive energy that students, faculty and staff experience on campus.”

In 2010, the Freeman School of Business sent misreported data to U.S. News, including false information about admission test scores and the number of applications. Tulane alerted U.S. News and hired two firms to investigate the incident. 

Despite the recent number of high-profile boycotts, U.S. News will likely prevail at the undergraduate level.  

I do not think that the trends in law and medical schools will carry over to the undergraduate rankings, at least anytime soon,” Provost Robin Forman said

Forman said that high school students will always need the rankings to weigh college decisions. “The sheer number of colleges and universities makes it an overwhelming process,” he said. 

U.S. News now weighs graduation rates at 35% with a recent subsection for low-income graduates who qualify for Pell Grants. Undergraduates who do not receive degrees are 100 times more likely to default on their student loans, according to Forbes.

Tulane juniors Katie Gemmell and Gabby Shih both recall taking rankings into consideration when applying to colleges.

“I knocked schools out because of it,” Gemmell said. “I feel like I grew up in an environment where pressure was put on me from my school, my family to go to the best school I possibly could.” 

“You pay attention to ranking,” Shih said, remembering her high school counselor and the competitive public school she attended.

Although both acknowledged the system does not accurately represent student life, they expressed frustration that Tulane was not ranked higher.

“If each class is more and more selective, and people are pretty happy here, we should be moving up,” Shih said.

U.S. News said the graduate school exodus will not change much. 

“U.S. News will continue to rank all fully-accredited law schools, regardless of whether schools agree to submit their data,” a spokeswoman said to Inside Higher Ed. 

They may be right. Much of the information U.S. News uses for medical and law schools is publicly available from organizations like the American Bar Association and American Academy of Family Physicians. Still, a collective effort to reject the system continues to grow. 

I got the feeling that there is going to be an attempt from Tulane to buck the trend and that there’s a real concerted effort to change because we are in a much better financial situation right now,” Horowitz said. 

“The point is not simply to decry the rankings, but to consider how complicit we’ve become in trying to nudge the numbers,” Cowen wrote in 2018. “It would be wise to look within — define ‘success’ in our own terms, then measure it appropriately and collect the data to support our claims.”

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