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'What a strange system it is.' A Yale Law dean explains a pullback from U.S. News rankings.

Frankie Graziano
Connecticut Public Radio

Yale Law School has held the top spot in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of American law schools since 1990. But Dean Heather Gerken said this week that Yale Law School will no longer cooperate with the publication as it compiles data for its rankings.

Speaking on "All Things Considered," Gerken said the publication uses “flawed” methodology because it incentivizes law schools to bypass low-income students as they strive for higher rankings.

She said that law schools across the country have been voicing their concerns about the rankings for years and that U.S. News has been unresponsive.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

John Henry Smith: Dean Gerken, I've seen you quoted as saying the U.S. News & World Report ranking uses flawed methodology because it incentivizes schools to set low-income students aside. Could you expound on that?

Heather Gerken: Sure. What it does is it calculates debt with a really crude metric. And it tells law schools, if you add one low-income student or more than one low-income student to your mix, it's going to increase on the U.S. News ranking your debt load. And that means the risk of lowering your ranking. So if you're a law school, and you are worried about your rankings, the rational thing to do is to accept students who can pay on their own for their legal education, rather than accepting students who require loans to do so.

It [also] fails to include one of our most important programs, which is our loan forgiveness program. So if you are on financial aid, and you go out and work for a public interest organization that does not pay well, we will forgive your loans, either in part or entirely. That is so important if you are a low-income student who wants to go out and work for a public interest organization that's not [accounted for] anywhere in the ranking. And so as a result, no law schools have any incentive to do the kinds of wonderful things that we do with regard to loan forgiveness, to support public interest, to support students with real financial need. The metric is just misleading. And it creates all the wrong incentives for law school.

John Henry Smith: Why do you think they do this? Do you think that it is willful? Do you think that is a blind spot? Why would they do this?

Heather Gerken: I have no doubt that U.S. News is engaged in good faith efforts. Institutions are really different. And so when you try to sort of boil everything down to a very crude metric, and you're not careful about your methodology, there's a real risk that you're actually not sending out an accurate signal for students. A ranking is only as good as the data and methodology on which it relies.

John Henry Smith: Well, U.S. News & World Report has put out a statement about this. Eric Gertler, executive chairman and CEO of U.S. News, says, the magazine will continue to hold schools "accountable for the education they will provide to the students." He goes on to say, "We will continue to fulfill our journalistic mission of ensuring that students can rely on the best and most accurate information in making a decision. This mission has not changed with this recent announcement."

What do you make of that response?

Heather Gerken: U.S. News is going to have to decide what it wants to do on its own, it will not be able to rank either us or Harvard Law School with full data because we are simply not going to provide it to them. And I just want to just note that what a strange system it is, in a world in which law schools are giving data that's not available to anyone else, but solely to a for-profit commercial enterprise that doesn't actually have expertise in legal education the way we do. So we were not going to be sharing that data. If U.S. News goes ahead and ranks us of course, it's welcome to do so. But we've never measured ourselves by U.S. News, even though we've held this No. 1 spot. We haven't used it to advertise ourselves. And we have never accommodated our policies to it. If we wanted to change our ranking in U.S. News, we would never have enacted many of the fantastic programs that we've enacted here, all of which, ironically, have lowered our scores.

John Henry Smith: What's been the reaction from the Yale community?

Heather Gerken: It has been overwhelmingly positive. I've actually been really touched by how over the moon my faculty are about this decision, the support from our alumni. It's really been stunning. And I should just tell you, I've received an outpouring of support from professors at faculties across the country because they all see firsthand the kind of damage that gets done when law schools are so worried about their rankings that they enact policies that they know are not good for their students.

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.

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