Law School Deans, Law Schools, Rankings, U.S. News

Law School Making Excuses About Its Low Ranking Before U.S. News Is Even Released

The U.S. News 2014 Law School ranking should be leaked sometime this evening (check back in with Above the Law and we’ll post it when we get it) and will be officially released sometime tomorrow.

Each year the U.S. News list is met with criticism, primarily from schools that do not do well in the rankings. Usually law schools wait until the rankings are out before they start bitching and making excuses. But this year one law school started complaining about the rankings first thing Monday morning, before the official list is even published.

I guess they know something we don’t.

The criticisms would be a little more on point if this law school took a real reformist approach to legal education. Instead, they’re doing the same things everybody else is doing, only not quite as well…

People attending Michigan State College of Law got back to school from spring break today. Waiting for them in their inboxes was a message from their dean, Joan W. Howarth. Dean Howarth is already complaining about the as-yet-unreleased rankings:

I’m writing because the US News law school rankings are due to be released this week. These rankings are terribly flawed, with next-to-nothing in the formula that directly reflects the quality of the education we offer. Even worse, parts of the US News ranking formula conflict fundamentally with the best interest of our students. For example, you might be surprised that the US News formula rewards law schools that raise tuition as much as possible. For us, trying to keep tuition costs under control to limit student debt is much more important than whatever we lose in the rankings from that budgetary restraint.

As president Josiah Bartlett might say: “Your indignation would be more interesting to me if it weren’t quite so covered in crap.” You can read her full email on the next page.

Michigan State University College of Law charges $36,360 per year in tuition alone. That’s not accounting fees. That’s not accounting living expenses. What’s worse is that MSU Law goes out of its way to hide the ball when it comes to the cost of their legal education. Unlike many schools, which at least give you a yearly expected cost in tuition and fees (or some schools that even give you an expected investment that takes into account living expenses) the top of MSU’s tuition and fees page lists the cost “per credit hour.”

Do you know a lot of law students who are going to law school one credit hour at a time?

You have to click on a footnote to see the so-called “average” charge per semester, then multiply to get to the actual yearly charge, which again doesn’t include all of the fees listed sporadically on the page.

This is not a example of cost transparency being shown by MSU.

But it gets worse. The crux of Dean Howarth’s misleading paragraph is that somehow the school is being “punished” by U.S. News for keeping costs under control, as if $36,000 plus in law school tuition represents “control.” Last year Michigan State was ranked #82 by U.S. News. But its tuition is actually higher than other state schools ranked at #82. If the U.S. News just simply “rewarded” schools for raising tuition “as much as possible” as the Dean suggests, shouldn’t Michigan State’s high cost actually end up placing it ahead of schools like Oklahoma and SUNY Buffalo which cost less?

Of course, the entire MSU preemptive argument is intellectually dishonest at best, because this year U.S. News is making a stab at taking into account law schools’ employment outcomes in a meaningful way. If anything, this year marks the first time that U.S. News is trying to address its many (justified) critics.

All of that means that if MSU Law does significantly worse this year in the rankings, it won’t be because of their tuition — as the Dean wants you to believe — but because of their bad employment outcomes for graduates.

The Dean’s concluding paragraph starts with this:

In spite of their flaws, we pay careful attention to the rankings. My goal is to manage to the rankings formula as much as we can, but not let the rankings undermine our bigger commitments to continually improve the quality of the education and services we provide to MSU Law students.

Let’s hope MSU Law students can spot a false choice when they see it. This year more than ever, “managing the rankings formula” can be done by simply getting students jobs. MSU Law should worry about that. WORRY ABOUT GETTING THE KIDS WHO ARE THERE JOBS, not spinning the rankings for classes you’d like to recruit. Let the media point out the flaws in the U.S. News rankings. Dean Howarth should just be focused on getting current students and recent graduates jobs… and the ranking will take care of themselves.

Watch out for this kind of disingenuous spin this week. Watch out for schools that are not cheap claiming that the U.S. News punished them for tuition restraint. Watch out for schools who are not getting students jobs to talk about the “unfair formula” U.S. News applies.

Watch out of law schools telling their students it’s raining after the U.S. News pees all over them.

(hidden for your protection)

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