Barack Obama, Education / Schools, Rankings, Reader Polls

Should The Obama Rankings Be Applied To Law Schools?

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. We’ve talked extensively about the outsized power the U.S. New rankings have on higher education. Normally we talk about it in the context of law schools, but they’re just as important in college admissions.

Now, there’s a going to be a new challenger to U.S. News: The President of the United States. And yes, in a battle between USN and POTUS, I think POTUS is the clear underdog.

Today, Obama will unveil various proposals he hopes will drive down the cost of college tuition, a problem that his administration has been shockingly silent on. The centerpiece of his proposal is a new college rankings system that will rate schools on “tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend,” according to the New York Times.

Eventually, Obama hopes to tie these Obama Rankings to federal financial aid: schools that perform well will have a larger pool of federal money to dole out to students, while schools that perform poorly will have less money to play with.

Does this sound like a good idea? Would you like to see Obama apply it to law schools?

Here are some more nuts and bolts of the program as explain by draft documents obtained by the Times:

The ratings would compare colleges against their peer institutions. If the plan can win Congressional approval, the idea is to base federal financial aid to students attending the colleges partly on those rankings.

“All the things we’re measuring are important for students choosing a college,” a senior administration official said. “It’s important to us that colleges offer good value for their tuition dollars, and that higher education offer families a degree of security so students aren’t left with debt they can’t pay back.”

Mr. Obama hopes that starting in 2018, the ratings would be tied to financial aid, so that students at highly rated colleges might get larger federal grants and more affordable loans. But that would require new legislation.

Obama can start ranking whatever he wants via executive action. Tying the whole thing to financial aid requires Congressional action, and as we all know, Republicans in Congress wouldn’t beam Spock back to a Bird-of-Prey if Obama wished it.

But even in an idealized world where Congress shows up to work, is this a plan you’d want to see in legal education? If we have learned one thing about the dominance of U.S. News, it’s that students and their families want strict numerical rankings. Once you start breaking things up for “peer institutions,” students are going to tune you out. What’s better: Massive Your State College, or Egghead Institute? If you don’t have a clear answer, nobody will care about your rankings.

More people question the motives of “the government” even more than they do from a for-profit publication. Any school that doesn’t do well in the Obama Rankings will just claim there’s a massive government conspiracy against them. And prospective students will be dumb enough to believe it.

On the other hand, doing anything to slow the federal loan money gravy train to universities based on the raw numbers of enrolled students could be positive:

In a letter to supporters this week, Mr. Obama said that tinkering around the edges would not be enough, and that the changes he was proposing in his two-state, three-campus tour beginning Thursday, “won’t be popular with everyone — including some who’ve made higher education their business — but it’s past time that more of our colleges work better for the students they exist to serve.”

At this point, anything that is going to make professors unhappy is probably a good start.

Are there significant enough differences between colleges and law schools that would requires substantive changes to this proposal before anybody tried to apply it to law schools?

More than a government-run rankings, in the law school context a lot of good could be done simply by government imposed transparency. Wouldn’t you like to know the default rates and the average indebtedness of the graduates of each law school? If the government forces law schools to be honest and transparent with what they are actually doing, I feel like there are more than enough for-profit publications (ahem) that can make rankings a little more valuable than those of U.S. News. Tying aid money to rankings would be a neat government trick if Obama can pull it off, but I do fear that many students would just make up any financial aid shortfall with private loans if they have their heart set on a low value school.

What do you guys think? Would you want Obama Rankings tied to federal aid applied to law school?

Would you like to see the Obama Rankings applied to law schools?

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Obama’s Plan Aims to Lower Cost of College [New York Times]

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