For more than 25 years, higher education officials criticized U.S. News and World Report privately and publicly for its annual rankings of universities and graduate schools but continued to cooperate with the highly popular scoresheet.
That all changed last fall.
Yale Law School, consistently ranked first in the country by U.S. News, announced last November it would stop cooperating with the rankings, claiming its methodology “not only fails to advance the legal profession, but stands squarely in the way of progress.”
Hours later, Harvard Law School also announced it would stop participating in the rankings. Dozens of other law schools quickly followed suit.
In January, Harvard Medical School led another exodus — this time of medical schools — from the rankings after announcing it would also boycott the U.S. News rankings.
While the boycott represents the most serious challenge to U.S. News since it began ranking colleges and universities 40 years ago, the magazine has pledged to continue its annual rankings practice by relying on publicly available data it can use with or without the participation of schools.
It released its 2024 list of top law schools and medical schools earlier this month, affirming its commitment to producing a set of rankings even without the cooperation of many top-ranked schools themselves.
Eric J. Gertler, chief executive officer of U.S. News, said in an interview that the magazine remains undeterred in its efforts to inform students through the application process, calling the movement against U.S. News rankings is ultimately a boycott “against accountability.”
“It was a decision against more data for students,” he said. “It was a decision against students.”
Grievances with the rankings date back to at least 1998 when a group of law school deans publicly took issue with the questionnaire circulated to schools that year and the formula used by U.S. News to compile its rankings.
Law school officials criticized the magazine’s rankings formula — which heavily weighted standardized test scores — as an obstacle to admitting a diverse student body and training graduates for public interest law careers.
Despite the criticism persisting for decades, deans cooperated with U.S. News year after year, proving the rankings to be irresistible to even its most outspoken detractors — until Yale and Harvard suddenly decided late last year they had seen enough.
Yale Law School Dean Heather K. Gerken announced in a Nov. 16 press release that the school would stop submitting data to U.S. News because the rankings are “counterproductive to the mission of this profession.”
“The U.S. News rankings are profoundly flawed — they disincentivize programs that support public interest careers, champion need-based aid, and welcome working-class students into the profession,” Gerken wrote. “As a result, we will no longer participate.”
Harvard Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82 stated in a similarly worded statement hours later that the school moved to withdraw from the rankings because “it has become impossible to reconcile our principles and commitments with the methodology and incentives the U.S. News rankings reflect.”
“This decision was not made lightly and only after considerable deliberation over the past several months,” he wrote.
The deliberation, however, did not involve input from U.S. News. In an interview, Gertler said U.S. News was “given no warning and there was no outreach” prior to Yale and Harvard Law Schools’ decision to withdraw from the rankings.
“We heard about the decision not to participate in our survey, like everybody else, from a press release,” Gertler said.
It was also a decision that came as a surprise to some law school deans.
Matthew R. Diller ’81, dean at the Fordham University School of Law, acknowledged that law schools had been in discussions regarding the shortcomings of the U.S. News rankings for many years but said the boycott that began last November was not a coordinated effort.
“As far as I know, there was no larger kind of agreement or discussion to pull out in any kind of mass way,” he said. “I think each school that I know of made its own decision based on its own vantage point.”
But it became easier for other law schools to join the boycott after two of the top law schools dropped out of the rankings first, according to Diller.
“Having the leaders in the fields — the Harvards and Yales — pull out, made it much easier for other schools to pull out,” he said.
William M. Treanor, dean of the Georgetown University Law School, said Gerken’s decision to leave the rankings was “very courageous.”
“She’s pulling out of a game that she wins every year,” Treanor said.
While law school officials say their decisions to withdraw from rankings were made on principle, some admissions experts maintain that the boycott is also an effort to influence the U.S. News formula.
Dan Lee, co-founder of Solomon Admissions Consulting said he believes law schools, in pulling out of the rankings, have been able to “collectively bargain” with the magazine to manipulate the way rankings are determined.
“Schools have a tremendous amount of leverage in terms of shaping what they want the ranking metrics to be and the weighting of each metric,” Lee said.
As an example, he cited a change in the weighting of law school metrics in U.S. News rankings. Following the boycott, the magazine decreased the weight it gave to LSAT scores from 11.25 percent to 5 percent, and the undergraduate GPA weighting decreased from 8.75 percent to 4 percent.
The rankings’ formula change following the boycott, Lee said, allows law schools to diversify the types of careers their students pursue post-grad. According to Harvard Law School’s recent employment data, more than 55 percent of its class of 2022 took jobs post-graduation at law firms that employ more than 500 lawyers, while less than eight percent pursued public interest careers.
“Top law schools, in general, tend to want to send more of their students to public interest areas of law that don’t involve working in large corporate law firms, and that’s going to be easier for them to do given the current change in the metrics,” Lee said.
“It’s going to give schools leeway to admit very talented, underrepresented students who may not necessarily be the best test takers,” he added.
Incoming Harvard Law School student Joshua Y. Rotenberg said diversity of interests was a “big driver” for him when considering law schools and his future career.
“If you’re changing your methods to try and increase diversity within your school — it’s definitely something that spoke to me, and I think it generally makes sense, just from an educational standpoint,” Rotenberg said.
But while the changes to the U.S. News rankings will give law schools more flexibility in their admissions practices, some say the boycott also reveals an unwillingness from top law schools to make policy changes that would result in a lower ranking.
“The interesting thing is that they could take students with lower scores,” said Bari Norman, president of the professional college advising service Expert Admissions. “They could take students from more diverse backgrounds and not pull out of the rankings.”
“It sort of acknowledges, obviously, the power of the rankings in saying, ‘We’re going to pull out so that we don’t obviously suffer,’” Norman added. “So if they suffer in the rankings, it’s because they pulled out, not because they did what they thought was the right thing.”
Despite the methodology changes to the rankings, top law schools have doubled down on their criticisms of U.S. News. In a January statement, Gerken, the dean of Yale Law School, said that “having a window into the operations and decision-making process at U.S. News in recent weeks has only cemented our decision to stop participating in the rankings.”'
Yale Law School retained its number one status, tied with Stanford, in the 2024 U.S. News ranking of law schools released earlier this month.
Abigail Joseph ’21, an incoming Harvard/MIT MD-Ph.D. program student, said she believes it is possible that schools considered both their individual rankings and student outcomes when deciding to drop out of the rankings.
“You could have a pure motive along with a more self-prioritizing motive, and I don’t think they’re necessarily mutually exclusive of each other,” Joseph said.
Top administrators at HLS, HMS, and Yale Law School declined interview requests to discuss the U.S. News boycott.
Even as top schools remain steadfast in their criticism of U.S. News, experts say any future fluctuations in the rankings will not likely have long-term repercussions on their reputations.
“When a school rises in it that isn’t historically toward the top, it will get some more respect,” Norman said. “As opposed to damaging places that have brands that are literally hundreds of years old.”
“U.S. News is powerful, but not that powerful,” she added.
Diller, the dean of Fordham Law, said his school’s participation in the boycott of U.S. News was a “symbolic protest” because it occurred after U.S. News already announced it would only rely on publicly available data for this year’s rankings.
Still, Diller said he joined the movement in order to encourage law school applicants “to view U.S. News with a certain skepticism.”
“The more U.S. News has been discussed, the more educated prospective students are about the limitations of U.S. News,” he said.
Norman said rankings are mentioned much less frequently in her own admissions consulting practice but added she believes the influence of rankings on college and graduate admissions will not “go away overnight.”
Asked if there is concern that the rankings boycott could spread to colleges or other graduate schools, Gertler said U.S. News needs to focus on fulfilling its mission.
“What we need to do is to strive to provide the highest journalistic quality service that we can,” Gertler said. “The traffic numbers certainly reflect that there’s high interest, but we can never take that for granted.”
“We’ve got to continue to make sure that we’re doing our best for our core constituency, which in this case, is our students,” he added.
When considering the possibility of undergraduate colleges dropping out of rankings in the future, Norman said it is “clearly not an institutional priority” as none of the graduate programs that pulled out of rankings saw their undergraduate programs follow suit.
Norman, however, said she would like to also see top undergraduate schools boycott the rankings.
“I would love to see them truly pull out, not try to manipulate it from the back,” Norman said. “I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think they have the courage to do so.”
—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mherszenhorn.
—Staff writer Nia L. Orakwue can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @nia_orakwue.