: The Blawgraphy
Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Rankings Twist Law School Financial Aid Choices

Margot Adler at Public Radio’s Justice Talking takes a look at the ugly side of the economics of higher education in College Admissions: A Game of Privilege?

This part of the discussion with education researcher and policymaker Ross Weiner and public universities representative Peter McPherson highlights a particularly pertinent issue in law school settings.

Anyone paying attention to the law school rankings game can recognize the not so invisible hand of the rankings behind this statement from Ross Davies:

One of the things that we can look at is how colleges and universities use their own financial resources either to broaden access or to serve other purposes. And what we’ve seen is a huge shift away from providing institutional financial aid to the financially neediest students and more towards giving larger financial rewards to students who could afford to go to college whether they got a financial award or not. But these public universities, in order to move up in the ratings and the rankings systems, are actually buying up students who have done better previously. And it’s a real problem because we’ve got to figure out how to reward and incentivize these public institutions to serve these students who are going to struggle academically and financially. The country needs for these students to be more successful. And right now all the signals and all the status are towards universities and colleges becoming more elite, and not serving struggling students.

There is a clear incentive to “buy” high performing students in order to increase the illusion of selectivity. This incentive in turn puts pressure on admissions offices to make choices based on numbers that it might otherwise make on less quantifiable grounds and also applies pressure to increase tuition to fund the arms race. In this context, the recent moves by wealthier universities to reach into their endowments looks less like philanthropy and more like the erection of barriers to entry.

When the rankings start to reflect not the value the institution can impart on a student by virtue of its education but rather the status the school can achieve by leveraging its endowment to pad its LSAT stats, then it’s time for a MoneyLaw revolution.

Cardozo Law Revue 2007 Beavis and Butt-for

Video: Cardozo Law Revue 2007 Beavis and Butt-for, an ode to Palsgraf.

Confronting my Inner Law Nerd

Law Nerds occupy a peculiar place in nerd taxonomy. We generally retain the capacity for normal conversation and our fixations on particular theories of judicial interpretation are easily mistaken for the same types of political positions that the normals have.

We can thus avoid detection for long periods of time until our condition is at some point abruptly revealed when we forget ourselves in moments of agitation or excitement. For instance, I once witnessed a recent Chicago law grad who revealed his law-nerdness to a group of frightened acquaintances in a bar when he went berserk at the mention the ‘post office’. Not everyone who mails a letter recognizes their tacit support for an evil monopoly actively undermining fabric of our society.

Such a moment came for me not too long ago, when in my excitement about a certain blawg-igarch teaching at Houston next semester, I forgot who I was talking to. “So you look like look you’re about to pee your pants because there’s this law teacher who’s coming and you like, read his website where he talks about law stuff?” Um… well… not so pathetic sounding as such, but yes, yes, that’s about right. I won’t reveal the identity of said prof until after I register for classes lest I kill my chances for getting in, but more later.

I suppose admission is the first step to recovery

USNWR Rankings Leaked? Houston up 5 to 55 (unconfirmed)

From First Movers: Anthony Ciolli, U.S. News Rankings Leaked Early?, see this PDF.

‘Tis the Season: Law School Rankings Looming

For better or worse, my very own University of Houston Law Center, apparently still the poster child for rankings schadenfreude, features prominently in the ABA Journal’s article The Rankings Czar. Read the backstory here, here and here. The cover story begins and ends with Houston.

Tropical Storm Allison blasted through Houston killing 22 people, flattening homes and drenching the University of Houston Law Center in mud and floods. That was 2001, closing out Nancy Rapo­port’s first year as law school dean.

“Our computers survived only because our IT director risked his life to move classroom PCs to higher floors through the night of the storm,” Rapoport says.

The faculty and staff—some of whom lost their own homes—removed debris from buildings, scrounged supplies and aided students displaced by the storm. Despite the stress, Rapoport was exhilarated by the camaraderie. She never shed one tear of frustration.

Maybe that’s why her tears at a meet­ing with students and faculty six years later became a law school legend. The school had learned, just a week earlier, that it had fallen five spots (to 70th) in U.S. News & World Report’s annual law school rankings.

Distraught faculty and students wrote scathing critiques of her performance on blogs and computer bulletin boards, noting the school had plummeted nearly 20 spots during her six-year tenure.

Rapoport resigned.

Now a law professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Rapoport is still amazed to see that her tears that day seem always near the top of any story that mentions her. The Rice University and Stanford Law alum is a nationally respected bankruptcy expert. She co-edited a book about corporate fiascoes and was interviewed onscreen in the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. There are many facets to Rapoport’s career beyond those tears. Still …

“Am I the poster child for why the U.S. News & World Report rankings are bad?” Rapoport wondered last year in her blog.

It’s perhaps more accurate to say Rapoport’s Houston ordeal scares the bejesus out of deans. Her tears are emblematic of the nerve-shredding power U.S. News rankings hold over deans, faculty and students.

The story then concludes…

Nancy Rapoport says she is much happier with her job and life in Las Vegas. She and her husband love the city’s blend of lavish color and pioneer spirit, and the beauty of the desert landscape. She confides she already had a job offer from the University of Nevada when she resigned as dean in Houston.

“Truthfully, the Houston job just wasn’t the right fit for my personality, and office politics had made my relationship with the faculty strained,” she says. “The rankings exacerbated tension that already existed.”

Her successor, acting dean Raymond Nimmer, is now using technology to reach prospective students and publicize his law school’s accomplishments. The school is developing an online social network similar to MySpace or Facebook for alumni. The site will be a window into the school’s culture for potential applicants.

Nimmer also hopes to find ways to use text messaging and satellite radio to raise the school’s profile.

In the past year, Nimmer says, the school has “reduced faculty-student ratio with some outstanding new hires.” The school’s Center for Children, Law & Policy; Criminal Justice Institute; Institute for Intellectual Property & Information Law and other centers are hosting topical conference events.

And when asked what the school’s U.S. News ranking was last year, he can’t remember and asks his assistant. The University of Houston had jumped 10 slots to 60th place.

“I guess I’ve been so busy with work,” Nimmer says, “the number just slipped my mind.”

I’ve found the rankings to have very little value in my own selection on where to go to school – not because I didn’t look at them, but because the rational-seeming basis on which I made my decision turned out to have very little to do with what I value about my law school. Caveat emptor rankings buyers.

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