U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel A. Cardona called on institutions to “stop worshiping at the false altar of U.S. News and World Report” during a conference hosted at Harvard Law School on Wednesday.
The event, jointly organized by Harvard Law School and Yale Law School, invited representatives from more than 100 law schools, 30 other institutions of higher education, and the U.S. Department of Education to discuss “best practices for law school data.”
The convention comes after top law schools, including at Harvard and Yale, opted to boycott the U.S. News rankings late last year, citing methodological concerns and potentially perverse incentives. The magazine announced in January that it would continue to rank Harvard and other boycotting schools in its 2023-2024 rankings using publicly available data from the American Bar Association.
In the conference’s keynote address, Cardona said inequities in higher education are perpetuated by ranking systems.
“Rankings discourage institutions with the largest endowments and greatest capacity to enroll and graduate more underserved students from doing so because it may hurt their selectivity,” he said. “Instead, the most life-changing higher education opportunities go to young people who already have every socioeconomic advantage.”
Citing similar departures of medical schools — including Harvard Medical School — from the U.S. News rankings, Cardona urged those in attendance to “tell your colleagues across higher education that they set the agenda, not some for-profit magazine.”
In an open letter to Cardona on Wednesday morning prior to his remarks, U.S. News wrote that Cardona should ask for “more data, not less” from school deans.
“U.S. News will continue to fight for access, transparency, and accountability of data that empowers students to make informed decisions,” the letter said. “You recently stated ‘As leaders, it’s time for us to stand up for students and expect more in education.’ We couldn’t agree more.”
In opening remarks, Yale Law School Dean Heather K. Gerken said she believes rankings “squeeze what cannot be measured into a system that has an impossibly wide range of institutions inside of it.”
During the first panel, Harvard Kennedy School professor Christopher N. Avery ’88 — who studies college ranking systems — emphasized the need for transparency during admissions processes, but he cautioned against replacing “one bad system” with “another system that may be bad in a wide variety of other ways.”
In another panel, Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean Bridget Terry Long ’97 spoke about the inherent difficulties in ranking schools.
“Even if we get some better measures of quality, let’s also just acknowledge, we’re not necessarily going to agree and all have the same definition of quality,” Long said.
Florida A&M University College of Law Dean Deidré A. Keller, who spoke at the conference, said in an interview that the event made her feel “hopeful and inspired.” Still, she said she believes it will be difficult for schools to move away from rankings.
“U.S. News and World Report has been ranking law schools since the 1990s, and so that’s 30-odd years of one system,” she said. “It will take, I think, a lot more work and collaboration to shift and alter that framework.”
In a statement after the event, Gerken expressed a desire for solutions that provide students with better access to data.
“We will build on the strong foundation provided by the American Bar Association reporting, an independent organization with deep expertise that has made available free, publicly available data on the issues that matter most to prospective students and our profession,” Gerken wrote.
U.S. Under Secretary of Education James R. Kvaal said in his remarks that attendees should “not lose sight of why the rankings are important.”
In an interview after the event, Kvaal said he believes there are ways to make current rankings more equitable and that the Education Department has reached out to U.S. News with suggestions for how to do so.
Kvaal also responded to the comments made by U.S. News in its open letter to Cardona.
“We welcome a conversation with U.S. News about how to best measure the value created by colleges and universities,” he said.
Correction: March 3, 2023
A previous version of this article misquoted Yale Law School Dean Heather K. Gerken as calling the American Bar Association an “individual organization.” In fact, Gerken described the American Bar Association as an “independent organization.”