Marquette Drops From 100 to 101 in US News Ranking

There are many reasons why being a Dean must be frustrating. Among other reasons, the Dean is the guardian of the school’s brand, but Deans have little control over brand perceptions in the short run. Instead, brand perceptions are largely shaped by exogenous influences such as third party rankings.

So an annual “rite of Spring” among law schools is to conduct post-mortems following each new US News & World Reports ranking. Each April, Deans around the country spend a lot of time answering for their latest rankings. The resulting news stories follow a predictable plot:

* law school drops in the rankings

* angry alumni and students demand to know why

* the Dean explains that the rankings are important but methodologically flawed

You could almost recycle the same story at every law school that isn’t blessed by the USNWR gods.

The stories are flowing in at Marquette, where the school dropped from last year’s three-way tie for 100 (at the very bottom of the second tier) to the third tier. This drop looks precipitous, but in fact the USNWR’s data jockey says the school should have been ranked at 101. So, according to the USNWR methodology, the school dropped a single place from 100 to 101. This doesn’t stop the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel from saying the school is “rattled” by the “tumble” in the rankings. See the Marquette Tribune’s similar story.

(Note that because there was a three-way tie for 100 in last year’s rankings, there were 102 schools ranked in the top 100. So, arguably, Marquette rose from 102 to 101 this year. Whatever.).

I won’t recount the many, many reasons why the USNWR rankings are flawed. I will, however, offer an interpretive guide to the USNWR rankings that should be obvious but apparently isn’t. Just like consumer surveys and political polls describe their margin of error (i.e., this poll is accurate within X% +/-), one should read each year’s installation of the rankings as having a margin of error as well. (We could debate the size of that margin; personally, I think it’s very large). So if a school changes from 100 to 101, does that reflect any real change? In my book, no. It is entirely consistent with the metric’s margin of error.

Because of the metric’s imprecision, USNWR rankings have some natural volatility from year to year. This means schools like Marquette will float up and down without any real intrinsic change. Because these changes are inevitable and not tied to reality, I can confidently make the following predictions:

1) Marquette Law will be back in the second tier in next year’s rankings (or, at the latest, in 2008)

2) In the 5 years after that, Marquette Law will be back in the third tier at least once

3) Neither of those developments will accurately reflect any real changes at the school

Anyone planning to rely on this year’s USNWR rankings should be advised accordingly.