Georgetown Law has long been an elite law school, consistently earning a position in the coveted top 14 spots in US News & World Report’s annual law school rankings. However, in the 2017-2018 rankings, Georgetown dropped from 14th to 15th, the first school to ever drop out of the “T-14.” UT Austin, who previously was tied for the 15th spot with UCLA, moved into Georgetown’s historic spot, causing panic among Georgetown students afraid of the implications this will have on their job prospects, concern that the quality of education is decreasing, and larger debates among legal academics as to the efficacy of law school rankings, and whether or not US News really deserves to be the “gold standard.”
The legend of the T-14 law schools began because since US News started ranking law schools in 1989, the same fourteen institutions have always remained at #14 or higher. The legend of the T-14 is not that these fourteen schools were in any way vastly superior to the schools ranked #15 or lower, but in the fact that the schools had remained the same. This fact has led many academics and practitioners (yes, even in big law) to argue that the distinction – and the weight put on it by prospective students – is largely arbitrary. As Dean William Treanor insinuated when speaking to students at a Student Bar Association open forum, Georgetown’s drop in ranking simply means that there are more good law schools, not that Georgetown has become worse by any measure.
According to Dean Treanor, on the 100-point scale that US News uses to calculate the rankings, Georgetown only slipped by one point compared to last year’s ranking. UT Austin only gained one point compared to their pre-T-14 ranking. Georgetown, UT Austin, and UCLA have long been caught in a “death triangle.” What put UT Austin ahead this particular year were particular changes in the algorithm that US News uses to compile its yearly ranking.
Every year US News uses a slightly adjusted algorithm. The particulars of it is not made public, but there are a number of institutions who study the changes in rankings and statistics each year and come up with a heavily respected and relied upon estimation of that year’s metrics and weighting.
This year’s algorithm changed in a substantial way, according to Dean Treanor, no longer counting any school sponsored post-graduate employment in their employment statistics. This means that all of Georgetown’s fellowships and the DC Affordable Care Law Firm – programs that specifically attract students to Georgetown – are no longer counted in the university’s favor, which Dean Treanor believes “devalues public interest.” In a statement to Georgetown Law Weekly, Dean Treanor reaffirmed the university’s dedication to public service despite the US News ranking, saying “It is unfortunate that these employment opportunities continue to be undervalued in the US News rankings, but that will not change Georgetown’s commitment to provide these important public service career options for our students.”
Furthermore, the ranking does not take into consideration a number of Georgetown’s nationally renowned programs, such as its clinics, experiential education, or evening programs.
A metric that was weighted more heavily this year was spending per student. US News counts higher spending per student in favor of the institution. Many legal educators, including Dean Treanor, are of the opinion, however, that this is a “ridiculous and unjustifiable” metric. Higher spending per student may mean that a school receives a larger endowment in proportion to the size of their student body. Georgetown happens to receive a much smaller endowment than its T-14 counterparts in comparison to the size of the student body.
This has led some to question the administration about cutting the class size. While the administration has considered it, such a move would have largely no impact on the incoming classes’ GPA and LSAT statistics, and would result in a $10 million loss in cutting only 50 people, while the university’s fixed costs would stay the same. This would have the impact of decreasing the spending per student.
There are also questions as to whether higher spending actually results in an improved education. Critics of the rankings highlight that Yale Law routinely spends more per student than Harvard Law, earning it the coveted #1 ranking, whereas the statistical difference in the quality of education between the two universities is negligible.
One metric that the administration is aware works against Georgetown is our lower representation among clerkships. In response to this trend, the administration had taken the proactive measure of approving earlier this year a full-time clerkship advisor to supplement the part-time advisor currently in the Office of Career Strategy. The new advisor will be available to students starting July 1.
It is also worth noting that while US News is the most prominent ranking system, Georgetown rose in two other prominent rankings – domestically and internationally. In the National Law Journal’s ranking of “go-to” schools for careers in big law, Georgetown rose from #13 to #12. Additionally, in the QS rankings, the “leading international higher education ranking,” Georgetown rose from 27th in the world, to 21st in the world for law, enjoying the 8th highest rank of U.S. law schools behind Harvard, Yale, Stanford, NYU, Berkley, Columbia, and the University of Chicago.
The lesson of this year’s rankings is this: US News and Georgetown do not share the same definitions of success. US News rewards big spending and big law. Georgetown measures success in providing access to employment to students interested in both big law and public interest, valuing both day students and evening students, and providing students opportunities to work on Supreme Court cases fighting for special education rights while still in law school. We will all be better for the fact that they do.