U.S. News Significantly Reduces the Weight of LSAT/GRE & GPA. What's Next?

A few months ago, many law schools announced they would boycott sending U.S. News direct (and non-third party audited) data, essentially forcing U.S. News to change their methodology, creating a tumultuous span of months with much criticism and debate about what was to come.

Yesterday, we learned more details about the aforementioned changes. Having seen the publicly released top 14 schools, and having spoken with numerous deans of law schools, perhaps the most substantial change was to the admissions efforts. To summarize the conversations with deans: "they were significantly reduced."

While we did not expect a rise in the weight of admissions metrics (test scores, uGPA, and selectivity) due to both pressures on U.S. News to emphasize output measures of law schools and a recent diminishment of their admissions weights by a small degree, we knew that their rankings team had ~20% of metrics vanish with the boycott. In other words, they had to add 20% weight back into their equation somewhere. Which makes the substantial dropping of admissions weights surprising; we know of no model including our own that went this far. But U.S. News did. And probably to their credit. So what does this mean?

It's early, to state the obvious. Less than 24 hours to be exact. For many years admissions numbers were seen as one of the margins by which a law school could improve in the rankings. Heftily-weighted metrics such as peer assessment scores were nearly impossible to change in the short term. We know this because as a firm we have extensively researched if this could be done. The conclusion, that surely many law schools reached, was that slow and steady improvement in rankings moved peer assessment over time, but you could not slowly and steadily move peer assessment scores to move rankings.

Admissions, therefore, along with a few other metrics, was a deeply targeted place for many law schools to seek gains. Thus with the prevalence and rise of prominence of rankings, so too we saw a multi-year increase in merit aid—most often given to applicants at or above target medians for law schools. We saw a front loading of applicants with high admissions numbers getting quicker admissions turnarounds, while those with numbers lower than what a school might seek generally had to wait. Such applicants in this second cohort could still be admitted, and applicants with high numbers still denied, at the individual level of course. It happens every single admissions cycle. But at the macro-level, you would certainly rather be in the higher than the schools' medians group, and this would often mean you would get an earlier decision and potentially substantially more merit aid.

Has this changed? Possibly yes. The entire weight of LSAT/GRE + uGPA  + Selectivity, by all accounts from those who we have talked to, is now low. Much lower than outcomes such as 10-month graduation and bar passage. Talking to a dean of a law school yesterday I asked, "What would you expect this means going forward?" and got the expected response: "You'd think law schools will focus much more on employment and bar passage and less on admissions." In other words, rankings aren't likely going away in prominence. Stakeholders, particularly applicants, some faculty, and donors rely on them for decision-making. But how to improve your ranking is now more about outcomes versus input.

Change happens slowly in higher education. Which means I am hesitant to make a sweeping statement such as "applications will now be read much more holistically with an emphasis on employability" or "interviews will matter much more now than LSAT scores." But these are both certainly possibilities. In fact, I think many admissions officers would prefer this. In admissions, you love being able to admit someone below a median or medians whose application endeared you, or who absolutely shined in an interview. There is now less rankings downside in doing so, and over time I'd expect more of this to happen.

What about this cycle? It has been slow, and I'd expect the pace of admitting to pick up over the next month. I'd expect much more waitlist movement than last year, and I am hopeful that this movement will now afford more splitters/reverse splitters and those below both medians a great possibility of admission. Again, this is not a prediction but a hope—change does not happen overnight.

One more important note from my conversations yesterday. It would seem the schools that may have been hurt the most in rankings, especially when you get outside the top 14 cohort, were often those with particularly strong admissions numbers relative to their ranking, but with lower placement and bar passage rates. This makes complete sense given the above. If a school killed it with their LSAT median, that median is much less important for rankings purposes today than it was yesterday. If schools are telling us exactly this, and they are, you can see a pathway where they also act on it. Where interviews—which are far better at predicting employment success than an LSAT score—become a sizable part of the admissions decison-making. If I were a school, I'd try to start now before other law schools do. And I believe some will.

–Mike Spivey