What's Going On with the U.S. News Rankings Delay?

Just as the most tumultuous rankings season we have ever seen seemed to be settling, and U.S. News had both publicly released their top 14 law schools and the full embargoed rankings to all law schools, the following email was sent to deans:

Apr 14, 2023

2023-2024 U.S. News Best Graduate Programs

As part of its normal graduate school rankings process every year, U.S. News gives schools an opportunity to review their data during an "embargo period". This year, we received an unprecedented number of inquiries from schools and are devoting additional time to comprehensively address these inquiries.

As a result, U.S. News will now publish the full 2023-2024 Best Graduate School Rankings on April 25, 2023.

Wait, what? The delayed rankings are now delayed again? And how is that possible being that the embargoed rankings have already been handed to schools? That, to state it mildly, was the response and chatter among law school deans, rankings experts, and just about everyone else interested in these things. What's more, no one had an answer. So, we've thought of what the answer could possibly be, and we've only come up with three possible scenarios, listed below.

Scenario 1. U.S. News is simply listening to graduate schools, but the rankings will stay the same.

There was a lot of change this year. Some medical schools also boycotted submitting data to law schools, so U.S. News had to change the methodology for both law and medical school rankings. And perhaps because of the law and medical school boycotts, U.S. News changed their MBA ranking methodology as well, placing more emphasis on outcomes. This created much more variability in the MBA program rankings; of the business schools ranked outside the top 40, one in every 3 experienced a change in rank in the double digits. Point being, U.S. News is getting a lot of messages from schools, and not just law schools. Things are wildly chaotic for them right now, and perhaps they are just spending more time listening.

This scenario would mean that, on the 25th, the law rankings would not change from the already released embargoed rankings, and we all simply have to wait a bit longer.

Scenario 2. U.S. News made an error (or errors) in their rankings that they are fixing.

This scenario is the one consuming the attention of law schools, and for good reason, as this would mean the place they think they are ranked may very well change. An error in how employment is calculated, or bar passage, etc. would change the data for every single school, including those in the already publicly-available top 14. This does not necessarily mean that every ranking would change, but some would, and it opens the possibility that some in the top 14 would. Which, weirdly enough, would probably draw more attention to U.S. News.

Point being, there would be a cascade of effects if this scenario is the case, but we'd all soon have a new list and lots of chatter. There is precedent for this as well—U.S. News has in the past published data, and rankings based on that data, that was later determined to be incorrect. One such example is from 2021, when they included a metric based on the number of credit hours taught by law librarians that included substantial mistakes. That metric was deleted. It was an error that would be obvious to almost anyone with any knowledge about these things, and it was to schools as soon as they saw the embargoed data. Despite this, U.S. News published the embargoed rankings based on that data, and had to then correct it when the error was pointed out to them.

This scenario would not be a good look for U.S. News, but there is a worse-case scenario:

Scenario 3. U.S. News was bullied into changing their rankings formula by upset and vocal schools.

For a short bit, this was the text and email chatter that initially popped up after the above email was sent. But the more I personally think about it, the less likely I think this becomes. Surely U.S. News must know that if x% of angry schools get their way with a new methodology that favors them post-release, y% are going to be equally angry with the new list. In fact, all schools might be hostile about this, because if it can happen to your peer school this year, who is to say it won't happen to you in a future year? All because the publication caved in to vocal deans?

This is the only scenario of the three that I believe would hurt U.S. News to the point of substantially reducing their rankings dominance. Which is why I believe we will see scenario #1 or #2 on the 25th (if not sooner), and not this one.

Months ago, I proposed in the media (not that I believed anyone at U.S. News would listen) that the rankings be delayed until late July or August. As this saga has continued, with every weird twist and strange public statement from U.S. News (and that list is deep), I now wish even more that they had come to the same conclusion. In a year that has been notably difficult for applicants, this whole ordeal likely slowed down what has already been an exceptionally slow admissions cycle.

Unrelatedly, we just posted a great podcast on transferring law schools in which our consultant Derek Meeker interviews a student who transferred to Harvard. You can listen to that podcast here!