Melissa Harris-Perry: Its admission season. Prospective students are putting together personal statements, supplements and test scores, and doing everything they can to get into their school of choice. In many cases, that means top-ranked schools, but the world of admissions is changing. The for profit US News and World Report has published its influential rankings of colleges since 1983. It's added graduate programs, including medical and law schools in the years since.
The magazine says it uses a combination of data such as test scores, debt incurred, school acceptance rates, and hiring partners when it ranks schools, but this year Yale Law School, which is ranked number one every single year since the list inception, was the first school to walk away from the ranking system. Harvard, Georgetown and other top law schools soon followed Yale's lead. Joining me now to talk more about Yale's decision to exit is Heather Gerken, dean of Yale Law School. Dean Gerken, it's a pleasure to have you.
Heather Gerken: Thank you for having me, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Why did you make this decision?
Heather Gerken: We made the decision because we realized that participating in US News was inconsistent with our values and the values of the legal profession. The way that US News purports to measure the quality of legal education fundamentally undermines the incentives to bring low-income students into our midst and to provide them the support they need. It undermines the ability of law schools to provide vibrant support for public interest work. Those are two touchstones of this law school's values and we just felt like we couldn't take part any longer.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This incentive structure is something I've talked about with students often, that it creates a circumstance where everyone, of course, wants to be ranked high in order to attract what we call quality students, but the notion of a high ranking and of quality ends up connected with all these socio-economic issues. Can you say a bit more about that?
Heather Gerken: Well, that's exactly right. I'll just say one of the things that US News rightly takes account of is debt, because debt really matters when you're thinking about whether to go to law school. I don't know if you know this, but the legal profession is only 15% students of color. There are huge financial obstacles all along the way to bring people into our midst. Unfortunately, US News, though, and in measuring debt ignores all the things that really matter about it.
I'll just give you one good example. If you are student who wants to come to Yale Law School and pursue a public interest career, we will forgive your loans, zero it out if you take a sufficiently low-paying job. US News doesn't even include that calculation in the debt calculation, which is just terrible.
The other problem with US News, and this is really just fundamental, is that it undermines the incentives of law schools to bring in low-income students in the first place, because if you bring in a low-income student, they have higher financial need, and US News creates an incentive for you to ignore those students to bring in as many students as you can to pay and doesn't really take into account the way that financial support should work in the education system.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering about the capacity of schools like Yale, Harvard, Georgetown to opt out of the rankings, in part because you all carry a certain name recognition, a certain IV cache that persists even without a US News and World Report ranking. I'm wondering if you're a scrappy law school, say, in the Midwest at a state university, like where you went at the University of Michigan, if dropping out of the rankings is less possible because you're not in the IVs or one of these obvious top 10ers?
Heather Gerken: The reason we're stepping away is because we can see how these incentives are harming those schools and harming legal education generally. We have a giant problem. We have a generation that's inheriting impossible problems to solve and we need to teach them to solve them. That means bringing everyone to the table for the conversation. US News is making it harder and harder to do that. It's also just undermining the incentive of law schools to help those students serve their own community. If you're going to bring people to the table, you want them to go back and serve their communities. US News undermines the incentives of law schools to do that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What are the alternatives? If I am about to take on significant debt to go be a law student somewhere maybe because I want to serve my community, maybe I just love the law for whatever reason, how do I make a decision based on what you would see as meaningful factors to determine the quality of legal education I'd receive?
Heather Gerken: Well, mostly, I actually believe in data, I believe in transparency, and I really believe in providing the support that first-generation students need to come to law school. We have really led the way on this front. One in four of our students are first gener, we've gone from 32% students of color to 54% students of color in just five years. We are the first law school in the country to give full tuition scholarships to students below the poverty line. That means 51 students are walking our halls with a full tuition scholarship.
My goal is to help students like that come into our profession. Those students need to pay attention to lots of different things, loan forgiveness programs, support for public interest, debt load properly calculated. We can provide that information. In fact, we do provide that information on our own websites. There's a lot of data that the American Bar Association has for all law schools, it's transparent, it's accessible, you can read it and figure out what matters to you.
The problem with US News is it's a non-transparent system, it's a system that has a ranking weighting that doesn't make any sense for the justice students that you're talking about, and they're doing harm to students by the signal that they send. What we want to do is lead the way. We want to help show how to provide information that's accessible, transparent, and useful to the very students that you're talking about.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You've talked a lot here about diversifying the legal field through diversifying the student body of law schools. There's every reason to think that the Supreme Court will hand down a decision at some point this summer that could make it quite difficult to do this kind of work at both the undergraduate level and in graduate and law schools. Do you have a sense of how law schools and how places like Yale will respond if in fact affirmative action is deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court?
Heather Gerken: Everyone is obviously thinking really hard about the case and waiting to see what the court tells us. We have an excellent system that is fully compliant with the law and we're going to wait to see what Supreme Court says the law is going to be going forward. Really [unintelligible 00:06:39] if you just want to talk a little bit about the use of scores and things like that, LSATs are incredibly heavily weighted by US News, presumably because they can measure them easily, but an LSAT score and a GPA does not capture the full measure of a person.
US News creates two terrible incentives on this front. First, it undermines your incentive to repass the scores, to repass the GPA, to really take the full measure of a student, to measure not just how far they have gone, but how far they have come. That's the way a holistic admission process should work, but US News undermines the incentive to take any students who don't have a perfect GPA or LSAT precisely because it will undermine your rankings.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Heather Gerken is the dean of Yale Law School. Dean Gerken, thank you again for joining us.
Heather Gerken: It's an enormous pleasure, Melissa. Thank you so much.
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