Thoughts on Law School Rankings, Student Debt, and Other Super Fun Topics

Who among us doesn’t love dwelling on student debt and competitive school rankings?

U.S. News & World Report is among the many institutions that releases an annual law school ranking list. The results, unsurprisingly, matter to law school students, alumni, and faculty. I know that many prospective students are currently receiving acceptances from many great law schools and will have to make final decisions in the coming months (and I hope they all choose BC Law). Surely, those students have to be looking at such ranking lists, and I don’t blame them. I certainly did when I made my decision. To the extent that rankings accurately capture a school’s merit, naturally we all want to be members of the best educational institution possible – and of course, there’s no doubt that prestige is a useful tool to have under your belt in many walks of life.

Just this time last year, amidst the upheaval and uncertainty that Covid-19 was just beginning to render on all of our lives, Dean Rougeau wrote to the BC Law community in order to address the U.S. News 2020 rankings, noting how competitive the scoring margins are among excellent law schools but nevertheless pledging BC’s commitment “to providing the very best legal education within our mission of educating lawyers for the greater good.” BC Law’s ranking (tied at #31) is something to take pride in, but there is something more going on here than that number captures. So much of the law school experience is driven by brutal, lifeless numbers: rankings, scholarships, LSAT scores, GPAs, final exam scores, bell curves, class rankings, class percentiles, and so on. It’s a bit reductionist. Whatever it is that sets BC Law apart is intangible, but I think it lives in that commitment to the greater good.

It’s my understanding that BC Law has a reputation for its supportive, collaborative community, and that has certainly been my experience – such traits may in some ways be reflected in rankings, depending on the extent to which scoring methodologies include alumni satisfaction and current student feedback as factors, over acceptance rates or incoming class GPA/LSAT aggregates.

Interestingly, U.S. News is tweaking its scoring methodology for 2022: 5% of each school’s score will be attributed to graduate debt (3% attributed to the average amount of debt taken on by law students, and 2% attributed to the proportion of students who take on debt). The lower the better, obviously. These changes come at the expense of admission-related metrics. For every reductive law school number that fails to comprehensively capture the BC Law experience, there are numbers that prospective students can’t close their eyes to: tuition costs, student debts, job placement, and median graduate wages. Law school isn’t cheap, and you have to have a plan to pay for it. For myself and many of my peers, that means competing vigorously for post-graduate jobs that pay well enough that our incurred debts don’t overwhelm us.

I think about my debts a lot. Debt in law school colors over the entire experience. It’s coercive, and a tether. In the absence of student debt, I know that at any point I can pack it all up, move to Hawaii, live in hostels and pick up odd-jobs, or something else like that. That would be absurd and I wouldn’t ever actually do that, but it’s an available choice in the absence of the inescapable financial obligations that arise from attending law school without having rich parents to fund it. Student debt isn’t merely a financial constraint, but is also a heavy weight on the mind – and mental wellness is something law students must be sure to manage. All that being said, I do really enjoy the study of law and am looking forward to my coming summer internship at a BigLaw firm. I want to be a great lawyer, and think interning for a firm will provide the best opportunity to train and set off on the right career path. But I don’t think anyone in this industry is naïve enough to think that the appeal of BigLaw is divorced from salaries commensurate with the ability to pay off hundreds of thousands of interest-accruing dollars.

My point is that debt is an integral part of the law school experience for many, and U.S. News accounting for it is certainly necessary and probably should have been done years ago.

Spivey Consulting Group has discussed some of the potential pros and cons for the new ranking system: on the one hand, this represents a positive step toward a more holistic evaluation of incoming students, beyond their LSAT scores and GPAs. It also marks the first significant integration of attendance costs into the ranking system, and could incentivize schools to reign costs in. However, it could instead incentivize law schools to target wealthier students who won’t need to incur substantial debts. It could also make schools less likely to accept transfer students who are more likely to pay full tuition, and thus need to take on debt. Finally, it could result in schools reducing their “cost of living” estimates to entirely unrealistic levels.

My impression is that the BC Law administration is less inclined toward such underhanded reactions than other schools may be. That wouldn’t exhibit a commitment to the greater good, after all. So, I would draw readers’ attention to Above the Law’s school ranking list. Unlike U.S. News, Above the Law’s methodology focuses less on inputs (LSAT scores, GPAs, scholarships, etc.) and more on outcomes (post-graduate employment, quality of post-graduate jobs, attendance costs and debt, alumni satisfaction, etc.) Sometimes law school is fun, but I didn’t come here to have fun; I came here to be a lawyer. So, this outcomes-based methodology makes all the sense in the world to me. Here’s some good news: in 2020, Above the Law ranked BC Law at #22, a nice nine-spot jump compared to our U.S. News ranking.

To the extent that we should care about school rankings, student debt being factored in by U.S. News is definitely a move in the right direction. Any ranking system that ignores the presence of debt is dishonest and inaccurate. Prestige matters, and educational quality matters, but economic realities matter too. Perhaps even more so. Fortunately, I think BC Law offers a great balance across the board. The school offers educational excellence, but it also offers a friendly, collaborative culture. We perform well on admission input-metrics, and perform well on post-graduate outcome-metrics. Accordingly, for prospective students who are worried about the financial side of law school attendance, I think BC Law might be a great choice for you. Undoubtedly, attendance costs are high, and you have to work hard and compete effectively in order to achieve desirable post-graduate outcomes. But the metrics demonstrate that BC Law students are well-equipped to do exactly that.


Dan Riley is a second-year student at BC Law. You can reach him at rileydh@bc.edu.

One thought on “Thoughts on Law School Rankings, Student Debt, and Other Super Fun Topics

  1. Pingback: BC Law Moves Up in Rankings | BC Law: Impact

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