22 April 2009

University of Colorado Law's Rank Plummets

The University of Colorado law school's U.S. News and World Report ranking fell thirteen slots from last year more than any other law school in the top 50. It fell to 45th place from 32nd place last year.

It isn't exactly clear what changed. It may have something to do with the dire budget situation of higher education in Colorado. Colorado's state constitution makes higher education one of the most vulnerable programs to cuts when tax revenues decline during a recession. The fact that the average CU law student comes from a very affluent family, even though some are working or middle class and require substantial financial aid to attend (overwhelmingly in the form of loans on the theory that law school is a for profit operation), doesn't help its case. About 80% of CU Law students receive financial aid, but a great deal of this is loan based aid made possible largely because it is easier for law students to be considered independent from their parents financially than it is for undergraduates to do so. CU Law students almost certainly come from families more affluent on average than CU undergraduates (because there is a statistically significant connection between academic achievement, prolonged educational attendance and family income), and the average family income for CU undergraduates (inferred from instate and out of state family incomes for CU undergraduates applying for financial aid and by the percentage of undergraduates not applying for financial aid) probably comfortably exceeds $100,000 per year. Many of those at CU law school who do not themselves come from affluent families, moreover, will go on to economically comfortable lives themselves at some point.

For the most part, this doesn't have huge consequences. A very large share of all lawyers in Colorado graduate from one of the state's two law schools, the University of Colorado and the Denver University School of Law, and by the reckoning of U.S. News and World Report, CU still significantly outranks DU. Neither law school shuts you out of prestigious law firm jobs in the state.

A lower ranking may reduce the draw of CU for out of state law students who don't plan to practice law in Colorado, reducing out of state tuition premiums that CU might otherwise have collected. Of course, this is good news for law students seeking to get into CU either because they are from Colorado, or want to practice law here, who may find it slightly easier to win admission, as U.S. News driven prospective law students become less inclined to choose CU over another school. Still, CU continues to closely resemble in program and selectivity, leading national law schools everywhere. Like most leading law schools, its entering students are extremely capable academically and almost all of the tiny percentage of students who don't graduate do so for personal reasons, rather than due to academic failure.

A lower ranking also probably makes it harder for CU to attract best of the best faculty, although the law faculty market is so cut throat, and Boulder has sufficient quality of life attractions, that CU Law is still free to be quite picky in its handful of new faculty hires each year.

The other impact of the declining ranking may be that it will be harder for cream of the crop graduates of University of Colorado law to get the highest prestige jobs, like judicial clerkships, associate hires at the most prestigious large law firms, and law school faculty positions. Less academically stellar law students aren't in contention for those prizes anyway, and the kind of governmental and legal jobs that they are applying for tend to be less concerned about law school pedigrees, than they are about decent grades, bar exam passage, and any indicia of a good work ethic.

This could lead to a vicious circle that discourages the very best and the brightest prospective lawyers from attending the University of Colorado law school and does long term harm to CU's reputation. Then again, it could also be a one year fluke. The very best and brightest law students have never chosen the University of Colorado law school solely based upon its academic reputation. While CU has ranked much better in prior years, the cluster of schools at the top of the law school food chain, like Harvard, Yale and Stanford, has been extremely stable since U.S. News and World Report started keeping score, at least. While CU has long had a very respectable reputation, it has never been at the very top of the heap in a discipline that is more hierarchical and more numbers focused than almost any other in academe.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thought CU Law School's lower ratings in years past was because of the poor building, and now that they have their Taj Mahal what is the excuse? Or is it a group of faculty that have not been producing or a library that is not very service oriented? Time for serious review as to what is going on at the Wolf Law Building, but then it has been that way for several years. Too many people resting on their laurels and not working perhaps?