Submitted by Tomasz Mielniczuk on Tue, 01/19/2016 - 08:34

In the times of the great collapse in law school applications, the widely criticized US News law school rankings seem to be helping lower-ranked schools to stay afloat. Sounds counterintuitive? Usually, rankings should make it harder for the schools at the bottom. Ian Ayres, from Yale Law School, has an intriguing, data-backed explanation for this dynamic.

In short, with the decline of the number of applicants, the top law schools cannot simply lower their admission standards for the fear of lowering their ranking:

If the top schools could have colluded to maintain their class sizes, they could have much more easily weathered the storm. The top schools would have all filled and the pecking order among them would have been maintained. But such collusion would be criminal. So any school dropping credentials in order to boost class size would have to worry that its peers would instead invest (by running a deficit) in maintaining students’ entering credentials – and as a result would shoot by them in the U.S. News rankings.

So how exactly are the lower ranked schools helped?

The fierce ranking competition caused many of the top schools to reduce their class size – which left more applicants for the lower ranked schools to enroll. In fact, a lot more students.

In other words, ranking competition prevented the higher-ranked schools from sucking up the applicant pool of their lower-ranked competitors.

Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago Law School seems interested but skeptical, and points out that many top law schools have seen decline in their student pool's credentials.