One of the factors U.S. News & World Reports uses to rank colleges has to do with academic reputation, what faculty and administrators from other colleges think about a school. This leads many schools to mail out extensive publication materials to administrators at other institutions.
At least in terms of law school rankings, it turns out these (expensive) materials might not matter at all. According to a new study by Larry Cunningham at St. John’s University School of Law:
From June to December 2011, the author’s school collected and coded all of the materials it had received from schools, including materials that it itself had sent to others. In total, 427 unique pieces of marketing were received from 125 of the 191 schools that were the subjects of this study. They varied considerably in size, format, content, and audience. A number of statistical tests were conducted to compare a school’s marketing efforts with its overall rank, overall score, peer assessment score, and tier, along with any change in those variables from the 2011 rankings to the 2012 ones. There was not a significant change in year-to-year rankings variables. The number of pieces a school sent during the study period was, for the most part, not significant.
There was one thing that mattered, however. As Cunningham explains
Schools that sent longer, magazine-type publications geared towards a specific audience had higher U.S. News scores and also showed a slight improvement in their overall score between the two years of rankings data in this study.
In other words, the schools that sent real articles, about legal topics, not marketing materials, saw some increase in rankings.
Then again, schools that can afford to send out such mailings are also likely to have more resources and the ability to do other things to improve their rankings.
Ultimately this seems more or less reassuring. Law schools should improve based on material about legal topics. If institutions actually appeared to rank better based purely on glossy marketing materials, that would be cause for concern.
Still, it might be time for many law schools to reevaluate the marketing strategies they use.