Full-Time Rankings Perspective

Full Time Ranking Perspective

By Kaitlyn S. Cherry

The email at the beginning of this semester regarding the change in the class ranking system caught students off guard and intensified the anxiety we all feel while waiting for fall grades to come in.  In case you’ve been living under a rock, the email explained that full-time and part-time JD students will now be grouped together for rankings purposes. This abrupt change had students panicked about job prospects and scholarship retention.

The concept of grouping classes together to make rankings more “meaningful” is nothing new.  Traditionally, at the end of spring semester, full-time 3Ls who were not graduating were ranked with full-time 2Ls. Also, part-time 3Ls and non-graduating 4Ls were grouped together.  All graduating students have always been ranked together.

But big changes have been made.  Full-time 2L students are now competing with part-time 2Ls in both Fall and Spring, while full-time 3Ls are competing with 3L and 4L part-timers for Fall rankings, which are critical for post-graduation job hunting.  Job-hunting 1Ls are insulated from the change; instead, part-time 1Ls will receive a letter approximating where they would be ranked had they been ranked with their full-time peers

The controversy arises because part-time students consistently outperform their full-time counterparts.  During the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 academic years, the part-time GPA cut-off for the top 10% and top half were significantly higher than in the full-time class. The only major deviation from this pattern was at the end of last Spring, where the part-time 1L cut-off for the top half was 2.85 compared to 3.09 for full-time students.  However, even in that semester the top 10% for part-time 1Ls was 3.95 as compared to 3.63 for the full-time program. If part-time students perform better on average, it stands to reason that these students may “bump” some full-time students down in the rankings.  This is the reason why many students feel it is inherently unfair to rank us together.

While the disparity between the GPAs surely has multiple causes, the most obvious explanation is that part-time students take fewer courses.  The typical part-time 1L takes 10 units in Fall and 9 in Spring, whereas full-time 1Ls take 14 and 16 units, respectively. Part-time students typically continue with a lighter course load, creating an opportunity to focus more intensely on each course, possibly leading to higher grades than their full-time peers.  Part-time students validly respond that they work while in school, but full-time students are more likely than part-time students to be involved with extracurricular activities and many full-time students work as well.  All law students are busy people, but it still seems to many that part-time students have an advantage in taking fewer courses.

In addition to fears about the immediate impact this change will have on the standing of full-time students relative to part-time students, many feel that this change was abrupt and tactless.  We were informed in one short, declaratory email that the faculty had voted to make this change.  There was no opportunity for broad student input, nor any advance notice.  Change makes people uneasy, and perhaps this shift in policy would have been better received with forewarning.  Many students have also expressed that a dramatic change like this should be phased in with new classes rather than imposing it on current students, who have expectations grounded in long-standing policies.

Further, the enacting vote by the faculty seems illogical, as the faculty is not impacted by the change.  Many law students, especially those ranked near the top, cling to their ranking as the hard-earned prize that it is.  For students to be excluded from the decision-making process is a slap in the face, given the importance of that all-mighty number in our law school and post-graduation opportunities.

The stated reason behind the change was the dwindling size of the part-time program, which as of Spring 2012 had a 1L class of just 23 students.  That number has likely decreased since then as many part-time students transfer to the full-time division after first year.  Clearly part-time numbers have been dropping, and that’s why their rankings must be combined to be “meaningful.”  It’s plain that being ranked #1 of 23 isn’t as impressive as being #1 of 260.

The response from full-time students to this part-time enrollment crisis is curiosity as to why the law school administration didn’t act to correct this imbalance through recruitment efforts.  It doesn’t seem like sacrificing the rankings of full-time students was the best solution to the problem.  Part-time students chose to be in that program and knew that their class ranking wouldn’t have as much significance due to the smaller size of the class.  Ranking part-time and full-time students together has an obvious advantage for part-time students who now have a more telling class rank. For full-time students, there seem to only be drawbacks.  Nobody is getting the deal they struck when they applied to their program.  Fairness dictates that policy changes should allocate the costs and the benefits as equitably as possible, and this change failed to do so.

As I see it, there are two viable alternatives.  One option would be to expand the proposed system for part-time 1Ls, in which they receive a letter indicating their approximate rank if ranked with the full-time 1Ls. All part-time students could be given a rank-equivalent, giving them important information while preserving the current ranking structure for full-time students.

The other option is to bifurcate the ranking system.  Two rankings could be created, one with full and part-time students ranked separately as before, and another aggregating both programs like the new system.  In that case, students in either division could state their rank as amongst students solely within their division or amongst all students of the same class level.  Alternately, students could use both of those rankings to give a more complete picture of their standing.

Of course there is no way to please every student, but the fear of change could be blunted if one group wasn’t getting all the benefits at the expense of another.  Hopefully the next time a major change is on the horizon, students will have a chance to work with the administration to design policies that work for all of us.

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