The U.S. News Law School Rankings Lorenz Curve

Following up on my post on the upswing in applications to U.S. News‘ top 20 law schools this year, I took a look at the percentage of full-time applications that are sent to the T-14: It’s ranged between 16-21 percent since 1999, which is quite disproportionate. It occurred to me that one could try to illustrate the distribution of applications by modifying the Lorenz curve with the U.S. News rankings.

Usually, a Lorenz curve measures the distribution of a phenomenon, like income, by arranging the cumulative proportion of households by the cumulative amount of their incomes. The more income (or wealth, or ice cream sandwiches, or whatever) some households have, the sharper the curve is at the far end of the distribution. The closer the curve is to a triangle, the more equal the distribution is. By taking the negative area between the curve and where the hypotenuse of the triangle is, and then dividing it by the total area of the triangle, one can determine the Gini coefficient, which you always read about but have no idea what it means.

I crafted a Lorenz curve for full-time law school applications for the 2009 to 2014 cycles using the previous year’s rankings, assuming that that’s what influences applicants. So for example applications for fall 2014 used the rankings released back in early 2013. I then sorted the percentages by ranking and then the highest percentages for ties.


Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

(If it wasn’t clear, the Gini coefficient is just area “A” divided by areas “A+B”.)

Although most of the reporting about law school applications has been about the declining total, this is the first look I know of at the shifts in the distribution. The important points that jump out are:

(a) “Application inequality” has grown quite noticeably in the last two years in favor of higher-ranked law schools. (Don’t expect any Occupiers or Elizabeth Warren to care.) Between 2012 and 2014, the top 20 captured an additional 6.1 percentage points.

(b) The rank-not-published/unranked/erstwhile tier 4 law schools have usually received about 15 percent of all applications over the last five years. They’ve lost about 2.2 percent of the total in the last two years.

(c) The top 50 law schools, whatever they were, have gone from getting 45 percent of all applications to half. That’s right, about half of all full-time applications go to just 50 law schools.

(d) It’s not shown, but for-profit law schools have never drawn more than 3.25 percent of all full-time applications. They’ve fallen to 2.52 percent in 2014. Freestanding private law schools’ share has dropped as well, but that’s largely because some of those schools are now affiliated with larger universities.

(e) You probably figured this out already, but the number one law school by application share is Georgetown, which is the safety school for the stars.

(f) The full-time law school applications Gini coefficient has risen from about 0.37 until 2012 to 0.42 this year. This is close to household income inequality in the U.S.

I didn’t expect the distribution would be so unequal, so I guess I’ve learned something from this exercise. Hopefully you did too.


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