Vassar, WTF? Another Postcard From the Land of Unaccountability in College Admissions

This is a story of how adults act when busted, when accountability becomes a principle in name only.

I train senior admissions officers to become Deans and Directors.  I was trained by the people who were trained by the father of all private college admissions, B. Alden Thresher, known as BAT Thresher.  Being an avid Jeffersonian, BAT believed that private college admissions should serve society and their staffs should see themselves as educators.  That lofty concept seems like just a pipe-dream now, with the common acceptance of the business model that rules college admissions.  The Vassar College screw-up is a prime example of how things are done today and here’s my take on that.  Spoiler alert:  they aren’t going to like it much.

 Vassar, WTF? Another Postcard From the Land of Unaccountability in College Admissions

We know the facts.  Vassar posted an admit letter to test their electronic notification system and forgot to either do that testing or to take it down when they were done.  Either way, because of this mistake, 122 Early Decision applicants learned the happy news that they were admitted, only to learn shortly thereafter that 76 weren’t actually admitted at all – sorry about that.  Worse, Vassar told about half of those no-longer-admitted applicants that they would be reconsidered in the regular pool, leaving about 30-odd students to feel the double sting of rejection after the elation and public embarrassment of the mistaken admission.  As a consolation prize, they’ve been offered their application fee back.  Really, Vassar?

Let’s get real.

These kids were applying for Early Decision.  ED applicants are usually the strongest candidates, the ones who will enroll if admitted.  They are the home crowd, loyal to the brand, drinkers of the Kool-Aid.   Though I did not see or read the entire Early applicant pool at Vassar this year, I’d bet my next month’s paycheck that every one of those 76 kids who got the bad news would do fine at Vassar.  Maybe some had lower scores or lower grades than others, but honestly, they would be OK students in the end.  Vassar is a rigorous place, but it’s far from impossible.

If I were training the new Director for Vassar Admissions, I would have urged that person to swallow their pride and take all 122 Early, to eat it and welcome those students with joy, to turn that stupid mistake into a wonderful moment for everyone.   It’s the right thing to do.  And it teaches young people how adults are accountable in the toughest moments, how it’s possible to make a mistake and still hold grace.

Instead, Vassar’s arrogant decision to hold the line and reject some of those applicants is not only stupid, cruel and immoral, it smells like a business decision to me.  Perhaps the lower scores of some of those falsely admitted kids would lower the average SAT results for this year or the higher admit rate might do some damage to Vassar’s #14 standing on the USNWR ranking.  (Admissions owns 4 of the 17 indicators in the algorithm afterall.)  Perhaps some of those mistakenly admitted kids need more financial aid than others, forcing Vassar to dig deeper into its endowment.

Whatever the reason, Vassar Admissions lost their moral moment and abdicated their role as educators.  I strongly encourage that staff to get copies of BAT Thresher’s iconic book, “College Admissions and the Public Interest” to read and discuss at their annual staff retreat this year.  Time to get their manners back.

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