Vassar Whiplash: College Blames ‘Computing Error’ for Admissions Mistake (UPDATE)

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UPDATED: 1/31, 11:30 a.m.

Gone are the days of a college admissions decision revealed with either a tellingly thick packet or slim envelope sitting in one’s mailbox. In today’s Internet-savvy world, the crucial yea or nay can be obtained simply by clicking the refresh button on your Web browser. Which means that colleges had better ensure their technical skills are up to par.

Vassar College inspired premature glee in 122 applicants around the world who logged in Friday to find they were accepted to the highly selective liberal-arts college in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. But the acceptance letter some saw was only a “test letter” for the early-decision applicants, which hadn’t been replaced with the real decisions before the website was put online for the students, Vassar spokesman Jeff Kosmacher told the New York Times.

(MORE: Five Biggest Myths About College Admissions)

When the website went live at 4 p.m. Friday, the form letter was still posted instead of the personalized decisions, which the college blamed on a “computing error.” By the time the error was corrected about 30 minutes later, 76 prospective students had seen the erroneous message, and thought they were accepted — but were instead destined to get a rejection or deferral notice. (The 46 others who logged in during that half-hour window were rightfully accepted.)

The “accepted” students flocked to College Confidential, an online forum, to share their results. At 4:02 p.m., user DLeggio posted a joyous “I got accepted!!!!!!!!!,” only to rescind his message – just as Vassar did – at 5:11 p.m., questioning, “Now it says I’m declined??????” A slew of questions followed until 6:30 p.m., when Vassar contacted all students who had logged in while the incorrect notice was still online, informing them of the error and apologizing.

“We are very sorry to have added to the overall stress of the college admissions process for these students and their families,” Vassar president Catharine Hill said in a statement. According to Vassar, a total of 254 students had applied for the early-decision round that was impacted by Friday’s “computing error,” meaning that nearly half had logged in while the error was still online. The school is ranked the 14th best liberal-arts college in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Of course, Vassar’s admissions office is not the only one to share the shame of a computer glitch. The University of Delaware caught similar heat for erroneously telling 61 students last March that they were accepted. And in October 2010, Penn State accidentally messaged 700 students that they were admitted, nearly two weeks before the actual notification date. According to the Penn State Collegian, most of those 700 acceptances were honored. Vassar was unwilling to do the same.

(READ: College Rejection: Your Safety School Might Be the Smarter Choice)

UPDATE: As consolation, the mistakenly accepted students received a refund of their $65 application fee, according to the New York Times. Hill, Vassar’s president, emailed the 76 rejected or deferred students Sunday evening, noting that the refund would be “of very little consolation,” but that the school was attempting to provide “a professional and personal relationship” with them. The admissions office also placed personal phone calls to the applicants on Monday.