As an early-admission applicant to Vassar College in the early 1980s, I can clearly remember, nearly three decades later, the day my acceptance arrived in the mail. When I read the news to my father, he took the letter from my hands and held it aloft in victory, the most emotional gesture I ever saw him make. I was in! Within 24 hours, all my friends and teachers knew that I had been accepted. Within days, my parents' car sported a Vassar College sticker. By the end of the week, a Vassar T-shirt was in the mail from the bookstore.
All of these memories came rushing back when I learned of Vassar's recent admissions fiasco. On Friday, January 27, 76 students who logged onto a specially created Web site for applicants erroneously read that they had been accepted. According to the college, the error was quickly realized (within a half-hour), and a new letter was posted, informing the students that Vassar had made an error and sorry—they actually hadn't made the cut.
Most of us can easily imagine the anguish of students such as Megan Curiel, who told a New York Times reporter that, at first, she was so relieved to find out she was admitted that she "sobbed." Like me, she placed an order for Vassar shirts; and later she and her family drank Champagne and called friends and family. "I told everybody I got into Vassar," she said.
Those outside academe might wonder why Vassar did not quietly accept the students without publicizing the error. There are approximately 650 seats in the first-year class, so even if the double group of early-decision candidates had taken up 150 spots, that would have left 500 openings. By way of explanation, the dean of advising said in an interview with CBS New York, "If we accepted those students now, we would have to say no and deny students in the regular decision process."
Who are these regular-admission students Vassar is so eagerly holding out for? Not to disparage my alma mater, but many in the regular-admit crowd are overachievers whose first-choice schools are decidedly not Vassar but the Ivies or prestigious and selective universities such as MIT and Duke. Interestingly, Vassar's reputation as a backup to the Ivies has even seeped into popular culture (thanks to a Vassar alum who writes for television). On an episode of The Simpsons, Lisa, who is stressed out about school, tells her father: "Oh, if I fail I won't even be able to get into Vassar." Homer replies, "I've had just about enough of your Vassar-bashing, young lady."
To students such as Lisa Simpson, Vassar is, simply put, a "safety school," a place to turn to when Dartmouth sends you the 2012 equivalent of the thin envelope: the concisely worded e-mail rejection.
Today the admissions game is all about SAT scores, high-school GPA's, and yields. Rather than accept slightly weaker (at least on paper) students who are dreaming of attending their colleges, admissions officers, ever conscious of their rankings in the popular press, court the growing number of perfect-SAT-scoring Ivy rejects who have a wide array of choices among small, prestigious liberal-arts colleges.
In an apology letter to the students, Vassar's president, Catharine Hill, provided a lesson in ethical decision making: "There are many talented students who apply for each place in the class, and to do anything but honor that process would in effect deny places in the class to other students who are counting on that fair assessment." Of course, the real message the college administration has sent these young men and women is this: "Sorry, accepting you would have meant jeopardizing our ranking, at least as reflected in the pages of U.S. News & World Report. We've got to roll the dice and risk a slightly lower yield while going after truly 'talented students.' We are sure you will understand about the 'honor' in all of this."
Vassar is not alone in making this type of mistake. But as an early-decision applicant who, today, would probably not meet Vassar's criteria for admission, I felt the sting of the college's rejection all too personally. Had I, too, been a mistake? Had Vassar been embarrassed by my 3.0 GPA and average SAT scores? Had my subsequent undergraduate career as a B student been the source of one or two "I told you so's" in someone's office? Have my later rather mundane achievements as an adult been filed away in some special file for early-decision alumni who will never make the pages of Vassar's quarterly magazine? And does Vassar so clearly not want any more students like ... me?
Rachel Elliott Rigolino is an instructor of English at the State University of New York at New Paltz.