Lesson in UCLA error: Make sure that acceptance letter is for real.

UCLA has already apologized for mistakenly notifying 894 wait-listed college seniors that they'd been admitted. It's not the first or worst such case, and it won't be the last, say experts.

“Once again, congratulations on your admission to UCLA,” read an e-mail this week to 894 high school seniors, advising them of financial aid awards.

The problem was that the seniors had been formally wait-listed.

While the e-mail went on to say “we hope that this information will assist you in making your decision to join the Bruin Family in the fall,” the error was discovered when the students called the school to ask why the e-mail then directed them to an online link to a financial aid letter that said clearly that they were on the waiting list.

So what happened here?

Education experts say the episode is indicative of a new era in which universities are increasingly inundated with student applications made easy by the Internet. The UCLA error is neither the first, nor the worst, nor legally actionable, the experts say. It is human error and likely to happen again.

The lesson, they say, as hard as this may sound at this time of year, is for students to open their college acceptance letters with a healthy dose of practical skepticism.

“We realize this is a particularly anxious and stressful time for students and their families as they try to make decisions about college admissions,” read a UCLA statement apologizing for the error. “We sincerely apologize for this mistake that may have led some of them to think they were admitted when they remain on the waiting lists.”

Experts say such episodes occur often enough that students should be wary and double-check before they discard some of their second and third choices.

“Colleges are complex places, database-wise. Many systems, interconnected, with several points of contact along the way. Some systems and functional areas talk easily with one another, others, less so,” says J.D. Ross, communications director for the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, who has been a higher-ed administrator since 2006. “This is an issue everyone in higher-ed is very aware of and we watch for it – it's something we take very seriously. No one wants to be in the media spotlight for ruining the day for hundreds or thousands of prospective students.”

Mr. Ross says the number of affected UCLA applicants is small compared to previous gaffes – which included UC San Diego, which sent out 28,000 admission notices in 2009 to students who were actually rejected. In 2010, US Santa Barbara erroneously told 60 applicants they were in the next fall’s class, when they were only on the waiting list.

“If there's a silver lining in any of this, it's that this misstep was smaller than it could have been,” says Ross.

John Briggs, Community Director of RSC, an online college preparatory service, says accidental acceptance letters are annual events that are bound to increase.

“These mistakes are bound to happen because colleges are receiving more applications than ever and admitting more students then they can handle,” he says via email, noting that UCLA’s applications have jumped 50 percent in four years – while their freshman class has grown by a third. “Given budget cuts and hiring freezers, it’s amazing we don’t see this more often,” Mr. Briggs says. “What it indicates is that students need to review every piece of paper they get from a college.”

Robert Pugsley, professor of law at Southwestern Law School, says there are no legal repercussions because UCLA caught the error quickly and apologized.

“They handled it right by apologizing right away and indicating the students were still on the waiting list, and that they were obviously negligent.”

But others aren’t so sure.

“What if it had been a financial aid offer to one student that the school or the student didn’t catch?” asks Briggs. “The student could be out thousands of dollars in financial aid from a clerical error.”

And Dr. Ben Agger, of the University of Texas, Arlington, sociology department, thinks that if a student received such a notice and acted on it, he or she should be able to be admitted after all.

"I have a senior in high school who is deciding on colleges for next year,” he says via e-mail. “If he received a letter of acceptance from UCLA when he was in fact on the waiting list, the concern would be whether he acted on that acceptance and turned down offers from other schools in the meantime.”

“UCLA seemed to reverse field quickly on this snafu, rectifying their mistake within a day or two,” he says. “Bureaucratic errors are inevitable in a large university system. If students acted on their UCLA acceptance by turning down other schools before they learned that UCLA made a mistake, they should be admitted as Bruins. People err, but so do institutions."

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