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Can Colleges Unreasonably Rescind Offers of Admission?

The administrators of the Irvine campus of the University of California managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory this year. Their victory was in receiving 104,000 applications for the Class of 2021, the third largest number of applications received by any university in the country. Typically, this would be celebrated as the harbinger of a sharp rise in the school’s admissions selectivity and, in turn, their rankings, and the cycle would repeat to the school’s advantage. However, defeat, in the form of extensive negative publicity, ensued when UC Irvine rescinded the admission of 499 freshmen who had indicated their intent to enroll for the fall semester.

There are lessons to be learned from this, both for colleges and for college-bound students. Colleges must attempt to forecast their yield rates (the percent of accepted applicants who choose to attend) as accurately as possible. They must also be prepared to cope with the consequences of poorly projected rates. Student applicants must meet all deadlines in the admissions process both before and after acceptance. They must also avoid succumbing to “senioritis” by failing to maintain sufficiently high grades during their senior year. Assuring that students meet these deadlines and requirements are among the many essential services that IvySelect provides to students aspiring to attend elite institutions.

UC Irvine is not among the most highly selective colleges in the country but it is ranked 39th among National Universities and 9th among Public Universities in the most recent college rankings by US News and World Reports magazine. It has a total undergraduate enrollment of 25,256 on an attractive suburban campus in Orange County, not far from Los Angeles and only five miles from Pacific beaches. It’s a popular academically oriented school that many California high school students aspire to attend, as do many out-of-state and foreign students.

Of the 104,000 applications received this year, UC Irvine extended offers to 31,103 students, or 30% of applicants. University officials told the Orange County Register that they had planned for a freshman class of only 6,250 students, but they received 7,100 intents to enroll. As a result, 850 more students were set to attend UC Irvine this September than the university was prepared to accommodate.

Yield rates are notoriously difficulty to forecast in the dynamic college admissions market due to the many variables at play. What stands out in this particular scenario is that UC Irvine’s faulty yield forecast led them to take the low road toward resolution. They rescinded 499 offers, based mainly on the failure of many applicants to comply with the fine print on their offer contract regarding the deadline for submission of transcripts with final high school grades.

Rescissions of offers are not unusual when issued “for cause”. All colleges have the right to rescind offers to students who have breached their offer contract by not meeting certain standards. As we noted in a recent post, Harvard recently rescinded 10 offers to would-be freshmen due to their gross misbehavior online. More commonly, offers are rescinded due to a student’s failure to maintain a stipulated grade point average during his or her senior year. The Los Angeles Times has reported that UCLA revoked seven freshmen offers for this reason in 2017 and UC San Diego revoked nine.

Yet UC Irvine didn’t just rescind offers to students whose senior grades were unsatisfactory, they also rescinded the offers of those students who had missed the deadline for the submission of final senior year transcripts. To make matters worse, many of these rescissions were made on dubious grounds, alleging non-receipt of satisfactory transcripts that were actually received by the school prior to the deadline.

At first, the university didn’t acknowledge that they were responsible for their own problem though poor yield forecasting. Tom Vasich, the school’s Media Relations Director, denied to The Washington Post that the university had rescinded offers because more students were intending to matriculate than the school had anticipated. “Students had their provisional approvals withdrawn because full transcripts and test scores were not submitted in time or because of poor senior grades,” Vasich said. He claimed that it was “upsetting” and “damaging” that students and media outlets had framed the rescissions as the result of over-enrollment. Right!

This is not the first time a university has made headlines for overturning acceptances, but in the most recent high-profile cases, the admissions were originally granted in error. Earlier this year, Columbia University accidentally sent offers of admission to 277 students, and then informed them an hour later that the offers were erroneous. Carnegie Mellon and Tulane made similar mistakes in 2017. In 2009 UC San Diego accidentally told 28,000 students they were accepted when actually they were the students whose applications had been denied. These and similar mistakes elsewhere, however mortifying, are promptly corrected.

The obvious problem with offer retractions such as those at UC Irvine is the predicament that it creates for the affected students. These students were, we can assume, accepted by other colleges. They chose to decline these other offers in favor of UC Irvine. When they were informed two months before the fall semester was set to begin that their offers had been retracted, they had no good alternatives. If they had gotten themselves into this pickle by neglecting their studies during senior year, the retractions, however tragic for the students, are justifiable. But if the retractions imposed on them are either erroneous or the result of a minor breach in the terms of the offer, such actions should be questioned.

The actions of UC Irvine were questioned, to say the least. There has been a huge outcry from students, the media, and even government officials. This motivated the school’s administrators to take steps to undo the damage to the school’s reputation. In the words of the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, Thomas Parham, “Though these contractual terms and conditions are in place every year, I acknowledge that we took a harder line on the terms and conditions this year…” Of the 499 students whose offers had been rescinded, 280 have since been reinstated and the appeals of many other cases are under review.

Mike McPhate of the New York Times recently reported that California Assemblyman Phil Ting has been a vociferous critic of what he considers a “gotcha game” in UC system admissions. Ting is encouraging Janet Napolitano, the UC system’s president, to set policies across all 10 UC campuses that will ensure that students have every opportunity to meet their enrollment conditions. Ting said, “These are people’s lives. Going to college is a transformative experience and to deny that over some paperwork seems to me mind-boggling.”

IvySelect, a college admissions consulting firm specializing in top-tier institutions, will guide you in identifying your educational goals and will work with you to determine the optimal path toward meeting those goals. We develop a strategy for your admission that includes a list of the 12 or 13 elite institutions that constitute your “best fit” schools in that they conform closely to your preferences, interests, talents, and academic and extracurricular record. IvySelect provides expert guidance throughout the admissions process. You won’t miss deadlines or slack off in your senior year academic performance while you’re under the sure-handed guidance of your IvySelect college admissions counselor.

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