A long time ago (let’s call it 1984 for sake of argument, because that’s when it was), when high school students received college acceptances or rejections in the mail (you know, with envelopes and stuff) exclusively, I got an acceptance to the school I really, really wanted to attend. When I’d first applied, I hadn’t been all that convinced, but by the time the envelope was in my hands, I was sure. I opened it and was ecstatic. Then I read the part about the financial aid package, which was a big fat zero, and my elation deflated.
It made no sense — my parents had crunched the numbers, and it seemed clear that without some aid, they’d have to mortgage the house, or sell my brother (an idea I semi-floated), to afford it. How could this be? This was where I felt I was supposed to go, where I’d already imagined myself. It wasn’t just the course offerings; the faculty-student ratio; the quirky history; the long tradition of liberal arts education; the prestige. It was the day the previous fall that I’d been on campus, walking on a path near one of the older academic buildings, with its stone archway, through which streams of the most interesting-looking and fascinating students were walking, that had grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. I remember feeling, right at that moment, that I needed to join that stream of students, leave my high-school self behind and find out who I was on that path, under those falling leaves, amid those old, old buildings.
In the midst of the crushing realization that I wouldn’t be able to go after all, my father put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes — he looked sad, too — and said, “I don’t think we can do it, honey. I’m so, so sorry.”
My story has a happy ending; it turns out that my father had made an error when filling out (with pencil! On paper!) the financial aid forms; a self-employed businessman, the way he’d interpreted the forms meant he gave the erroneous impression that he had a salaried job and his business, effectively doubling his on-paper income. Once that was discovered and straightened out, a generous aid package came my way and I sent in (by mail! with a stamp!) my deposit to become a member of Vassar College’s class of 1988.
Now my alma mater is all over the news for a grievous error that was made in the recent batch of early-decision acceptances. What happened was not that they rejected hopeful students who should have been admitted; instead, a placeholder letter of acceptance for applicants was posted on a site they could access, and left there for just long enough to give a number of students the false news that they’d been accepted to their first-choice school. When they checked back (after making phone calls, popping champagne, and, I’m sure, as I had, imagining themselves in their chosen school), they found out the truth, that they were rejected.
It’s important to note, in case you missed the story: It’s not that Vassar revoked any acceptances. The disappointed students were rejected on their merits. The error was in giving them the false impression that they had been accepted, the cyber equivalent of slipping the wrong letter into the envelope. (It should also be noted that Vassar has a financial-needs-blind admissions policy.)
Those students likely had the same crushing feeling that I did when I thought what was mine had been snatched away. Thing is, it never was theirs. I’m not in any way dismissing the seriousness of the mistake. Catharine Hill, Vassar’s president, issued an apology; families were called by admissions staff for more personal mea culpas; application fees were refunded. All of which feels fair from the outside, though it does nothing to take the pain, shame and rage away. However, once a mistake is made, even a really, really horrible one, what else can be done besides sincere apologies, a promise to fix glitchy systems, a public accounting of the mistakes? From the inside, of course, it can feel as though more should be done.
Some of the students and their families, it seems, do want more to be done — specifically, that they should be admitted anyway. If it was theirs once — albeit very briefly, and even if in fact it wasn’t really theirs — it should be theirs again,or it’s equivalent (I’ve seen comments — not from these students, to be clear — on blog posts that suggest the students get their first year at their second-choice college paid for by Vassar). That’s like, as a classmate of mine wrote in a comment on one of the many an opinion pieces about the debacle, the rare times a bank screws up and deposits $10,000 in your account, when you only slid a $1,000 check into the ATM. Even if that little receipt in your hand says you’ve got five figures, you don’t, and it’s no sense arguing with the bank that they “owe” you $9K for their mistake.
I do not dismiss those prospective students’ pain, or their parents’ justified anger over the treatment their kids received. I’d feel it too. I’d be furious, I’d feel like marching into Ms. Hill’s office and demanding she fix it, somehow, in some way that would remove my child’s pain and make it all okay again. But I wouldn’t do it.
I wouldn’t turn my anger and pain on behalf of my child outward and try to retroactively fix a problem in an attempt to make it go away. I contend, in fact, that there’s not a lot of difference between that impulse (“I’ll make that school take my kid! They have to! He deserves it!”) and the parents of much younger kids who argue their children into a better grade on the first-grade spelling test (“His ‘n’ looks like an ‘h’! That’s what he meant! He deserves the perfect grade!”).
The fact is, if you write n’s that look like h’s, you’re going to miss that point on the test, and it’s your mistake to own. Vassar owned its mistake, however clumsily (and you can, and folks have, argued how they could have handled it better, or differently). And now the kids have to bear up under the weight of being briefly granted what they wanted, and then being disappointed to find out that they didn’t make the grade after all.
It is a bitter disappointment to discover that someone else’s mistake can have such an impact on your life. But it’s going to be a long life, and it’s going to be filled with disappointments big and small. It’s going to be filled with problems their parents can’t fix the way they used to mollify a poor showing at the spelling bee with an ice cream sundae, the way everyone got a trophy just for showing up. All the parental impulse to fix, smooth out, or argue away does is to give kids the damaging notion that they deserve what they haven’t earned.
The best thing those kids’ parents can do is to take their kids’ shoulders in their hands, look them in the eye, and say, “I’m so, so sorry honey.”