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The Glitch in E-notification

In light of recent admissions snafus, many IHEs are re-examining the safety and reliability of their electronic notification systems.
University Business, Sep 2004

Jessica Young thought she was a shoo-in to Duke University (NC). As a straight A student, vice president of her high school class, captain of the lacrosse and soccer teams, the offspring of two Duke alumni, and an early decision hopeful, she had every reason to be confident. So when Duke's deferral letter came via e-mail last December, she was more than surprised; she was unprepared. "I held off on applying to other schools because I was so confident about getting into Duke," Young says. "I had to stay up all night filling out seven other college applications to send off the next day." But, before those applications were mailed, her guidance counselor, also baffled by the news, called Duke to find out just why her sparkling application fell short of an admittance letter. That's when Young found out that Duke had posted the wrong decision. She had, in fact, been accepted. "I was shocked and obviously really happy," she says. "But it was an emotional rollercoaster for me. I had already coped with the fact that I didn't get in. And now suddenly I had to change my whole mindset."

For Young, it was a happy ending. But, this glitch could have had far graver implications. Just imagine the reverse scenario--a student who gets mistakenly accepted. "Situations like these could compromise a very important relationship with the student," says Judy Hingle, director for professional development at the National Association for College Admission Counseling ( "The last thing schools want is for a student to have a bad beginning to the college experience."

Furthermore, an admissions snafu can tarnish an institution's reputation. And based on the way in which it handles the situation, ethical issues often come into play. According to NACAC's Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP), college and university members agree to "accept full responsibility for admissions decisions and for proper notification of those decisions to candidates." But many wonder if it's a school's responsibility to alter its decisions as a result of its mistakes. "This is up for debate," Hingle says. "It is very difficult to determine what is the right thing to do and what is in the best interest of the student." There's also a real risk of alienating valuable prospective students. "Any mishap or misunderstanding in those communications between the school and student could impede the whole admissions process," Hingle says.

But who is to blame? We've all hit the proverbial "send" button prematurely at one point in time. Duke University chalks it up to human error. "There were some decisions that didn't get updated appropriately and were released before they had been finalized," says Christoph Guttentag, director of Undergraduate Admissions at Duke. Duke's system, which is operated by Connexxia (, allows the Admissions team to toy with and revise their applicants' admissions status until the last minute. This buys them time which can be advantageous; but it's also risky.

"Mass e-mails can be very dangerous.
At least when you make a mistake on a
paper letter, you're just sending it to one
person, not to thousands."
-Robert Garcia, Northwestern University's
Medill School of Journalism

"A student can be in the system for three weeks as a deny, then move to an admit for another three weeks, go to the wait-list, and then go back to a deny," Guttentag says. Last December, the decisions that were going to be posted were frozen a little too early. But since the program is set up to give a "no" answer (which equals a deferral) when there is a problem in processing, 50 students mistakenly received this deferral status once they logged on to the site. Their updated status, which was one of acceptance, was not reflected on the site. When the glitch was realized the next day, Duke called students directly and apologized. "The whole process that created this situation came out of a security concern. We didn't want to falsely admit anyone," Guttentag says.

Some say these mistakes are insignificant and often sensationalized by the media. "All it takes is a few mistakes at some of the big-name schools to make headlines," says Shawn Coyne, CEO and co-president of Connexxia. "The amount of mistakes with electronic admissions is really quite small and keeps getting smaller," he says. But there's always going to be a percentage of error in any human enterprise. Double-checking is key. "We're going have to add a step or two or three, and go through a couple of detailed final checks to ensure that we're posting the right decisions," Guttentag says.

University of California at Davis will also have to assert some serious quality control after its well-publicized admissions mishap. Last March, the school mistakenly sent out 6,000 acceptance letters for its prestigious UC Regents Scholarship. Based on superior academic achievement, the scholarship offers students $7,500 per year over a four-year period, a savings of about $30,000. But it was only intended to be offered to 800 students.

Unlike Duke, UC Davis manages its online admissions in-house. The Admissions team broke up applicants into groups, one of which had 6,000 students that were slated to get a general admissions letter only. Instead they too received the scholarship acceptance e-mail. "The way of executing electronic communication is the same for both groups. Why our postmaster sent the same letter out to the 6,000 students, I have no idea," says Yvonne Marsh, former assistant to the vice chancellor at UC Davis. "We would have hoped it would have been a red flag. Maybe it just wasn't read carefully enough." It doesn't help that UC Davis' postmaster does not work in the Admissions department, but as part of a centralized Information and Education Technology unit located elsewhere. "Some of our technology will have to change," says Brian Alexander, associate director of Technology and Computing at UC Davis. "Our central IT unit will build infrastructure on mail requests to better track and ensure that messages being sent to intended individuals go through another check and balance at the very last step."

It could be that UC Davis and schools of its size and volume are more prone to these kinds of errors. "For us, when something goes wrong, the impact is so great because we are serving such a large population," Marsh says. "But overall we still feel comfortable doing e-mail notification. I think it's safe to call it an industry standard."

But many say that of all forms of decision notification, e-mail notification is the least reliable. "We recommend against it. It's not secure. You don't know if people are sharing an e-mail account, if they're going to be the ones to get the message--you just don't always know where the e-mail is going," says Linda Trude, vice president of sales and marketing for Apply Yourself (, a company focused on providing online admissions solutions. Rather, she believes an online module where students log in with a user ID and password is more secure.

"We can reminisce about the experience of
going to the mailbox and waiting for that
thick envelope, but today's kids are much
more in tune with technology."
-Richard Shaw, Yale University

Still, these concerns haven't deterred many schools from using this method. Gannon University (PA) strongly believes in the efficiency of its system, designed by Liquid Matrix ( The system, which is called "Check Application Status," went live last November. "It's e-mail notification with a twist," says Christopher Tremblay, director of Admissions at Gannon. Students can check their status electronically by first entering their e-mail address. If that e-mail address matches the address that is on file for that student, then his or her status will be e-mailed to that address within a minute. "We wanted to reduce the number of steps it takes to get their decision while also providing a safety functionality," Tremblay says. Of course, this method is only foolproof if students have not shared their e-mail account passwords. "We can't prevent that from happening," he says. Gannon also e-mails decisions to only those students who request it, thereby reducing their liability.

There's some debate as to whether students expect, or even appreciate, online notification. Some feel that it weakens the impact of getting into college. "We can reminisce about the experience of going to the mailbox and waiting for that thick envelope, but today's kids are much more in tune with technology," says Richard Shaw, dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Yale University (CT). "All we've done is expedite the decision process and delivered it in a much more efficient way."

"You don't know if people are sharing an
e-mail account, if they're going to be the
ones to get the message-you just don't
always know where the e-mail is going."
-Linda Trude, Apply Yourself

Yale is one of few schools that has taken its notification to a higher level, offering exciting audio and visuals to create a memorable experience for the accepted student. Yale supplements the good news with its "Bulldog, Bulldog" theme song and offers links to undergraduate organizations and programs, the school Web site, a map of the country that shows where admitted students are from, information about the nature of classes, and more. "Overall our Web site is very versatile; it gives kids extraordinary exposure right away and ties them to undergrads from their hometown," Shaw says. "Immediately they become a part of the Yale family."

Yale's system has received much praise in the higher ed community. But it wasn't always the subject of envy. Yale received significant notoriety in 2002 when its site was hacked into by Princeton University (NJ). By inputting students' birth dates and Social Security numbers, Princeton gained access to these students' admissions status. "We certainly had some security issues, but we've solved that problem now," Shaw says. Now, Yale has switched to a Web-based system that gives each student a personal identifier. But, there's still much quality control, cross checking, and random checking to be done, Shaw says. He also has a team of Web designers whose primary focus is monitoring the system's performance. "We've now gotten to a point where our Web development is the envy of others," he says.

But not all schools are sold on this method. Robert Garcia, director of Graduate Admissions and Financial Aid at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University (IL), says online decision notification is just too risky. "I've heard horror stories about people being misinformed about their status at other schools," he says. "I don't want this to be possible at Medill." Garcia, who receives about 1,200 applications for the program, says he prefers to send admissions decisions by formal letter only. "Maybe it's because I can. I am able to look at every single decision letter and file before I personally sign them just to be sure that someone didn't screw up," he says. "I know not all schools have the time to do this." In addition, Garcia uses an electronic admissions system that ensures that denied and wait-listed students never receive a mass e-mail. "The electronic method allows you to screw up on a global level," he says. "Mass e-mails can be very dangerous. At least when you make a mistake on a paper letter, you're sending it to one person, not to thousands."

Garcia is not alone in his traditional view. Most students also appreciate a hand-delivered notification letter, regardless of how technologically savvy they are. "It just seems more real to have a letter in your hand," says Young, who will attend Duke this fall. That is why the traditional hand-delivered decision letter has yet to be eliminated. "The paper-based letter is still holding fast," Hingle of NACAC says. "But it's now a supplement to the online letter." Despite the move towards electronic decision notification, most schools still follow up the online decision with a paper decision. A traditional letter also provides a unique opportunity for privacy. "When a student gets his notification he can take the letter off somewhere by himself and process that information," Hingle says. "That beats finding out from your kid brother who shares your e-mail account or in a busy, public computer lab."

For students, the admissions decision process is highly emotional, often evoking feelings of vulnerability and self-consciousness. So when a large-scale mistake does occur, there is debate as to how schools should proceed. To the chagrin of many, there are no laws in place to protect schools or students when glitches occur.

"My personal feeling is that when schools make big snafus, they should eat their mistakes, let the students in, and deal with it," says Bob Turba, chairman of guidance services at Stanton College Preparatory School (FL). While there are no laws, there is an agreement among NACAC member colleges and institutions to adhere to the SPGP guidelines, says Hingle of NACAC. "Because we can't legally enforce anything, this discussion of what is the right thing to do will continue," Hingle says. "Some schools accept responsibility for an error by saying 'We made a mistake,' but others feel, out of an ethical concern, that schools need to change their admissions decisions accordingly." Turba wishes there were stricter guidelines. "It's very frustrating for me. But NACAC is not the admissions police and it is up to schools to self-regulate," he says. "Technology is here to stay and we're all just trying to make the best of it."

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