Wrong admissions notices sent to college applicants; Company says color-blind admissions influenced software


If you relied on an e-mail notification on your admission to college last week, you may or may not have been accepted–or rejected–by the college of your choice.

A faulty e-mailing program is being blamed for thousands of e-mails sent to people in the University of California system and other nationwide clients of the Collegiate Electronic Notification Service, also known as CENS.

Because of cutbacks in public financial support in California and other states, schools stopped using the fat letter (acceptances) or skinny letter (rejections) system sent through the U.S. Postal Service.

Instead, institutions saved money using mass e-mail providers like CENS. This year, however, because of varying admissions standards around the country, including the use of so-called “color-blind” admissions policies, the software experienced a massive glitch.

It couldn’t figure out the right candidates.

“We had a particular problem with the last name Lee,” said Thomas D. Hoover, a senior VP for CENS.

“Our software put the Lees into three batches, buckets, or bowls, if you will. There were the Asian Lees, the White Lees like Robert E. Lee, and the Spike Lees.”

“Some of the Asian Lees who were rejected–because there are too many Asians in some schools–got mixed into the Spike Lee pile, which were all accepted. That shouldn’t have happened.”

But the opposite happened to the Spike Lee pile. “All those Lees who were accepted, but were thought to be Asian Lees–they got rejected,” said Hoover. “CENS regrets the error.”

Hoover said everyone in the miscellaneous or “Janet Leigh” pile got the right notice.

Hoover explained that since most color-blind policies were intended to improve white acceptance rates, almost 100% of the White Lees were sent acceptance e-mails, and that may have been a mistake as well.

“We just don’t know if some Bruce Lees or even some Spike Lees might have sneaked into that pile,” said Hoover. “Because of color-blind admissions policies instituted by California’s Prop 209, we weren’t really allowed to verify in time without violating the law. And some other schools were on break and had everything on autopilot. We just didn’t expect the software to respond the way it did with so many Lees in the system.”

Hoover said the software was outsourced to a company in India where they didn’t understand the color-blind concept. An American colleague told them about the Robert E. Lee and Spike Lee algorithm, which apparently still needs some tweaking.

He also said there were problems with the surname Lew.

“As you may know, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is not Asian, but Caucasian,” said Hoover. “The software gave some Asian Lews Caucasian acceptances, when they should have received Asian Lew rejections.”

Hoover said the Lew issue was compounded by a rash of Loos and Lius. He said while some applicants were appropriately sent to the loo, those named Liu got a break.

“The L-I-U folks were all sent automatic acceptances,” said Hoover. “But that’s because the system thought they were legacies to Long Island University.”

It was still a mistake when the application was to UCLA.

On a positive note, Hoover said there was nothing wrong with Wongs.

However, he said, all the Chins got two of everything. Hoover called it the “double-chin” syndrome.

“We’re going to have to go through all the Asian names now,” said Hoover. “Especially the Filipino names. We had some of them in the Spanish list, which may have gotten applicants into some UC schools and even some Ivy League schools that use CENS.”

“We can’t apologize enough,” said Hoover, who said schools may want to use the post office next year as a back-up. Or have applicants use a phone, as long as it’s not a dial-up. “A smartphone says so much more about a person,” said Hoover, who said CENS is also considering tweeting college admissions results.

“Rejections don’t feel so bad when they’re tweeted,” Hoover said. “At least, after the initial shock, a student could pick up some sympathetic followers on the retweet.”

Hoover said people should contact the schools they applied to directly this week–by smartphone–to make sure they got the right notice.

“The good news is you may have gotten in after all,” said Hoover. “It could resurrect your hopes. Then again, you may have actually been rejected. Bummer.”

As a public service, CENS is offering counseling services through its 800 number to aid those who didn’t apply to enough backup schools. The service is free on April 1st, and April 1st only.

“For obvious reasons,” said Hoover.

Groups have already called Hoover to complain. Mabel Fat-Rothstein of the Harvard Asian Americans for Healthy Affirmative Action (HAAHAA) said she wants to make sure the mistake never happens again. “Fool me once, shame on you,” said Fat-Rothstein. “Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.
The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
read Emil's bio