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Editorial: UC Irvine just sucker punched hundreds of incoming students. It needs to make things right

The admissions office at UC Irvine in Irvine, Calif on July 27.
(Los Angeles Times)

If admissions officials at UC Irvine had to write the sort of college application essays that high school seniors dread each year, this might make the perfect prompt: Tell us about the time you sucker punched hundreds of incoming students by canceling their college education over what appears to be a trivial issue. How did your thinking go wrong, and what did you learn?

Such an essay is probably not forthcoming. But at the very least, the university owes students and the public a much better explanation of this fiasco.

UC Irvine, like most colleges and universities, rescinds the acceptances of a small number of incoming students each year. It might be a case of a student with senioritis letting his grades plunge; it might be a problem with a required fee deposit.

But this year was strikingly different: 499 students were told in mid-July not to bother reporting to school in the fall. That’s a full 7% of the incoming class. And most of them lost their place not by becoming academic sloths, but by failing to get their final transcripts to UCI by the required date. (Many of them insist that the university got it wrong, and some have letters from their high schools to prove it. More than 60 of the canceled acceptances have been overturned on appeal so far.)

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Some students said UCI never even made it clear why their acceptance was withdrawn.

By comparison, UCLA, which has a bigger undergraduate population, rescinded only seven offers this year.

So, did UCI admit a loser cohort that couldn’t get its act together? Hardly.

Though university officials weren’t forthcoming about this at the start, it all began as an “admissions yield” problem. Each year, colleges have to estimate how many accepted students will actually attend — the “yield.” It’s an annual nightmare for college officials, and this year, 850 more students signed up for UCI than it had expected.

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As a result, a university spokesman confirmed, UCI took a “harder line” on students who presented an opportunity for the school to cancel their admissions, even though it was too late for them to accept a slot at another school. Some students said UCI never even made it clear why their acceptance was withdrawn. When they called to ask questions or to protest that they had in fact met the requirements, they weren’t able to get through to a live person willing and able to help.

Students who don’t keep their grades up can’t complain when they lose their slot. And sure, students have to get their papers in on time. But failure to meet the deadline for a single document out of the reams of paper demanded during the admissions process calls for a little proportionality on the part of the university. High school administrators, not students, are generally responsible for sending out final transcripts. And it’s outlandish to dash a student’s dreams over a piece of paper that might be a little bit late. A simple reminder to students would have done the job; instead, the university attempted to manage a problem of its own creation by having students pay the price.

This ugly episode was especially surprising because UCI prides itself on the many low-income students who attend and succeed there, especially those who are the first in their families to go to college. These students often attend high schools where counselors are overwhelmed by the large number of students they oversee, and their parents often aren’t in a position to guide them. The rigmarole of filing an appeal presents another obstacle for them.

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By Wednesday afternoon, the chorus of complaints about the rescissions led Chancellor Howard Gillman to issue a second apology and reverse course. “Effective immediately, all students who received provisional acceptances into UCI will be fully admitted, except those whose transcripts clearly indicate that they did not meet our academic standards,” Gillman wrote. The university will also expedite appeals for students whose admissions were not restored.

Meanwhile, its internal auditor is going to investigate why the university underestimated acceptances so badly and suggest ways to improve the admissions process. Still, the administration it hasn’t said who conceived of this less-than-bright idea and how far up the UCI chain it went for approval. As a public institution, the university owes a full explanation.

If there’s a hero to this story, it’s the executive cabinet of the Associated Students of UC Irvine, which quickly plugged into the behind-the-scenes story that no one was admitting at the time — that this was about a too-large cohort of students, not hundreds of irresponsible high-school seniors — and rallied to their aid. If nothing else, it’s reassuring to know that UCI will be graduating some sharp, involved and caring people.

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UPDATES:

4:10 p.m. The editorial was updated to include UCI’s announcement that it will grant admission to far more of the 499 applicants it had recently rejected.


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