02/06/2012 10:36 am ET Updated Apr 07, 2012

Vassar Goofs and Claremont-McKenna Lies -- What Does It Mean to Students?

It's been a tough week for everyone involved with applying to college.

On January 27, Vassar College sent acceptance letters to 122 students who had applied early to the college. Why is that troubling? Well, only 46 of those students were actually admitted -- the remaining 76 had been sent the letter by accident. Vassar contacted the 76 students with the bad news, apologized for the mistake, and refunded their application fees.

That looked pretty bad until the following Tuesday, when Claremont-McKenna College announced it had submitted false reports to college rankings groups like U.S. News. In these false reports, Claremont-McKenna said their average SAT scores were anywhere from 10 to 20 points higher than they really were. The false reports had gone on for the last seven years.

The number of students involved in these issues is small compared to the three million college applications filed every year, but these incidents have an impact on all students, parents, counselors, and colleges involved with the college application process:

  • Many students hearing the Vassar news are rightly responding by asking "Could this happen to my college application?" Every college in the country is double-checking their computers, but the students' concern is understandable, and can add to the stress of an application process that can already be very intense.
  • Since many students use average SAT scores to decide if they can be admitted to a college, there's a good chance some students with strong test scores didn't apply to Claremont-McKenna because the reported averages were too high. It's never a good idea to use average test scores as the only reason to apply to a college, but students (and far more parents) do it -- and if this happened at one college, could it have happened at other colleges, impacting even more students?

On the other hand, these two experiences may actually be good news to high school juniors:

  • You can bet every college will run their computer software dozens of times this summer to make sure the right letter goes to the right student.
  • The inflated SAT scores have led to a discussion about other ways colleges try to move up in college rankings, just to look good -- these stories include other colleges who may not include the SAT scores of athletes in the averages they report, and colleges who encourage more students to apply to their college so they can deny more students, a strategy that makes the college look more selective.

This last point could get juniors and their parents to think twice about the value of college rankings when they start to choose colleges. High school counselors have long said the rankings are of very little help, since the lists of "Best Colleges" aren't designed to meet the individual needs and talents of a student. Harvard isn't all that great a school for students who want a degree in interior design, and if you want to get a criminal justice degree at the University of Michigan, that just can't happen.

Students should develop their own lists of college wants, needs, and "must haves," then do the research that leads them to rank that list, and make a strong, personalized college choice.

It's always troubling when systems go wrong for students. In moving on, opportunities exist to make sure students get accurate notices about their applications, and students and parents base college choices on something other than a list of colleges put together by someone who knows nothing about the student's heart, soul, and mind. Not perfect news, but encouraging none the less.