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Carnegie Mellon mistakenly tells 800 rejected applicants they're in

| Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, 3:27 p.m.

Carnegie Mellon University is retracting a red-carpet welcome this week for about 800 applicants who received acceptance notices by mistake.

The prestigious Oakland-based school issued a rare public apology Tuesday to the affected students, who sought admission to a graduate computer science program. Carnegie Mellon sent them acceptance letters via email Monday, a flub the school blamed on “serious mistakes in our process for generating” the letters.

“Once the error was discovered, the university moved quickly to notify affected applicants,” the school said in a statement. “We understand the disappointment created by this mistake and deeply apologize to the applicants for this miscommunication.”

Spokesman Ken Walters declined to elaborate, although the school said it is reviewing a notification process “to help ensure this does not happen in the future.”

Higher education consultants called the error the latest in a string of high-profile acceptance mix-ups at schools across the country. The trouble at Carnegie Mellon stands out because it happened at the graduate level, said Mike Reilly, executive director at the Washington-based American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

“Usually you see it in central admissions operations, usually at the undergraduate level” where admissions workers deal with thousands of applications, he said.

Reilly estimated the affected program at Carnegie Mellon likely enrolls no more than a few dozen students. That faulty letters went to 800 people suggests “extremely high” demand for the program, he said. The international research university enrolls more than 12,000 students.

“Sometimes I think people just hastily try to get their offers out without paying adequate attention to their (computer) programs,” Reilly said. He said declining proportions of undergraduate applicants are accepting offers from many schools, a trend that might contribute to pressure on admissions workers.

Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore offered its own apology in December, when 294 undergraduate applicants who had been denied admission received congratulatory email messages. The private school said a programming error by a third-party vendor caused the mistake.

Similar problems cropped up at Fordham University in 2013, Vassar College in 2012 and the University of California at San Diego in 2009, as The Washington Post found.

Human error in computerized processes is often at fault, said Thomas Williams, a Tucson-based consultant in higher education. He hadn't heard of any such trouble before at Carnegie Mellon.

“This is the kind of thing that is preventable with being very careful and double-checking,” said Williams, principal of Williams & Co. He said automated systems “can be tested thoroughly” to avoid the public embarrassment and hard feelings of retracted admissions offers.

Williams said he hasn't seen any evidence that these errors are becoming more frequent.

“I don't know that it's becoming more frequent, but it's certainly getting a lot of press when it does happen — and understandably,” Williams said.

One of the spurned Carnegie Mellon applicants said he learned of the school's mistake after going out to dinner with his family to celebrate.

Ben Leibowitz of Stamford, Conn., said a follow-up email from the school indicated its offer was an error and that there wasn't a place for him at the school this year.

Now he's left to clean up the mess and explain to his relatives what happened, he said.

“This is every enrollment manager's worst nightmare,” Williams said. “You just find it happening, I think, because of sloppy work by somebody or some group on the staff.”

The Associated Press contributed. Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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