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Carnegie Mellon wrongfully accepted 800 students. Why does this keep happening?

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

About 800 students got good news from Carnegie Mellon University this week: they'd been accepted to the university's master's degree program in computer science. Then, a few hours later, they got bad news: they hadn't. It was all a mistake.

This has become a depressing constant in college admissions. Nearly every year, at least one selective university accidentally tells some students they were accepted when they weren't, and then has to apologize.

Acceptance letters are sent in error at an alarmingly frequent rate. It happened at Johns Hopkins in December, and Vassar in 2012, and George Washington University in 2010, at Virginia's Christopher Newport University in 2011, and at the University of North Carolina in 2007. In 2009, the University of California-San Diego accidentally emailed every student who applied, including 28,000 rejected students to tell them they were accepted to college. (Time magazine has an even longer list of acceptance mix-ups.)

That's tens of thousands of students who have been temporarily elated — and then crushed. These mistakes seem to be becoming more common, not less. And they come from a combination of human and database error that's hard to prevent.

Why mis-sent acceptance letters are going to keep showing up

If you applied to college before the mid-2000s, you probably remember the distinction between the thin envelope and the thick envelope. The thick envelope meant you were accepted; the thin one meant you weren't. If there were mistakes in those printed versions, they were less common, and some colleges would honor the acceptance and let the student enroll anyway (Cornell was one of them, according to a 1995 article in Times Higher Education).

But digital college applications and acceptances don't show up in thin or thick packages. They're just bulk emails. And that makes it easier to accidentally tell hundreds or even thousands of students that they were in when they actually weren't. The first mistake to receive widespread news coverage was at Cornell in 2003, when the university accidentally congratulated more than 500 students on admission who hadn't been admitted.

And with that many students, universities usually just reverse the decision and often don't even refund application fees or offer other remedies.

Some colleges blame computers and others blame clerical staff. But the errors all seem to happen the same way: data gets mixed up, the wrong button is pressed, and a group of students that wasn't supposed to get a congratulatory e-mail, invitation to a campus visit, or other communication for admitted students ends up getting one.

Unfortunately for prospective students, the mistakes are likely to keep happening. The National Association for College Admissions Counseling told Inside Higher Ed last year that it doesn't have specific guidance on how to avoid them even though it's a nightmare scenario for admissions officers.

Such guidance is hard to provide because there's no single glitch that causes the letters to be mistakenly sent. The early error at Cornell in 2003 happened when a university employee downloaded data for all applicants, not just accepted ones, in order to notify them. At Vassar in 2012, a placeholder letter for admitted students wasn't replaced with the actual data before an email was sent to applicants. At MIT last year, a footer message included in all e-mails sent through MailChimp accidentally told students they were getting financial aid information because they were accepted, not just because they applied.

In the latest acceptance mix-up, Carnegie Mellon has blamed "serious mistakes" in its notification process without yet going into detail on what those mistakes were.