Uncovering genius in the aftermath of a mistake

There are countless stories of product development errors that resulted in brilliant inventions: penicillin, Post-it notes, Coca-Cola, and the color mauve. What about human error; when a group of high school seniors is offered admission to college by mistake? Can an administrative blunder result in undiscovered genius?

I’ve been thinking about those students who received letters of admission from Vassar, UCLA and the University of Ulster in the spring of 2012, only to learn later that they hadn’t made the cut. What happened to those students who planned to attend college as members of Class of 2016 at these schools?

I’m sure there is a grad student in search of a thesis topic, who will one day interview the admitted/rejected cohort and determine the long-term impact on success. I guarantee a significant number of these students used the experience to excel at an alternate institution.

What if these schools had honored their offer of admission?

Let’s imagine a freshman class at Vassar College that included the 76 students who had been sent a letter of admission by mistake.

I can hear the opposition preparing for debate.

In some instances, this would be impractical if the numbers of mistakenly accepted students exceeded the capacity of classroom and living space. There’s probably an argument that admitting a ‘second tier’ roster would impact national rankings.

At the top of the higher education pyramid, selectivity is the guiding principle. It’s no different at the most competitive corporations. Employers want folks who have the highest GPA, and go to war with one another over the same pool of candidates.

This is what they both miss; students who could thrive in a challenging academic environment, and employees who would contribute over the long term rather than continually fend off offers to join the competition.

Alexander W. Astin, professor emeritus at UCLA and author of a new book, ‘Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges’ Obsession With Smartness Shortchanges Students’ describes the focus on ‘acquiring’ vs.’developing’ students.

“When the entire system of higher education gives favored status to the smartest students, even average students are denied equal opportunities,” he writes. “If colleges were instead to be judged on what they added to each student’s talents and capacities, then applicants at every level of academic preparation might be equally valued.”

The next time the admission office makes a mistake; I hope they take a minute to consider the alternative.

It’s the undiscovered genius among the rejected that are the true ‘opportunity cost’.


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