Friday, August 22, 2003

Ferris Bueller's year off 

In all the discussion around the blogosphere of UNC's revocation of Mark Edmonson's admission to their university after he simply blew off his senior year of studies, the one I like best comes from Steve at Begging to Differ:
The basic tension at work here is between admissions officers (who consider grades a reflection of curiosity, ability, and effort) and students (who consider grades merely a prerequisite for college admission). UNC admitted Edmonson not on the basis of his grades per se, but on the basis of what his grades ostensibly revealed about him. By slacking off his senior year, Edmonson demonstrated that he considered his classwork a means to a specific end - and once that end was achieved, he no longer had any use for it.

Many students feel the exact same way - and to a large extent the admission process encourages a cynical view. Edmonson's sin was not gaming the system, but being obnoxious about it. Every clever slacker reading these words knows that Edmonson could have mailed it in and still gotten a satisfactory GPA. Instead, he chose to blow off school completely. His gambit revealed the admission process for the mechanistic numbers game that it is, and this the university simply cannot abide.

Frank at the Financial Aid Office notes that the language of the admissions letter is vague for a reason:
If the language is a little vague (as Eugene Volokh suggests), that vagueness is more often applied to the student's benefit, since it leaves the admissions office room for discretion when there are real reasons for a grade decline. (Examples I have seen include deaths in the family or parent[s] being laid off.) An admissions office doesn't want to pull someone's offer; the student has to give them a reason to do so.
Having your GPA drop from 3.8 to 1.3 would certainly be one. But Volokh's updated reply disagrees:
If their offer is conditional, they should expressly state the conditions, and make clear that they are conditions. If they don't want to make a legally binding offer at all, but just express interest, they should make that clear. Perhaps they should win even under this letter. But it wouldn't hurt to make things more clear -- to decrease the chance of losing a lawsuit, to decrease the chance that a lawsuit would be filed, and to keep students from misunderstanding what the offer is, and possibly relying (though in a foolish way) on such a misunderstanding.
I always fear going into law when there are law professors present, but ... is the acceptance letter really a contract? I think there's an advantage to making it one, in that we want entering students to be able to make plans, commit deposits, reject other schools' offers so they can make offers elsewhere perhaps, etc. But Frank's point about having some flexibility for a GPA decline that is the result of reasonable external events and not because the student revealed by his behavior he just wanted a high GPA for admission and not for a love of learning, would be a good argument not to have admissions offices commit to something as binding as a contract. In an ideal world conditional offers make sense, but I'm hesitant to say that we should remove discretion from admissions offices.