Vassar’s Mistaken Acceptance Letters
Six dozen applicants for admission to Vassar College were thrown a boomerang over the weekend, first receiving electronic letters of acceptance only to be followed an hour later by electronic messages of apology saying the first batch were erroneous. At least some of the disappointed hopefuls object that the college is in breach of contract. They say Vassar’s first letter was binding because the deal was described as binding early admissions decision. As a matter of law, this is not a winning argument; but as a matter of public and student relations, the college may wish to do more than send what appear to be mere mass form apologies.
Ordinarily, the school’s letter would not constitute the formation of a contract. Contracts for college matriculation are formed after students first file an application for admission, which has zero contractual significance. The first step in the process with contractual significance is the letter of admission schools send. This would be considered to be an offer of admission. It creates in the student the power to accept, by following stated procedures, such as submitting a deposit by a stated deadline and committing to matriculating.
But offers to form contracts may be revoked at any time until the offeree has accepted or, in limited circumstances when the offeror seeks action in return, begun the requested action in reliance. Accordingly, Vassar’s letters of acceptance had no legal effect unless and until the students accepted, which none of the recipients over the weekend had done. It does not matter that the context involved early admission decisions described as binding. The decisions are binding only once the offer has been made and accepted.
Even if the college’s letters were somehow seen to form a binding contract, another basic contract law doctrine comes into play: mistake. In most cases, excuse from contractual obligation on the basis of mistake is granted only when both parties are mistaken (mutual mistake) and then only when it is evident that some risk existed that the parties did not intend to exchange or allocate. Classic examples are mistakes about the attributes of an animal (such as whether a cow was a breeder or barren) or provenance of a coin or instrument (such as whether a dime was minted in 1916 at Denver or whether a violin was made by Stradivari or not). [I analyzed those in the pending case about a Madoff Ponzi scheme account.]
But there is also a class of cases allowing rescission of a contract based merely on unilateral mistake–mistake by one side only. Excuse based on unilateral mistake requires that the mistake be made honestly not with any whiff of bad faith; involve a clerical matter rather than a matter of judgment; be reported to the other side promptly upon discovery; and not prejudice the other side as a result of its reliance. The case favoring the excuse is strengthened when insisting on enforcement of the contract would result in a windfall to the other party.
All those elements are present in the Vassar case: college officials made an honest computer mistake to which it alerted students within an hour after they had done nothing in reliance. To enforce the letters as contracts would create a windfall–a spot at Vassar that the school’s admissions office had declined to award.
On the other hand, the school’s response to its error seems both glib and insensitive. It sounds as if the school is treating these students as the clinical subjects of the type that appear in the kind of legal analysis I just offered. The school should not forget the human dimension of its error. Perhaps it can could offer something more substantive to these students for its mistake. At minimum, the school should refund any application fee students paid, since the school botched the application process that those fees pay for.