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USF St. Pete calls 430 high school seniors to apologize for false acceptance letters

To avoid similar mistakes in the future, the university is accelerating plans to switch its admissions system within the next 30 days.
About 430 soon-to-be high school graduates across Pinellas County received an erroneous email Saturday saying they had been accepted to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Chancellor Martin Tadlock blamed “human error” in the admissions office, which resulted in 680 applicants receiving an acceptance email while only 250 of them have actually been admitted. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Jan. 24
Updated Jan. 24

ST. PETERSBURG — The University of South Florida St. Petersburg has called all 430 Pinellas County high school seniors who received erroneous acceptance letters Saturday to apologize for the error and discuss future options for their admission, campus leaders announced Thursday.

To avoid similar mistakes, USF St. Petersburg will soon adopt the admissions system currently used by USF Tampa, chancellor Martin Tadlock said at a campus board meeting.

The university had planned to make the change at the end of the year when a contract for its existing system runs out, but now, in light of the error, will accelerate the switch within 30 days.

USF president Judy Genshaft said the new system will help with "checks and balances," and also be instituted at USF Sarasota-Manatee.

"Things happen," she said at the meeting. "How we deal with them is really what integrity is all about. … We're just doing what we can."

NEVER MIND: ‘Big mistake’ cited as USF St. Pete takes back 430 admission letters

USF trustee Stephanie Goforth, head of the USF St. Petersburg campus board, said the university was devastated over the mistaken acceptance emails. But she noted that the affected applicants got rare and valuable "direct contact" with admissions staff.

"The students got that chance to talk and see where they line up," added campus board member Judy Mitchell. "That's additional information that they didn't have."

One student was 18-year-old Mel Garcia, a senior at Dixie Hollins High who got a call from the admissions office Wednesday afternoon. She learned that her application is still being reviewed, and she should know whether it's approved within three weeks.

"They said they were doing what they could to figure out a way for possible acceptance," Garcia said in an interview. "I have to say that USF did take action pretty quickly. … I think I feel a little more relief."

Dixie Hollins teacher Jennifer Sinphay, 39, said she got texts from some of her students over the weekend when the USF emails went out.

The first one said the student had been accepted to the university and sent congratulations. The second one, a short time later, told students to disregard the first email.

Officials blamed the miscue on “human error” in the admissions office. They said 680 applicants received the acceptance email but only 250 of them had actually been admitted.

Though Sinphay had heard of universities making admission errors before, she never experienced it firsthand.

She started making plans to help students contact the admissions office. But someone from USF St. Petersburg reached out first.

"He went through their application with them individually, which might not seem like a lot," said Sinphay, an 18-year teacher who coordinates the college readiness program at Dixie Hollins. "But that's rare that you have anybody at a university of that size be able to individually go through your application with you."

The teacher added that students at nearly every high school in Pinellas County were affected by the error. And there was "no pattern on which kids got the letter," she said. Some who did were sent legitimate acceptance months ago. Others haven't even completed their application or paid associated fees yet.

Izaiah Harris, a senior at Pinellas Park High, got a call from someone in the admission's office on Wednesday, too. Before that, the only real correspondence he and others had with the university since the mistaken email was the follow-up note telling them to disregard the previous one.

"The first thing he did was apologize again for what happened," the 17-year-old said. "He said there are still pathways for me to get admitted."

Now, Harris' plan is to enroll for one semester at St. Petersburg College, where he currently takes dual enrollment classes. Then he'll have enough credits to transfer to USF St. Petersburg with an associate of arts degree by spring 2020.

The staffer told Harris he can call or visit the admissions office anytime with questions about credits and his new plan to make it to USF St. Petersburg, where he hopes to study criminology.

"At first, with just the little follow-up email, I was pretty upset," he said. "But them calling like that and actually talking to me and explaining things really made me feel good."

Students who didn't answer the call from USF were left a voicemail and follow-up email, Tadlock said. Those who still have not responded will be called again.

“Those contacts have been very positive,” he said. “We think we have corrected whatever happened before.”

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

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