Dozens of high school seniors got a rude awakening to adult life late last week.

They opened electronic early-acceptance letters from their top college choice. They celebrated, spread the news, basked in the joy for a few hours. A few hours only.

A student in Indiana gets help filling out an online college application. (Jeff Morehead/Associated Press)

A computer glitch was responsible for the mix-up, and college officials quickly sent out the legalese version of “oops.” The acceptance letter was just a placeholder, and 76 of the students who read it should have instead been told they had not received early acceptance.

The New York Times first reported the Vassar embarrassment and quoted several disappointed students and furious parents. Parents of one student threatened legal action, according to the story.

Follow ups elsewhere also quoted “devastated” students and relatives. “I think this is wrong, this is totally unacceptable,” one uncle of a student complained to the New York Observer.

What no one was quoted as saying: Life is unfair.

On the face of it, the Vassar incident may be a bitter disappointment for the students who mistakenly believed they had been accepted. But, really, not being accepted at one of the most prestigious schools in the country is not the end of the world — or lawsuit fodder.

What it is: a bummer. And, perhaps, the beginning of a different kind of education about life.

There are too many kids who learn at young ages that life can be mean. They endure health crisis or cruelty or divorces or foreclosures or worse.

Then, there are the lucky kids; the ones who have been blessed with caring parents and less challenging childhoods. They have been allowed to mature before they have to accept that things like bank errors rarely end up in the little guy’s favor.

Perri Klass, a professor of journalism and pediatrics at New York University, offers some wisdom on the subject of parenting through disappointments in an essay on Parenting magazine’s Web site, “Are You Overprotecting Your Child?

The danger with providing too much emotional protection, she writes, is that, “If we protect our children too absolutely, we actually end up exposing them to other risks. And we leave them without the skills, experiences, and minor life lessons that they’ll need to handle the big challenges as they grow up…

“It’s not our job to protect them so completely that they grow up without knowing disappointment, pain, fear, or frustration. It is our job to run interference when necessary in a sane and age-appropriate manner … it’s our job to help them learn the lessons — even the slightly painful ones — that will give them the skills, defenses, self-knowledge, and sense of humor to cope with a world that contains risk and is not under parental control. Immunization is a good metaphor: Some of the small, nonserious lumps and bumps in life — spiritual, emotional, and even physical — help inoculate you and build your defenses so you can handle the bigger problems that, despite your parents’ best intentions, may someday come your way.”

Vassar’s acceptance-then-denial is not one of life’s bigger problems. If the parents involved here can translate that to their children — not through threatening legal action but by offering a hug and explaining that this too shall pass — the kids may end up far better off then if that acceptance had been genuine.

What do you think? Does Vassar owe these students more? Or are the parents over-stepping their boundaries?

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