‘Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal’ defies documentary conventions
The story of how one man single-handedly ruptured the American higher education system. “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” is now available to stream on Netflix.
April 30, 2021
Just over two years ago, the college admissions scandal — later coined “Operation Varsity Blues” — sparked an uproar throughout the public, especially amongst students and parents recently involved in the college application process.
The recent Netflix documentary, “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,” depicts reenactments of actual wiretapped phone conversations between Rick Singer, the infamous mastermind behind the entire scandal, and his clients, while revealing the reprehensible actions that were taken in order to guarantee students’ admission into America’s elite colleges such as Stanford, Yale, USC, UCLA and more.
The film defies the conventions of a typical crime documentary by using actors to play out the events tackled, a decision that casts the film in a haze of fiction. By depicting the chronological events with actors and realistic reenactments, it becomes quite easy to forget that nearly everything featured is accurate and verbatim, as its highly dramatized adaptation is executed similarly to a scripted movie.
Over the course of only seven years, Singer accumulated approximately $25 million from some of America’s wealthiest families in order to get their children into the country’s most prestigious schools. Their exorbitant wealth is largely conveyed in the film through mansion settings, expensive cars and references to luxurious international trips, demonstrating the wealth that allows them to afford Singer’s exclusive services.
Families paid Singer anywhere from $300,000 to $500,000 for assurance that their child would be attending the school of their choice. Despite a strong focus on his fraudulent dealings, not once does the film lessen its condemnation of the admissions process as a whole. Throughout the entire documentary, there remains a clear focus on how the system values wealth over merit, an obviously unfair advantage for already privileged students.
Singer has yet to receive a sentence for his guilty plea, and is likely to receive a reduced one due to his cooperation in governmental investigation. While there is some sentiment of justice being served by the film’s conclusion, it should be noted that he is currently still a free man, creating an unsettling tension that will likely remain until he is formally convicted. Nearly fifty people have been indicted for their illegal involvement with Singer, and the investigation is ongoing.
In light of the recent admissions for the Class of 2025, with NYU seeing a significant drop in acceptance rate to an all-time low of 12.8%, the content of the documentary may leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those who have been rejected from their top schools.
Many students, some of whom express their frustration with the higher education system in short clips featured throughout the documentary, recognize that money often trumps hard work.
High-quality college counselors — those providing students aid in drafting a list of potential schools, filling out applications, reviewing essays and more — often charge $500 to $1,000 per hour. As a result, college preparation services favor the wealthy, leaving a large majority of students to fend for themselves in navigating the murky waters of the admissions process.
The immoral nature of these crimes is astonishing, especially as we learn from the film that one of Singer’s clients was a wealthy lawyer. As shown in the documentary, many of the parents involved struggled with whether or not to admit their underhanded behavior to their children, with Singer strongly urging them not to.
However, rarely are the children ever part of the discussion in these wrongdoings.
“The parents are applying to college and the kid is the vehicle through which they apply to college,” says independent education consultant Perry Kalmus in the film.
The pressure to attend the most elite universities mounts given how their status is seen as social markers of power. According to the documentary, U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings, which began in the 1980s, are based largely on prestige rather than academics. This ends up creating the impression that the more exclusive the school, the better. r.
The use of footage featuring tearful students getting rejected from their dream schools that is interlaced throughout the documentary serves as a somber reminder of the seemingly futile hard work and dedication that many students put into their applications and resumes.
Olivia Jade, the influencer daughter of actress Lori Loughlin, obtained acceptance into University of Southern California after sharing publicly that it was not her choice to attend college or even stay in high school. Yet because of her parents’ fortune and deception, she was admitted, stealing a spot from another student who undoubtedly deserved and wanted it more.
But featured author Daniel Golden tries to focus his criticism on the colleges and universities themselves, noting that despite the scandal, these institutions have not changed their improper practices. The publicity has made the schools seem more desirable and exclusive.
“If [schools] didn’t have these loopholes and these preferences for families of privilege, then I don’t think there would be these kind of temptations,” Golden says.
The final moments of the film provide a brief summary of the pleas and sentences that those involved have received thus far, as well as questionable claims from Stanford University denying any knowledge of involvement with Singer. These misleading and unapologetic statements serve as further proof that drastic systemic change is unlikely and that more affluent families will continue to have the upper hand.
“Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” serves as a startling exposé that highlights the many flaws in the American higher education system. The documentary’s suspenseful soundtrack and dim lighting give an ominous and foreboding tone, creating a portrayal of the scandal that emphasizes its unlawfulness and sheer immorality of the crime. All the while, the film also exposes the broken system through which imagined prestige has compromised the integrity of the country’s system of higher education.
Email Candace Patrick at [email protected]