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Netflix Documentary Explores the College Admissions Scandal

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In 2019, news broke of “Operation Varsity Blues”, a Justice Department investigation that uncovered how wealthy families used the services of Rick Singer to exploit weaknesses in the college admissions process to get their kids into prestigious colleges and universities. While it was nice to delight in a bunch of rich parents being forced to do perp walks, Chris Smith’s documentary Operation Varsity Blues wisely goes beyond rich people doing what rich people do—using their wealth to game the system to acquire more status symbols—to ask tougher questions about how this system even functions in the first place. The use of dramatizations adds some nice dramatic heft to the proceedings, but the film’s greater strength comes from its talking head interviews that point out how Singer was able to succeed for so long and the system that allowed him to prosper. Rick Singer clearly knew how to exploit the college admissions system, but Operation Varsity Blues shows that the college admissions system had no trouble creating a person like Rick Singer.

As even Operation Varsity Blues will admit, Singer himself is a bit of a cipher. He was formerly a basketball coach with a Bobby Knight-like temper, and when he was laid off from his high school’s program, he decided he’d become a different kind of coach—one who worked in the burgeoning field of college counseling. From there, Singer created what he deemed a “side door” where if the “front door” is getting in on merit and the “back door” is a donation in the millions of dollars, then the “side door” was Singer’s system of essentially bribing athletics department administrators and coaches into leaving spots open for fake athletes. For example, if a prestigious school has a water polo program, Singer would create fake resume for a kid, doctor them up to look like a water polo champion, and then, combined with a hefty donation to a less-prominent college program like water polo, the student would basically be admitted before they even applied. Singer also had schemes for manipulating SATs and ACTs when it was necessary to forge those tests.

Matthew Modine in Operation Varsity Blues
Image via Netflix

It’s tempting to refer to Singer as “mastermind” of this scam, but Smith wisely never gives him that satisfaction of being particularly bright. Instead, Singer simply took two weaknesses—narcissistic, wealthy parents who needed to get their kids into prestigious schools with a guarantee of admission, and an admission system thoroughly broken by treating colleges as a commodity rather than an institute of learning—and combined them to create his business. The wealthy always have an easier time of things than the rest of us, so why should college admissions be any different?

Smith is able to counteract the lack of surprise by rendering the criminal investigation as a true crime thriller. He uses real wiretap transcripts and then casts actors to recite them with Matthew Modine as Singer. This brings us closer to the machinations of the scam while also getting a glimpse at the incredibly wealth in their totally unguarded moments. These are conversations they really had, and there is something chilling in how mundane they treat such corrupt behavior. They don’t wrestle with the morality of taking a spot away from a more deserving student, or that their money allows them a pathway devoid of merit. There only two concerns consistently appear to be, “Will we get caught?” and “How can I prevent my child from finding out that they’re getting something they didn’t earn?”

And yet for all the dramatizations, my ire wasn’t really reserved for these parents. I don’t expect people who become grotesquely wealthy to act honorably because typically there’s not a lot of honor in becoming grotesquely wealthy. My ire is more reserved for where the film’s talking heads come in at pointing out the myriad of flaws in our college admissions system. We have a country filled with great colleges and universities, but only a handful are deemed “prestigious” simply because U.S. World News and Report deems them as such. And yet we have a college system that claims if you work hard, get amazing grades, take enough AP classes, score high enough on your SAT or ACT, and also pile on the extracurricular activities, you might get into a “prestigious” school.

An ACT exam in Operation Varsity Blues
Image via Netflix

The main connection that Smith seems to miss is how wealth and these schools are intertwined not because you buy admissions into them, but because they perpetuate a powerful, wealthy elite. It’s absolutely true that you can get a terrific education at countless schools, and moreover, you could arguably get a better education than what these prestige schools claim to offer. But no one is trying to enter these schools for an education. A talking head in Operation Varsity Blues argues that an elite school is an extension of a wealthy parent’s need for status symbols, and perhaps that’s part of it. But the film elides the fact that these “elite” institutions are the corridors of power. They are where the wealthy and powerful congregate. In a world where who you know is often more important than what you know, there couldn’t be anything more important than making sure your kid is able to start networking with tomorrow’s most powerful people.

When you see the limp justice doled out, this lust for dynastic power makes even more sense. Sure, we got to see these rich parents trotted out in front of cable news cameras, but of those who pled guilty, no one received more than a year in prison. They took a system that was already fundamentally unfair, and not being satisfied with their already dominant position, worked to tilt the odds even more in their favor. And ultimately what we received was the illusion of justice for people who created the illusion of merit. To Smith’s credit, Operation Varsity Blues does not fall for this illusion, and notes how none of these universities had to give back the “donations” (i.e., bribes) they received from Singer. Operation Varsity Blues shows us that while Rick Singer had a hustle, prestige schools continue to run a scam.

Rating: B+

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