‘Operation Varsity Blues’ exposes the real issue with America’s college admissions system


Photo Credit: Netflix

“Operation Varsity Blues” analyzes the process of the biggest college admissions scandal. The documentary is available on Netflix.

Brynn McGrail, Managing Editor

Two years ago, a wave of news reports revealed the biggest college admissions scandal prosecuted by the US Department of Justice. However these reports unveiled so much more about the problems in America’s top universities.
Netflix’s “Operation Varsity Blues” takes a deeper look into this headline and uncovers wiretaps used to prosecute over 30 famous families coordinating with the mastermind, Rick Singer, to guarantee their child’s spot in a top US school, a scandal which only proves how prominent and sickening privilege is.
The film traced the anatomy of the scandal with a script reliant on the transcripts of these wiretaps released by the US government. This makes for a unique perspective of the film since the case turns out to revolve around these trackings. Parents like Gordon Caplan and Jane Buckingham were among those involved in conversations reenacted in the film.
Cast by look-alike actors, the movie shows these parents talking on the phone, strolling around their luxurious homes as a reminder of their wealth, and discussing details of plans to get their children into assisted ACT sessions or staged athletic photoshoots.
On the other end, Rick Singer, portrayed by Matthew Modine, talks with ease about his practices in guaranteeing an entrance to these schools through what he terms the “side door.” Singer is the founder of his company, The Key Worldwide Foundation, and orchestrator of the process of admitting children from famous families into elite colleges.
As explained by Singer, most students aim to enter through the “front door” with stellar grade point averages, entrance exam scores, extracurriculars and essays. Some benefit from the “back door,” in which families donate millions of dollars to just be given another look by admissions. Singer created this “side door,” which guarantees student admission into the school.
The guarantee comes with a fortune of money paid to Singer as a “donation” to his college and career foundation, which is then turned around as a bribe to people within the school.
Singer was able to build connections with college coaches who would assure college acceptance of students on behalf of their athletic ability.
Demonstrated by former Stanford sailing coach, John Vandemoer, a large part of his job was to allocate funds devoted to the sailing program while other large sports like basketball and football were the prime money-providing sports. This is why these smaller sports were often the targets. Vandemoer accepted these requests from Singer, using the money to further the sailing program to keep his job.
Other key players in the scheme included hired experts who created pretend resumes that were perceivably legitimate. The documentary shows a reenacted Photoshop job on business executive Devin Sloan’s son posing as a water polo athlete for the University of Southern California.
From hearing about this scandal in 2019, it seemed too far of a stretch for it to be believable that teen influencers like Olivia Jade could be recruited as a rowing coxswain by the work of Photoshop. It also seems too easy to list fake achievements and awarded tournaments, but this is exactly what the film showed, and it’s exactly what makes many teenagers think about who they are really competing with when it comes to the college admissions process.
The “front door” is the only way marketed to us, and we automatically are sent into months of application and exam preparation, thinking that every other student is working just as hard. But we would be oblivious to not consider how wealth privileges do not stop at these doors of higher education, and the result of that makes our position even more challenging.
As stated at the beginning of the film by a teen in a YouTube video, if you have money, “best believe you have access to certain spaces that other kids don’t have.”
The truth is, while many students have the eligibility and potential to be accepted into these top-notch schools, the cost of admission is an extremely limiting factor, but it is a fraction of the cost these celebrity parents paid for just their child’s ACT answers to be altered. At that end of the spectrum, the worry isn’t about how to pay for their child’s education, but instead how to get sometimes-mediocre students into the “best” schools.
The documentary didn’t fully disclose much personal information about any of the students that the parents weren’t conversing over the phone about. So, it was never stated how much these kids even wanted to attend the colleges or simply what type of education they were interested in, if any.
While this seems important to the idea of any college admissions discussion, it’s exemplary of the reasoning for this scandal in the first place.
Higher education, especially at these well-known, selective colleges, has become a status point rather than a boost for the education itself. This concept is addressed at the very beginning of the film and it weighs on the audience throughout the drama, leaving them with the idea that all of this is being done for the boost of public image for acquiring the best of the best.
Having always been seen as elite actors and actresses, CEOs and entrepreneurs, it’s in their nature to push their children into elite institutions, knowing they can pay the price.
But if their end goal isn’t the same as the supposed goal of these high-class institutions, then the meaning of the “best education” has lost value at this level. If admissions continues to skew for the wealthy, admitting students for their ability to pay than their ability to enrich their academic community, then the universities aren’t in the right place either.
Although universities don’t advertise the open doors through millions in donations, they don’t condemn it either. This counters their promise of being the premier support to excelling students on behalf of merit.
According to former federal prosecutor Robert Fisher, schools involved, such as Stanford, have kept all of the money wrongfully gained by the scandal.
As these institutions have been founded on top-notch academia, it was only a matter of time before they were soon enwrapped in an entitlement to money, and it’s these famous families that meet those needs with their own sense of entitlement.
While the parents’ conversations recounted through the film often gave full disclosure about their wants, there was a frequent hesitation at the end of these calls. A question of “What happens if someone finds out?”
These parents are blinded by money to consider paying half a million dollars just to get a promising resume for their child, but they are not blind enough to ignore the illegalities of this tactic. The obvious truth is that if they can pay to get in this “side door” to college, they can pay to limit their time behind bars if caught.
In April of 2019, those found guilty of participating in the scheme stated their cases and were charged on different accounts; most served less than six months in prison, some as little as 14 days. In addition, many paid paltry fines, especially compared to the amounts they paid as part of the scandal itself.
The most shocking result of the case leaves the mastermind of it all with no charges yet stated. The film showed Singer in a hotel room with FBI agents giving phone calls to clients to bait information off to investigators. As a cooperating informant, Singer has yet to be prosecuted until all of the parents he helped are rounded up and charged.
The film ends with Singer swimming in the community pool and out for an evening run while the case is underway. It’s assumed that he will face his time soon, but there’s a loss of hope considering the small punishments received by the parents.
It’s especially infuriating that thousands of qualified students are denied entrance to their dream schools because their spot has been taken by an undeserving individual, simply because the privilege of the wealthy has persisted in every sector.
Learning every detail of this scheme only provides more insight into the greater scheme of higher education and status associated that society feeds into.