College Admissions Doc 'Operation Varsity Blues' Is Depressing Because It Isn't Surprising

Directed by Chris Smith

BY Eva ZhuPublished Mar 23, 2021

Operation Varsity Blues — Netflix's investigative documentary about the scandal involving Rick Singer and dozens of ultra-rich parents who paid to get their teens into top universities — shows just how messed up the American college dream has become.

While the documentary is well thought-out and put together, it's a difficult watch for anybody who still feels invested in the strict moral standards of higher education.

Viewers are greeted with a montage of high school seniors filming their reactions as they check the status of their college applications. One by one, they start shouting with glee as they realize they've been accepted into their dream schools.

The excitement fades into news reports detailing "the largest college admissions scam prosecuted by the Department of Justice ever." Celebrities, lawyers, doctors, wealthy CEOs, and others who actively participated in Singer's scam are shown walking into their respective criminal trials as reporters surround them.

The next hour and half take viewers through criminal mastermind Singer's plot, as he uses his marketing skills and persuasive personality to convince even the most hesitant of parents to trust him. The documentary stitches together scenes taken from conversation transcripts acted out by uncanny lookalikes (especially in the case of Singer, Netflix found his doppelgänger) along with interviews with Stanford's sailing coach, Singer's former girlfriend, lawyers, test prep experts, and a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Singer is depicted as a go-go-go type of person who gets up at 4 a.m. and exercises every day. Instead of sleeping, he catches red-eye flights and drives at white-knuckle speeds. He doesn't seem to ever stop and take a second to breathe. Not giving himself time to stop and think about his actions suggests that he knows the gravity of his schemes, he just doesn't want to dwell on it.

Every 20 minutes or so, Singer is on the phone with another wealthy parent who is looking to get their teen into America's top universities, including Stanford and the University of Southern California. Singer guarantees their teen a spot if they agree to helping him create fake profiles of their teen playing unpopular sports — such as crew, water polo or sailing— and sending him an exorbitant amount of money. This is what Singer dubs "the side door," a cheaper alternative to "the back door," in which parents donate money to a school in the hopes that their teen's application is given a second look by the admissions department.

This forgery is usually combined with, you guessed it, more forgery. The parents pay Singer to fake a higher SAT or ACT score for their teens by either having someone else take the exam, paying off a proctor to correct wrong answers, or perhaps worst of all, getting a psychiatrist to diagnose the teen with a disability they don't have.

Singer's behemoth of a scam is finally brought down by the high school guidance counsellor of Olivia Jade Giannulli (the daughter of actor Lori Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli). Olivia's fake crew recruit profile at USC caught the counsellor's attention. A couple phone calls later, the FBI and IRS are wiretapping Singer's phone calls. He agrees to be the mole and bring down his wealthy clients in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Singer didn't start his college scam because he wanted to make a quick buck by scamming some rich folk; rather, he recognized the grotesqueness of the American college "industry" and capitalized on it. He knew that people would do almost anything to ensure their kids made it in life, including getting into the most prestigious universities.

Every year, high school seniors fight tooth and nail to give themselves the best chance at being admitted to top schools. They forfeit beloved passions for another AP class, pay thousands for SAT and ACT prep courses, and spend hours neglecting their social lives for résumé-bolstering volunteer work. Students know that, unless they work themselves to half to death, they're not getting into Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Yale or any of the other top 20 schools.

Towards the end of the documentary, viewers are shown a montage of teens who didn't get into their dream schools, and it's heartbreaking. You see 17-year-olds emotionally break down because they gave up so much and still didn't make it.

But this isn't entirely their fault. Young people these days are conditioned to believe that, without a degree from a school that will probably put them in debt for life, they might not get a high-paying job. Those who dream of working at a Fortune 500 company are even more desperate, because everyone tells them a Harvard degree makes them more hirable.

Getting into an elite college in the United States feels so much like a lucky lottery draw that, come college acceptance season, teens film themselves checking their application statuses and uploading videos to YouTube talking about what schools they got into — unless you're rich enough, of course. The documentary uncovers the ugly environment that the most prestigious schools in the U.S. have fostered — one in which we aren't even shocked that those who donate money are admitted with little question. It's simply what we have come to expect from schools that prioritize prestige, standardized testing, the legacy system and profit. These "back doors" and "side doors" are a natural consequence of the current system and only serve to further elevate these schools in the public conscience.

Closing out the documentary, the interviewees discuss what it will take to change the current system. Nothing short of radical re-evaluation of how we view post-secondary institutions will help dismantle the image of America's most prestigious schools and make the college dream more equitable.

Operation Varsity Blues is a stark reminder of how impossible the American college dream is, and how easy it is for the ultra-rich to bribe their way into institutions once thought to be morally indestructible.

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