Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, shifts the spotlight of the US college admissions scandal away from the celebrities involved, and focuses it back onto the mastermind behind it all, William (Rick) Singer. With re-enactments by Matthew Modine and dialogue taken verbatim from actual FBI wiretaps, the viewer now gets the chance to take a closer look behind the scenes of this scurrilous scandal.
Singer, a former college basketball coach, rebranded himself into an “independent college counsellor” to help privileged children from the top one percent get into prestigious institutions. According to Singer, there were mainly three ways to get into esteemed colleges: 1) through the “front door,” meaning that students make it on their own merits; 2) through the “back door,” which means that parents make donates of such magnitude that colleges simply could not refuse; and 3) the option that was Singer’s specialty — the “side door.” Parents would pony up huge sums in the range of US$500,000 to US$1 million, and donate it to Singer’s Key Worldwide Foundation so that they could be disguised as charitable contributions. These contributions would then be passed on as “incentives” to Singer’s “close contacts” working inside the target college of his clients who will help make the application smoother.
However, the money alone was usually not enough, Singer came up with ways to pass off the student applicants as athletes, often those who specialize in upper-class, niche sports like water polo or sailing since those sports usually attracted less attention and press coverage. He would then photoshop the faces of the applicants onto the bodies of professional players, or in the case of actress Lori Loughlin’s two daughters, take photographs of them on rowing machines, all to suggest that the students were athletes their target colleges should covet. Singer would even take it one step further by paying off proctors to fake the applicants’ SAT results. The lengths to which Singer went to conceal the deception from the applicants who were taking the test is staggering, in virtually every case, the parents weren’t just offering financial incentives to key admission personnel under Singer’s influence, they were also lying to their own children.
The film did a great job in shining the light on the harsh reality of admissions inequality and disproving the illusory belief that the college admissions process in the US is purely meritocratic. Yet what makes Operation Varsity Blues such an intriguing movie is not only how it reveals the story behind the big headlines, its strong theme of indictment towards the commodification of higher education shows precisely how colleges are now selling their prestige and exclusiveness to America’s aristocratic class. To witness the lengths some wealthy parents are willing to go just to ensure that their children attend esteemed colleges and to obtain the status it may bring is truly flabbergasting to us more ordinary folks.
Higher education is also often considered as one of the best ways for underprivileged families to break the cycle of poverty. But when the rich and wealthy are gaming a college recruitment system that’s already skewed towards them to begin with, it robs the precious opportunities for those that are truly deserving but just so happens to be of a disadvantaged social status. Operation Varsity Blues proves that the current recruitment process of US colleges is oftentimes not truly as fair and open as they often tout it to be. I believe the question on the back of most of our minds will be: are the colleges going to do something about it, will they facilitate real change?
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal is now streaming on Netflix.