Netflix’s new documentary “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” delves into the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal that indicted more than 50 members of the nation’s top 1 percent, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. If you're a college student in America, this one is a must-watch.
Director Chris Smith, who also directed Netflix’s hit documentary “FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened,” shows all.
Between an abundance of real FBI wiretaps, trial evidence, interviews with college coaches and re-enactments of real conversations between parents who paid Rick Singer, the mastermind behind the scandal, Smith gives us an intimate look into how the rich have managed to break the system to get their kids into some of the nation’s top universities.
The documentary dives into the details of Singer’s “side door” approach to guarantee rich parents’ children admission into universities such as University of Southern California (USC), University of California, Los Angeles and Georgetown University.
His scheme essentially worked like this: Rather than paying tens of millions of dollars to universities to raise the likelihood of their child’s admission in what Singer calls the “back door” approach, he created a business model in which parents would donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to his “charity.”
Singer would then make a donation in his name to the underfunded, niche sports programs at these universities. By donating to these underfunded programs, Singer was able to develop relationships with college coaches, who he then would convince to give a walk-on spot to a “recruit” (aka a rich person's kid) of his choice. This essentially guarantees the "recruit" admission to the university as a walk-on athlete.
The catch is that these kids didn't actually have to be athletes. Instead, Singer would have parents take pictures of their kids posing as if they played these sport, like YouTube star and daughter of Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, Olivia Jade, who posed for photos on a rowing machine in order to be recruited by USC.
The kids would then never show up for tryouts, and from there, became just regular students at whichever university they desired.
But, if the kids grades weren’t up to par with the university, Singer combined the student-athlete scam with a test-taking scam to further guarantee their acceptance into the university. Singer would advise parents to take their kids to a therapist and pretend they had a learning disability in order to get extra time to take their SATs and ACTs.
The kids would then go into a room to take their tests alone with a proctor of Singer’s choice, Mark Riddell, who for $10,000 would retake the test with the correct answers.
As messed up as it seems from the outside, some kids were completely unaware of their parent’s involvement in Singer's scandal, and believed they truly got accepted by their own merit. Even some college coaches were also unaware of the way they were manipulated by Singer, yet fell victim to indictment in the FBI case for accepting bribes.
But that being said, many of the college admissions professionals, sports coaches and athletic directors were fully aware of Singer’s scheme and participated willingly for a cut of the cash.
Once Singer finally got caught by the FBI, he turned into a fully cooperating witness, allowing the FBI to wiretap his phone and holding in-person conversations where he manipulated parents into admitting to their guilt in order to save himself.
Although the college admissions scandal is the largest of its kind in history, most parents who were involved in the scandal received incredibly small sentences. Huffman was sentenced to only 14 days in prison.
Meanwhile, mastermind Singer got out on bail and is currently walking freely due to his cooperation with the investigation. He pleaded guilty and accepted a $1.25 million fine, but doesn't have a set sentencing date for his trial at this time.
The punishment the participants received generates thought about the U.S. court and prison systems. Sure, these parents wanted what was best for their child (let’s pretend they had good intentions and didn’t just want their kids to go to top schools for their own public image).
But what about those who aren't rich and famous? What about the story of Tanya McDowell, who was sentenced to five years in prison for using a wrong address to enroll her 5-year-old son in school while she was homeless? Is the sentencing in each case truly fair?
These parents had every advantage in the world, and still cheated their way in. And they didn’t even face the repercussions that people like McDowell did. The film also shows clips of intelligent, deserving children heartbroken over being denied a spot at their dream universities, because the privileged families bought their way in undeservingly.
This documentary is captivating and designed like a thriller. It forces you to think about the ways higher education institutions are designed to keep the rich and privileged in exclusive spaces, while pushing out those who aren't. It says a lot about the systems in our society and just how deeply corruption runs in them, and for these reasons, you need to stream it now.