If the mountain of news reports, released emails and phone transcripts, and Olivia Jade apologies were not enough to satiate your appetite for 2019 college admissions scandal content, you’re in luck. The new Netflix documentary Operation Varsity Blues from director Chris Smith (Fyre, American Movie) provides a dramatic rendering of how “college counselor” Rick Singer created a scheme that let rich applicants into colleges through what he called “side door” admissions. By bribing college athletics directors and creating fake athlete profiles for niche sports like water polo and sailing, Singer created a “side door” that would guarantee parents their kids would have a spot in schools like USC, Stanford, Georgetown, and more. He also helped doctor test scores for applicants or nab them fake testing accommodations, because why not, sky’s the limit clearly! The scheme disintegrated in 2019 when 53 people were charged for taking part, including celebrity parents like Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin.
Operation Varsity Blues adopts an unusual format, splicing talking head interviews with commentators with re-enactments of real-life phone calls and meetings between Singer and the dozens of parents who paid for his services. These scripted scenes not only make up a confusing bulk of the movie (I had to double-check that Operation Varsity Blues was actually a documentary once the opening credits began heavily crediting actors) but also inelegant and clunky. It turns the movie into a hybrid of true crime re-enactment and interviews not unlike old episodes of Unsolved Mysteries, and makes Operation Varsity Blues seem like it isn’t sure if it wants to be a work of journalism or a Hollywood adaptation. And while you get used to seeing actors play out these scenes from the case, the interviews with people like The Price of Admission author Daniel Golden and “test prep expert” Akil Bello are always far more revealing.
But what’s striking about Operation Varsity Blues is how it handles the most vilified actors in the scandal with kid gloves: the parents. One thing the documentary does exceptionally well is take a much-needed wider lens on the mounting, mythic “prestige” of elite colleges, and the increasingly ridiculous requirements American high-schoolers must reach to even entertain the idea of getting into them. Getting into a college like Harvard or Stanford, the film’s experts and authors explain, already requires wealth and privilege. The documentary places Singer’s “side door” operation at the extremist end of a spectrum of college prep techniques that include SAT prep courses, private college counselors, the ability to tour colleges and pay application fees in the first place, and hefty donations in the millions that may—emphasis on may—get a college to take a second look at an applicant.
Getting into an elite American university in 2021 is extremely difficult, but the group of people it is the least difficult for are white people with disposable income who can afford all the accessories and door-openers that come with applying. By providing this context, Operation Varsity Blues emphasizes how ridiculous it was that these families still had to cheat, families who gave their children every advantage in the world. But it also overgeneralizes the parents’ reasoning for sneaking their kids into these institutions, attributing that desperation to college exclusivity and the excessive requirements for starry-eyed high-schoolers. By reminding viewers that paying to prep for the SATs, or even paying to take them, is itself a privileged way to cut corners in the great race to get into college, Operation Varsity Blues seems to downplay the seriousness of what Singer’s clients agreed to. The documentary suggests that all parents can relate to such desperation, and that this desperation is the product of a system that pushes families to do everything possible to get into these fancy schools.
The documentary also portrays the parents as unwitting and naive in the hands of Rick Singer, who is made out to be a masterful con man. With years behind him as a self-described private college counselor, the documentary describes how he often steered parents towards his extremist services by emphasizing that their children had zero chances of getting into these schools on their own, even if on paper they probably could have gotten in. In calls to Singer taped by the FBI, parents express their reluctance and concerns about Singer’s methods, repeatedly asking if there’s any way there could be repercussions. They’re also surprisingly candid with him about their children’s perceived faults, as anyone who has read the reports and transcripts from the case already knows, and portrayed as uncomfortable with pursuing these options while lying to their children.
All of that portrayed discomfort, paired with the documentary’s context for elite school recruitment and admissions, gives the impression that parents were basically putty in Singer’s hands. But it’s hard to entertain that these parents were blindly following Singer’s scheme because they simply didn’t know better, or were flailing under the pressure created by wealthy communities that put colleges on pedestals. Enough descriptions of parents photographing their children pretending to be water polo players or shipping their kids to take private ACT tests with proctors who re-wrote their answers punctures the idea that parents weren’t enthusiastic participants and co-architects of this scheme.
The crux of Operation Varsity Blues is that the operation’s greatest villains are still free. Rick Singer is still currently awaiting sentencing, while many of the parents and college officials involved have already served prison sentences. And the colleges involved, while firing employees who made “side door” admissions via bribes possible, are off the hook. “I try not to blame the families or the parents,” Golden says, at the documentary’s closing. “I tend to focus the criticism on the colleges and universities that created this system. If they didn’t have these loopholes and these preferences for families of privilege then I don’t think there would be these kind of temptations.” But while it’s worthwhile to explore how private college education replicates and supports structures of immense wealth and privilege, it’s possible to hold both colleges and guilty parents accountable. Plenty of college hopefuls and their parents feel pressure to get into specific schools every single year, but you don’t see each of them shelling out $600,000 to fake a college application.