In March 2019, social media erupted over what’s commonly known now as the college admissions scandal. You definitely heard about it: A group of wealthy parents—including actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman—were arrested for essentially bribing their children’s way into elite universities. At the center of the controversy was Rick Singer, an admissions coach who developed “side doors” to help students cut corners in the recruitment process…if they paid the right price. In some cases, he’d boost their SAT or ACT scores by hiring someone to take the exams for them. In other, more bizarre ones, he’d bribe a school’s athletic coach to accept a student as a recruit—even if they didn’t play the sport. Both Loughlin and Huffman served jail time for their involvement in the scandal. It was—and still is—a whole thing.
But why? Why was the the internet so riveted by this story? That’s what Netflix’s new documentary, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, seeks to investigate. And it does this rather unconventionally: The film uses actual FBI transcripts to reenact the timeline of the scandal with actors. (Rick Singer is played by Matthew Modine.) This is intermixed with real interviews and testimonies from the people involved—including John Vandemoer, the only athletic coach who didn’t personally benefit from Singer’s bribes. He put all the money into Stanford’s sailing program (which the university then donated in light of the scandal).
You’ll learn more about his story when you watch the documentary. You’ll also get an in-depth look at Singer, who, on charisma and tenacity alone, made his way into the elite circle that used his services. You hear testimony from a woman Singer briefly worked with and dated, plus his old coworkers. The consensus is overwhelmingly unanimous: This is a man who had the drive, determination, and deceptive personality to pull off a decades-long scheme like this.
Because that’s exactly what it was: a scheme. The headlines don’t do what actually happened justice. Response to the college admission scandal was immediate and swift, with people waiting on pins and needles to see how Huffman, Loughlin, and the other parents involved would be sentenced. But what we didn’t fully realize was this was a years-long investigation. Listening to the actual conversations actual parents had about actual bribes is shocking. That they talked so brazenly and cavalierly about committing felonies just speaks to their privilege—and how, in many ways, they thought they were above the law.
Not only that, they thought their children were entitled to these schools. This film explores the cult of college in detail—specifically how the “good” universities cater to the rich and white. Think about it: Places like Harvard and Yale have preposterous admissions requirements—most notably, near-perfect test scores and GPAs. College Admissions Scandal outlines the cold, cutting businesses in place to help families with these things if they have the disposable income. If they have it. That’s key, because most families don’t.