There is a lot to unpack in Netflix’s fascinating documentary Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, directed by Chris Smith. After you watch you will feel shocked, infuriated, or demoralized — or perhaps all three. The documentary focuses on William “Rick” Singer, the founder of The Key, a for-profit college counseling and preparation business, and its related charity, Key Worldwide Foundation, used to funnel “donations” that were actually bribes. Between 2011 and 2018, extremely wealthy parents paid Signer approximately $25 million to bribe coaches and university administrators at some of the most highly-ranked colleges in America to get over 700 students into their first-choice college. After the FBI’s investigation, 50 people were indicted for crimes related to Singer’s elaborate bribery scam. Only one, was pardoned by former President Trump.
Early in the film, we learn that there are three way to get in the college: the front door, the back door, and the little-known side door. The existence of this side door is one of American colleges’ dirty little secrets. Based on wire-taps, we listen in as Singer makes his pitch, elaborating on the three door system: “We help the wealthiest families in the US get their kids into school… Now these families, they want guarantees. They don’t want to be messing around. They want this thing done. So they want in at certain schools. So I’ve done 761 — what I would call, ‘side doors.’ The ‘front door’ means getting in on your own. The ‘back door’ is making a donation, which is ten times as much money. I’ve created this kind of ‘side door’ in because with the back door, there’s no guarantee. They’re just gonna give you a second look. My families want a guarantee.” Some very wealthy individuals, believing that rules and morality do not apply to them and their children, were eager to avail themselves to this side door. Akil Bello questions mirrors what most people thought when they learned of the scandal: “Why did these [rich] parents choose to cheat this when their children had so much already? Part of it seems to be when you reach a certain level of wealth, there’s a relentless pursuit of the trappings of power. You want to have the fancy car, the fancy house, whether you need it or not, and it seems to me that the atmosphere created in high-wealth societies is part of the problem.” So you see, the rich are really different than the middle and lower class [picture the eyeroll emoji here].
The documentary shifts its focus from the bribery scheme to the broken hyped-up system that allowed this corruption to take root in the first place. The documentary introduces a variety of experts that shed light on some other dirty secrets that colleges don’t want you to know. Some of these issues are not new, of course, since several books published over the last decade have exposed them; however, the documentary’s value is that it places them back center stage, for another generation to witness. Specifically, we learn how universities develop their brands, game the rankings, and perpetuate the illusion of prestige and the myth that only an exorbitantly expensive college can deliver a great education. Consider the cost of that education: according to the College Board, the average cost for an undergraduate private or public education has more than doubled in the last three decades. As of 2019, college graduates are crippled by more than $1.7 trillion in student loans — an increase of 100% over the last decade. Let’s listen in on the discussion:
John Reider, former Stanford University admissions officer: “Over the last three or four decades, higher education has become increasingly a commodity. Something that you purchase — a product. It’s a goal in and of itself, rather than the goal being to get an education. [This is a wonderful insight through the lens of etymology As Reider states, prestige translated from the French means “illusion” or “glamour.” The French word is, in turn, derived from the Latin word praestigium meaning “illusion” and the Latin word praestigiaemeaning “conjuring tricks.” So the next time you hear a tiger parent going on and on about how important it is for their children to attend a “prestigious” college, feel free to school them on the etymology of the word and the myth they bought into.]
Akil Bello, test prep expert: It’s typically accepted that Ivy League institutions are the quote unquote ‘best’ in the country. But all of those differences have almost nothing to do with the academics of the institution. U.S. News [& World Report] started ranking colleges in the 80s, based on one criteria: prestige. That’s it.
John Reider: “Prestige is actually a French word. In the original French, it means something people don’t realize — it means ‘deceit.’ That’s what prestige is in the college. It’s imaginery. It’s an illusion. Yet people believe in it.
Daniel Golden, author of The Price of Admission. “It’s not just population growth that makes it harder to get into college today. The colleges themselves have brought it about. Because the more selective they look on paper, the higher ranked they are going to be.”
Perry Kalmus, independent education consultant: “Everything these schools are doing is massaging to try and up the rankings and it’s a really dangerous game.”
Daniel Golden: “Most people see college admissions [and say] ‘oh it’s based on merit except for affirmative action for minorities.’ My view of the admissions process is all sorts of different preferences, with — yes — some student getting in on pure merit, but many others getting in due to preferences that skew rich and white. One is by preferences for students who play niche sports, like sailing, or fencing, or horseback riding, which most kids never get a chance to try. Then there’s making a huge donation to a university that gets them noticed by the fundraising office, which will recommend the candidate to admissions.”
Barbara Kalmus, independent education consultant: “No good will have come out of these sentences or out of this scandal. The fines they’ve been given — meaningless. In terms of hitting them in their pocketbook — what a difference it could have been made if we hit them hard and put that money to work for underprivileged kids. That would have been amazing. Then you can say at least some good came out of it.”
Daniel Golden: “I try not to blame the families or parents. 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 kinds of temptations. This scandal is not necessarily a reason for colleges to change their ways. Because it makes the colleges seem more exclusive and desirable than ever. If all these rich people are willing to go to these incredible lengths and risk jail time just to get their kids into these colleges, then they must be incredibly valuable.”
Barbara Kalmus: “What we are doing to these kids by pounding them into the ground with Top 25, Top 10, Top 5 [Schools]? Because ultimately, where you do go to school has little or no effect on what will happen to you in the future.”
Akil Bello: “The United States has over 3,000 colleges. You have infinite choices.”
John Reider: “Forget about USC. Go someplace else. You can get a great education almost any place if you want it. The parents in this case didn’t believe that. Because the bigger school had the prestige, had the glitter, had the glamour, had the bragging rights.”
In the end, Singer’s house of cards — held up so long by an extensive web of secrecy among college officials, coaches, exam proctors, parents, and students (see, the rich can be very tight-lipped! membership has its privileges) — came tumbling down due to a completely unrelated case: the FBI was investigating a financial executive who, in order to obtain leniency, ratted out a Yale coach that was accepting bribes for admitting students. Busted! Of course, after he was caught, Singer was very eager to rat out all his co-conspirators and clients in order to reduce his sentence. For pleading guilty to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the U.S., and obstruction of justice, Singer faces the maximum sentence of 65 years in prison and a $1.25 million fine.
The documentary concludes with an observation by Naomi Fry, a staff writer for The New Yorker who recognizes Americans’ ambivalence toward the wealthy, combined with sense of satisfaction of justice being served, with a hint of schadenfreude, as the penalties and sentences of the guilty are displayed on the screen: “In America, we love the wealthy and we hate the wealthy. They disgust us and they fascinate us. This story was a perfect opportunity to see how rich people live and the realities of the system being exposed. And so there’s something incredibly refreshing to have just a little bit of justice being served in a sea of injustice.”
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