Hey! College Admissions Don’t Come Cheap!
‘Varsity Blues’, Netflix documentary about the 2019 US college admissions scam, gets straight A’s for entertainment value and social justice.
There’s a throwaway line midway through the scary-good Netflix exposé Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal that sums everything you ever wanted to know about college entrance scams but were afraid to ask. Somebody someone behind-the-scenes says a prominent Hollywood actress’ daughter had grades good enough to get into the college of her choice on her own merit, without her well-to-do mom intervening on her behalf by paying a scammy college admissions facilitator to game the system on her behalf.
It’s hard to imagine any young person coming away from Operation Varsity Blue without feeling a profound sense of injustice and disillusionment, whether that kid's a high-school senior anxiously awaiting results from their college application or a first-year university student who worked like hell, scratching, scraping and clawing their way through early education to get the grades necessary to qualify for their dream school.
Oh, screw it. Forget disillusionment and injustice. They'd be pissed. Damn pissed.
And they’d have every right to be.
Operation Varsity Blues, from the same filmmakers who made the concert-scam film Fyre — ‘Hey, guys, I got an idea! Let’s propose a pricey, post-millennial music festival on a sweet Caribbean island, overcharge folks, demand payment in advance and then, like, not show up!’ — takes a deep dive into the scuzzy methods used by wheeler-dealer self promoter and college admissions facilitator Rick Singer, the man at the center of the 2019 college admissions scandal that resulted in a flood of celebrity-driven headlines that, among others, brought down the TV actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.
And these are not Hollywood unknowns, folks. Loughlin was in Full House; Huffman was one of the lead actors in Desperate Housewives.
Singer’s idea, at its most basic, was to convince the wealthy parents of already privileged kids to cheat a system already rigged to benefit the privileged. To hear Singer — played by the actor Matthew Modine in dramatic recreations of FBI wiretaps of phone conversations and in-home meetings between Singer and a parade of parents hoping to quietly make their kids’ college dreams come true — tell it, there are three ways of getting your kid into the school of their choice, whether it’s Stanford or Yale or USC. Why aim low?
The first is the old-fashioned way, to earn your way in by studying hard, getting the grades you need to be admitted, and possibly landing one of the one-in-a-million full-ride scholarships on offer. That’s the sucker’s way. That way is for losers. Besides, your kid isn’t too smart. Haven’t you noticed?
Then there’s the second way, which is to be so rich you can donate an entire new wing for the school your kid wants to go to, or simply cut a check for $30 million-$40 million to the school’s philanthropy fund, whatever that may be. Now $30-$40 mil might not sound like a lot to a tech billionaire, but to a working TV actor, even one of the leads in a show as popular as Full House or Desperate Housewives, $30-$40 mil for the kid’s education is just not in the cards.
Then there’s the third way, Singer’s way, which is to finesse the kid’s application with a little help from friends the inside — an over-eager sailing or water polo coach, say, or a college administrator looking for a little extra cash, etc. — all for the doable sum of $30,000-$40,000.
It’s literally jaw dropping to watch Singer’s shenanigans in Operation Varsity Blues, everything from Photoshopping a celebrity kid’s head on top of a junior water polo player to prove he’d be an asset to the college water polo team, to faking photos of the kid playing junior tennis as if she were a potential future pro (‘No! No! Use your RIGHT hand!’).
A school like Stanford doesn’t take the water polo or sailing program that seriously anyway, the theory goes: It’s all about football and basketball at those schools, the team sports that make the school money. Big money. Big-time money. Bigly-so/big-time cash.
The NCAA Final Four is hot stuff for a major league broadcaster like CBS. It’s not like the broadcast networks are willing to throw good money after bad by springing big bucks for water polo rights or, God help us, junior varsity tennis.
Here’s where Operation Varsity Blues nails it, though.
The film speaks to the gulf of inequality facing American society today, a gulf — based on the evidence here — that’s only growing wider with each passing minute, pandemic or no pandemic.
The film also points out that the kids are victims themselves in a way, as many of them think they earned placement based on their own ability, only to learn their parents had quietly paved the way for them, shattering their already inflated sense of self-worth. And now, to top it off, they’re become media targets in their own right, which can be tough if you’re 17 and a C+ student (at best) who’s suddenly thrust into the media spotlight on their own, with TMZ and Access Hollywood camped outside the family home, boom mics at the ready and cameras locked and loaded.
Never mind the privileged kids, though. What about those countless kids who work as hard as they can to get decent grades, who don’t come from privilege, but who are told, by Stanford or USC or whoever, “We’re so sorry but you’re not quite right for us. Have you thought of Kwantlen College? Or Mary Magdalen College of the Unrequited Sisters?”
Hey, they can’t all get gigs writing for Vocal.
Operation Varsity Blues shows, too, how the architect behind all this, Singer, was quick to turn evidence against those he roped in once he was found out and — so far, anyway — has avoided actual jail time.
Loughlin and Huffman among others have served actual jail time, in a federal facility, after pleading guilty to mail fraud and various conspiracy charges.
It’s wouldn't be the first time a grifter has gotten away with gaming the system, of course, nor will it be the last.
There’s something doubly infuriating, though, about the way this scam is about shattering kids’ college dreams — not just those who were found out, but those places that could’ve been taken by kids from less privileged backgrounds, who tried to get their the time-honored, old-fashioned way, by working hard.
It turns out that college admissions are a commodity, to be bartered and bargained away much like anything else. Everything has a price, even a kid’s education.
Besides, there’s always a grifter standing there, in the background, willing to help out. Provided.
That’s the real injustice.
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