Arts / The Nation and the World

The bad, the ugly, and the uglier of “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal”

In 2019, United States federal agents broke a college admissions plot by exposing 33 parents who had paid more than $25 million to an alleged “college counselor.” Producers Chris Smith, Jon Karmen, and Youree Henley take a deep dive into the questions surrounding these crimes in their new documentary, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, now available to stream through Netflix. The film tries to make up for the fact that none of the actual participants wanted to speak by having actors do dramatic reenactments, but the resulting film is confusing and ends up undermining its own authority. 

The United States federal agents exposed the bribery and forged applications to elite universities. Dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” the scandal consisted of uber-wealthy parents being accused of working with college “counselor” William Rick Singer to illegally get their children ahead in the admissions process. Singer, the owner of the Edge College & Career Network and CEO of the Key Worldwide Foundation, played a crucial role in orchestrating this madness. These parents made payments to Singer between 2011 and 2018, and he used part of the money to inflate entrance exam scores and athletic talents and to bribe college officials for admission and then pocketed the rest. Several parents have already done jail time, as has Singer himself.

Operation Varsity Blues provides the facts of the college scandal in an entertaining yet at times confusing way. The documentary delves into the questions of “What happened?,” “Why was this able to happen?,” and “Who was involved in this?” This is not a traditional documentary as it uses actors to interpret and act as the real-life perpetrators. These questions are answered through interviews with an impersonator of Singer, college recruiters, and also through the FBI agents’ examinations of the crimes. Throughout the 90-minute program, an FBI agent is in front of the camera, listening to recorded conversations between Singer and his business accomplices. 

The documentary begins with footage of real students reacting to their college acceptances. This was done to relay the sheer excitement of getting into a student’s “dream school.” I believe that it would have been more effective if the students got rejected, to obviously display that the children of these multi-millionaire criminals potentially took their spots.

It isn’t easy to interpret the documentary’s facts when the actors confuse and cloud the plotline. Setting up the documentary as more of a suspenseful and entertaining drama, in my eyes, caused it to lose legitimacy. It was often confusing to me who was talking to whom and if they were, in fact, the real people or just impersonators, as they frequently switched between the two. I also found the details repetitive. This could have been a specific choice by the producers to emphasize the multitude of crimes, but I would have much rather seen live footage of these felonies being played out, like surveillance footage and receipts, to connect the crimes to the actual people. 

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal gives hope to future generations of college applicants, as it condemns the idea of using the “side door” to gain admission. Many people have pointed out that if the parents hadn’t gone through a “counselor,” but had made straight-up donations to universities, their kids could have gotten in legally. It leaves me to think, however, if  “donations” will ever be seen as cheating the system?

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