Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A criminal who exploited the broken education system

Netflix documentary film “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal”, which was released on Netflix a few days ago, looks into an infamous bribery scandal which drew lots of public attention in 2019. As examining how those numerous incidents of bribery and corruption were done by one man at the center of the scandal, the documentary gives us an alarming picture of the broken education system in US, and it is rather exasperating to learn that nothing much has been changed despite what was fully exposed in public at that time.

The man in question is William Rick Singer, a private college admission consultant in California who was arrested by FBI in 2018 for bribing college coaches and administrators on the behalf of his numerous rich clients. Although he was not interviewed for the documentary, Singer is played by Matthew Modine in the reenactment scenes in the documentary, and, according to the documentary, these reenactment scenes are mostly based on the real FBI wiretap records of the phone conversations between him and his clients.

Alternating between interview clips and reenactment scenes, the documentary gives us some details on the serious flaws of the college admission system which were freely exploited by Singer. While there are more than 3,000 colleges in US at present, many of high school seniors who are about to graduate are eager to go to a very small group of prestigious colleges such as Harvard or Stanford, and these colleges care a lot about how to make them look more prestigious. As long as they are prestigious enough, they will surely get lots of funds and donations every year, and they even provide the “back door” for the admission of the kids of very wealthy people willing to pay several million dollars at least.

For relatively less affluent people, Singer provided the “side door” based on the loopholes in the college education system in US, and he did not disappoint them at all once he received their, uh, donation to his seemingly respectable foundation. Although his clients paid less than one million dollars, he always could get what his clients wanted for their kids, and his clients were certainly satisfied as subsequently watching their kids getting enrolled in those prestigious colleges without knowing anything about what they did behind their back.

Via several interviewees, the documentary explains to us on how the “side door” provided by Singer worked. The children of his clients were presented as promising student athletes, and those college coaches and administrators who were going to decide on these kids’ admission were already bribed by Singer in advance. Regardless of how good these kids actually were, those bribed coaches and administrators were set to open the door for them from the very beginning, and there is a rather amusing case where some kid got accepted even though he is not that tall enough to be a college basketball player.

In addition, Singer also manipulated entrance test scores for making sure that his clients’ kids got very high test scores, and we hear about how he pulled it off with his accomplice. He usually had his client’s kid take a test alone under a certified supervisor, and, of course, that certified supervisor was always his accomplice. Once the exam was over and then his client’s kid left, his accomplice prepared another exam sheet to be submitted instead for getting a high test score, and nobody suspected at all.

Thanks to the smooth persuasion of Singer, who is born to be a first-class salesman, all of his clients came to give him bribes even while well aware of the unethical sides of what he was going to do. All he had to was finding and then poking at his potential clients’ weak spots, and the rest was pretty easy for him to say the least.

Ironically, his particular set of skills were also used quite well for catching his numerous clients including, yes, Lori Laughlin and Felicity Huffman. When Singer finally came to face FBI, he quickly went for full corporation as there was not any other good legal option for him, and, as shown from how many people were arrested in the end, he did a very good job on the whole.

While these clients of his as well as those college coaches and administrators bribed by him surely deserved to be punished and humiliated in public, there was one possible single exception, and that person is John Vandemoer, who was the coach of the Stanford sailing team when he was approached by Singer. Mainly because he was frequently in the need of extra funding for his sailing team, Vandemoer eventually got himself associated with Singer, and, according to him, nobody around him asked too much about his association with Singer. In the end, Vandemoer’s career was seriously ruined, and the only consolation for him was that, despite several serious legal charges held against him during his trial, he was far less punished than expected.

Although it does not delve that deep into Sanger himself or the federal investigation on his criminal operation, “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” is still an engaging documentary under the skillful direction of director/co-producer Chris Smith, who recently directed “Fyre” (2019) in addition to participating in the production of infamous Netflix documentary mini-series “Tiger King” (2020). It comes out a bit too early in my trivial opinion, but it surely makes its points well to us, and you may find yourself musing more on how flawed the American education system really is.

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