When news of the college admissions scandal broke in February 2019, several prominent American universities and members of their staff were implicated in an expansive plot. Individuals and organizations had accepted bribes to provide their children with spots at top universities across the country — including Ivy League colleges such as Harvard. University officials, independent lawyers, celebrities and others in wealthy standing were among those involved in the scandal. At the center of the scandal was a former independent college admissions counselor: William “Rick” Singer.
Earlier this month, Netflix released “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,” an eerie recreation of the events that is a part dramatization of phone calls between Singer and his clients, and part interview with Singer’s acquaintances, FBI personnel, and others involved in the reveal of the scandal.
From Admissions Struggle to Admissions Scandal
The documentary opens with clips of various high school graduates awaiting their acceptance results from universities. Many are seen agonizing over whether or not they want to open their announcements. This scene shows the difficult reality of getting accepted into college and the stresses that come with the admissions process.
Singer is introduced in the documentary as the actor portraying him (Matthew Modine) speaks on the phone with a client about the details of their child’s admission into a university. Singer can be heard admonishing the client that the process of their child’s admission is not something that they need to worry about, so long as donations are made and the right people are consulted.
In one interview clip, a former client of Singer’s speaks on her experience with him. “He’ll be a presence in your life for the foreseeable future until college applications are in,” said Alexandra Biering, recalling the moment her parents told her of Singer’s role in her college admissions journey.
A Connected Web
The documentary later pans to a pivotal moment in February 2019, when Singer is recruited as an informant for the FBI and is made to consensually record phone calls between himself and clients — who would later be implicated in the admissions scandal.
The estimate is that fifty individuals were implicated in the admissions scandal, making it one of the most prolific scandals investigated by the Department of Justice in history.
Among the accused were Jovan Vavic and Donna Heinel — University of Southern California water polo coach and Senior Associate Athletic Director, respectively — who admitted students into USC via Singer’s fraudulent admissions process. The documentary highlights their role in purchasing students’ fraudulent admission to the university.
Over roughly an hour and forty minutes, “Operation Varsity Blues” unmasks the deep-rooted details of the college admissions scandal through the intimate details of Singer’s fraudulent college admissions business and the involvement of university officials. It also takes into account the value of money and privilege in the college admissions process — making certain to strike viewers who have felt either the exhilaration of being accepted to their university of choice or those who face being rejected by their university of choice.
The result is a dynamic documentary that prompts a deeper discussion of the college admissions process and the effects that it has had on graduating students, their parents and the universities that are being so heavily sought after.