Netflix covers last year’s celebrity college admissions scandal

Eva Ponos, Editor-in-Chief

Everyone remembers the drama of the 2019 college admissions scandal with former Full House actress Lori Loughlin and her influencer daughter Olivia Jade. People felt as though justice was served and at last the wealthy were receiving consequences for their actions. For those feeling a little hazy on the event, around Mar. 2019, conspiracies began breaking the surface that certain top American universities and colleges were being bribed for undergraduate admission by wealthy, affluent families. Most notably was Lori Loughlin, best known for playing Rebecca Katsopolis on the hit 90s series Full House, and Felicity Huffman, an Emmy-winning actress best known for playing Lynette Scavo on Desperate House Wives. Some schools that were involved include the University of Southern California, Harvard University, Georgetown University and several other prestigious top 20 schools. 

The popular streaming service Netflix released a documentary film titled Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal on Mar. 17. The documentary film provided a needed reminder for the public that the infamous scandal wasn’t just about actors and CEOs, but also about the man running this so-called business, William “Rick” Singer, a private college counselor from Illinois. 

After losing his job as a basketball coach, Singer went into the independent college counseling business, one that is becoming increasingly popular due to the increasing difficulty of receiving admission into prestigious schools across the country. While college counselors can be extremely beneficial with SAT/ACT prep or essay advice, Singer had a different approach, one that he referred to as a “side door.” Singer had connections and relationships with higher-profile figures at top schools. He facilitated a process in which he would arrange for a student’s SAT/ACT test to be taken by a “professional,” — Mark Riddell, a Harvard graduate hired by Singer to take the SAT/ACT for students for large amounts of money — or photoshop athletic photos and make a deal where the student could join the school as a recruit for a sport they had never played. All of this was done for enormous amounts of money, with some families paying around half a million dollars per admission. Netflix primarily focused on the methods Singer used, who he was and who he eventually became, a cooperator with the FBI, giving them information about his clients and ultimately setting them up.  

What was new about this documentary, other than a deeper dive into what truly went down, were the reenactments done by actors and actresses, notably Matthew Modine as the lead portraying the mastermind Rick Singer. However, at times, although the conversations were completely real, scenes and dialogue felt dramatized, almost fake and “hallmark-ish.” Those were my initial thoughts when I first started watching, but as the bribes got more intricate and outrageous, I was somewhat thankful for the exaggerated emotions as they not only poked fun at those who were involved but also showed the reality of what had happened. When the stories first surfaced, for myself and others, it was hard to fully understand the magnitude of what was happening as well as the implications to these very real people. Having the interactions played out like that in the film reminded me that these people have feelings and lives and aren’t just wealthy members of Calabassas’s elite. What I was not a huge fan of was the sympathy card that Netflix played on Singer surrounding his personal life. They painted him as a lonely, loveless man who was constantly working. While that may be the case, it does not seem relevant when he was helping the wealthy cheat their way through, arguably, one of the more stressful times in a family’s life. 

Obviously, Singer and his clients were not interviewed for the documentary. Instead, there were a number of college counselors, test-prep businesses and people involved in the college admissions process that were commenting on the messed-up admissions system that favors “the rich and white” as it was said in the film. It is so clearly a prejudiced system, one that should be rethought and revised. There was also mention of the academic pressure that current high schoolers have been facing, and the increased difficulty to get into these top 20 schools ranked purely by prestige. The pressure to get into that known school with that level of prestige causes students and parents to compromise their values and morals.  

After watching Operation Varsity Blues twice, I can confidently say that I would recommend it to others, but purely for the whole story. The acting is distracting from the issue but adds back some humanity. I learned a lot from the documentary, and it provides a zoom out from Olivia Jade and Full House stars. With college and the future being on every senior’s mind, this may add to your frustration at the elite and their maneuvering ways but also poke some fun at those who got caught. Overall, it is entertaining to watch rich people get called out for their actions.