Review: “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal”

Netflix’s Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal is an odd film. It’s part documentary, part docu-drama, and all absolutely infuriating.

Director Chris Smith uses interviews and dramatic recreations to tell the story of the great College Admissions Scandal of 2019 in which elite members of the business, law, and entertainment communities (including residents of the North Bay) used the “consulting services” of Sacramentan Rick Singer to ensure their children’s admissions to prestigious universities (Georgetown, UCLA, USC, Stanford, Yale, etc.) Estimates of the costs paid to Singer for his “services” are upwards of $25 million, with a good portion of that amount making its way to the Universities as “donations”.

If you’ve ever applied or helped someone apply to a university, you know what a pressure-filled process it’s become. If you try to enter by submitting an application, you’re said to be going through the “front door”. If you’re lucky enough to have parents with a LOT of money, you can try the “back door” entrance by getting them to make a multi-million-dollar donation to the school of your choice. (At one point in the film, the statement is made that a million dollars really doesn’t get you anywhere these days.) Singer advertised his services as a “side door”, where admissions could be arranged for a few measly couple-of-hundred-thousand. According to the FBI, 33 wealthy parents – knowing a bargain when they saw one – hired him. This scam might have gone on for years but for a chance unrelated arrest that led to its unraveling.

The melding of interviews with the dramatizations of meetings and conversations based on wiretap transcripts is quite well done. Matthew Modine plays Singer in the recreations and he is very effective. Modine had to know his Singer would be playing against “himself” via news footage but he delivers far more than a carbon copy-performance. It’s the best work he’s done in years.

We hear a lot about privilege these days, particularly when it comes to race. This film does a good job of highlighting the privilege and the galling sense of entitlement that comes with money. That these wealthy parents “just wanted the best for the children” means nothing when it has to come at the expense of someone else’s more-deserving child.

The film takes a well-deserved swipe at college admission procedures in general and makes a strong case against the use of standardized testing in the process. One shouldn’t be shocked that students who tend to do well on the SAT and ACT tests disproportionately come from families with higher incomes, especially those who can afford to pay someone $15 thousand to take the test in their child’s place.  

Singer often used smaller athletic programs (like sailing or crewing) as the entry-way for his “clients” and found plenty of University staff members willing to conspire with him including coaches and athletic directors. Kind of makes you wonder how things are working with the bigger sports.

When talking about the prestigious Universities involved in the scandal, one of the people interviewed noted that one of the earliest definitions of “prestige” in the French language is “deceits and delusions”. This film will have you believe that when it comes to the college admissions programs of prestigious universities, that definition can still be applied.

Streaming exclusively on Netflix


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