Review by Katie Lynch
The 2021 documentary, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal (Chris Smith) is an account of the scam headed by William Rick Singer which bought places at Ivy League colleges for wealthy students. Known as the “side door”, Singer’s method was to doctor and bolster evidence of participation in niche sports and to manufacture SAT and ACT scores, bribing certain university staff to turn a blind eye to any inaccuracies. Wealthy parents would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their children in this “side door”, with Singer receiving a sum of over 25 million dollars between 2011 and 2018. When the scandal was made public in 2019, 53 people were accused of participating in the scam, including 33 parents, who disguised their bribery through “donations” to Singer’s two firms, Key Worldwide Foundation and The Edge College & Career Network.
The documentary consists of interviews, news footage, videos posted online by teenagers, and reenactments pieced together using actual conversations between Singer and his clients recorded by the FBI. These scenes are more bearable than your run-of-the-mill documentary reenactment, making Operation Varsity Blues quite cinematic. It provides an engaging narrative, smooth, sweeping shots from Singer’s life, and a bit of clout from Matthew Modine, portraying Singer. The filmmakers were also savvy enough to include self-uploaded videos from teenagers discussing their thoughts on the scandal and their experiences with college admissions. This showed their understanding of the importance of social media as a source of cultural history, something which is often overlooked by those who weren’t raised with it.
Where the documentary falls down is its choice to skim over the system which allowed this kind of “side door” for the wealthy in the first place. Factors like class and race are mentioned in passing, but the documentary is more interested in presenting an image of Singer’s life and defending the likes of John Vandemoer, the sailing coach at Stanford who the documentary argues is another victim of the scheme. It didn’t use this opportunity to explore the system of education inequality or spotlight any groups working to end the disparity between rich and poor, white and BIPOC.
In truth, it is common knowledge that rich people can buy their way into colleges. The documentary doesn’t reveal anything about the corrupt education system that we don’t already know, so to focus on just the specifics of the Operation Varsity Blues “side door” is to miss what would make this story compelling. The meat of the issue is the problematic, systemic foundations that encourage this behaviour beyond the specific people involved in this particular scam. We need more than a few generic remarks about the cost of college tutors. We need an exploration of the causes and consequences of education inequality to move Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal from shallow synopsis to substantial commentary.