Netflix’s College Admissions Scandal Doc ‘Operation Varsity Blues’ Is an Eye-Opener
The streamer’s documentary goes beyond actresses like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, who bribed their children’s way into college, to focus on the corrupt system.
“The way the world works these days is unbelievable,” cracked a private equity firm exec to college prep “coach” William “Rick” Singer during a wiretapped call. The men were hashing out a plan to Photoshop an image of his son to make it appear as though he were a football kicker in order to secure his place at the University of Southern California. “Pretty funny,” he added.
Yet for him and 56 others, it was no laughing matter when the Department of Justice announced charges in its largest-ever college admissions sting in March of 2019. When it was revealed that the defendants were a mix of Ivy League coaches, millionaire CEOs, school administrators, powerful lawyers, doctors, and actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, all hell broke loose.
People lapped up the story of wealthy parents willing to shell out $500,000 for a “side door” admission to top colleges to ensure their beloved children would one day be able to afford the same privilege they were bestowing upon them. In the span of seven years, ringleader Singer is alleged to have received more than $25 million from parents.
The immediate reaction was justified fury, but also a gut-punch realization of what people had always known yet was now being flaunted in plain sight: the rich don’t play by the same rules. Although at least now they were finally being penalized.
Netflix’s new documentary Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, premiering on Wednesday and directed by Chris Smith (Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened), takes a deep dive into Singer, his scheme, and how it all unraveled.
The film uses interviews from experts, former clients of Singer’s, and reenactments to tell its story, but the conversations shown between Singer and the parents all come from wiretapped phone calls that really took place.
If there’s one big takeaway from the scandal, beyond how shamelessly corrupt the university system is, it’s the nonchalant discussions of bribery and cheating. A hedge funder casually sips iced tea while looking out over the grounds of his mansion and wondering if he’ll receive any blowback. Another hashes out plans with Singer from Dubai and then invites him to his birthday party at the Palace of Versailles in Paris.
It’s almost easy to forget the events actually took place given the brazen nature of the talks, with culprits gabbing and laughing about their plots over the phone. As a former prosecutor put it, “Historically, white-collar defendants have almost no filter on the phone.”
One of the most well-known families involved in the scheme was Full House actress Lori Loughlin, her husband Mossimo Giannulli, and their daughters Isabella and Olivia Jade. Records released by prosecutors show how Loughlin and Giannulli willingly sent in photos of their daughters “rowing” to get on the USC rowing team, and even discussed the potential problem of Olivia Jade’s guidance counselor, who highly doubted she was the accomplished coxswain that she was claiming to be on her application. Loughlin called him a “weasel” and “nosey bastard” and instructed Olivia Jade not to say “too much” to him, documents claim. Giannulli also confronted the counsellor, leading him to reverse an email he sent to USC admissions, declaring Olivia Jade was “truly a coxswain.”
Even the influencer seemed to tattle on herself in vlogs posted to her popular YouTube channel, where Olivia Jade whined about hating school and griped that while she knew she was blessed with a good education, she still wanted to drop out of high school altogether, raising eyebrows from classmates who knew her academic goals did not square with getting into USC.
Olivia Jade ended up dropping out of college in the wake of the scandal, receiving a deluge of negative press and losing a sponsorship deal with makeup company Sephora. But she seems poised for a comeback, going on Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk in December ready with a teary-eyed story, as her mother remained behind bars serving her two-month sentence. But Olivia Jade didn’t seem as quite apologetic when she sniped at a troll on TikTok who questioned whether she was enjoying “collage,” misspelling college. Sarcastically, she replied, “thank you for asking. It’s pretty good. I actually love collaging. I’m working on this really fucking sick scrapbook that I have to show you guys soon. It’s chef’s kiss, beautiful work I’ve done.”
While it’s easy to associate the now-notorious scandal with recognizable faces, such as Olivia Jade, Loughlin, and Huffman, the documentary refocuses the spotlight on Singer, the man pulling all the strings.
After all, he’s the one who is accused of pushing more than 700 students through his secret “side door” scheme, trying to buy their acceptance letters from USC, UCLA, Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, and Harvard. He guaranteed entry to the eager parents, who shelled out more than $500,000 on the promise of a done deal.
But viewers don’t necessarily learn that much about the enigmatic grifter. Singer was married at one point and has a son. He was a high school basketball coach before pivoting to being a college prep professional, which could be why he always dresses in athletic gear. Former students who worked with him back in his early days in Sacramento describe him as intense and non-personable. Educators who knew him at the time describe him as being driven but a bit slimy.
Patricia Logan, a former friend and business associate, said she met him on an online dating site. But while their relationship was “serious,” it fizzled out because Singer was jetting across the country, sleeping three hours a night, and sometimes living out of a passenger van so he could easily travel and sleep on the go.
But perhaps the most revealing anecdote that Logan recalled was how they bonded over working at the tender age of 12. While she ran a paper route, Singer would pay older kids to buy him booze, then sell it to his underage peers at a profit.
Singer’s willingness to do anything to get ahead was evident when he was finally caught by the FBI. He seized the opportunity to save himself by working with officials to ensnare the dozens of others he had worked with.
Two years later, the prosecution is still ongoing for a number of parents, coaches, and academic officials who pleaded not guilty. Some quickly accepted a guilty plea, such as Huffman, who served 14 days in prison. Loughlin was released just after Christmas Day after serving two months behind bars, while her husband is still serving his five-month sentence. They were fined a total of $400,000. Singer himself pleaded guilty and is still awaiting sentencing but faces 65 years in prison and a $1.25 million fine.
It was indeed refreshing to see those who are usually never held accountable for their actions face harsh consequences, including jail time, fines, and firings. Even their children faced repercussions, with some colleges revoking their admissions and expelling them. Still, some students were allowed to continue their education, and will soon be graduating with prestigious degrees.
But the real victims in all of this are the everyday students. Parents flying cross-country to take their children to rigged ACT tests, arranging for a professional to declare a bogus learning disability, and ordering water polo gear to fake sporting photos is juxtaposed with hopeful high schoolers waiting to learn their results.
They triumphantly celebrate with their families when accepted into their dream school, and break down into tears when they aren’t. They lament how they are consistently told that in order to succeed in life, they need to not only go to college, but go to the best ones. To get there, they have to juggle several AP classes, be involved in sports and volunteer efforts, secure a letter of recommendation from prestigious alums, write a moving personal essay, and to top it all off, ace the ACT and SAT. After all that, they might get the attention of admissions and be accepted. If not, they see attending a perfectly good second-choice college as a failure.
The documentary makes clear that the rich parents are at fault; they abused their wealth and status to an unfathomable degree to pave the way for their already privileged children to have an even more privileged education, and one day provide that same privilege to their children. They did so without much remorse, only worried they’d crush the self-esteem of their kids.
But it also puts the blame on the U.S. college system, where elite universities allow “back door” admissions to exist. With ever-shrinking acceptance rates and demands of near-perfect GPAs and testing scores, getting into a top school becomes harder by the year. Desperate parents look for any way to help their child get a leg up. By legal standards, it’s no crime for parents to shell out millions of dollars in donations to an Ivy League school with the hope of securing a spot for their child. Yet as one Stanford sailing coach was told, even $1 million was not enough to move the needle. It led to characters like Singer creating a loophole. All he needed was to find members of the upper class, money-hungry coaches, and admission officials who were willing to help him exploit it.