Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, a Netflix documentary directed by Chris Smith, investigates the elite college admission scandal of 2019. The film follows mastermind Rick Singer who cheats rich and famous families into top universities in exchange for money.
Using real wiretapped conversations and YouTube admission reaction videos, Smith explores not only how high the stakes have become when it comes to college admissions but also calls into question what this says about our society. Ultimately, watching the documentary shows how the college admissions process favors rich white families and the consequences of children internalizing elitism as society places increasing importance on prestige.
In the documentary, Rick Singer outlined the three options to gain acceptance into a top university: the front door, getting in on your own merit, the back door, making a large donation that does not guarantee admission, and Singer’s side door, in which Singer organizes a financial arrangement between the parents and school, disguising the bribe as a donation to Singer’s business. He does this through a sports recruitment scheme, involving a niche sports team that recruits students for the team who don’t actually participate in exchange for money. Singer also employs a test cheating scheme, where he instructs parents to seek a fake learning disability diagnosis for accommodations, and somebody else takes the test for them.
Smith included clips of students opening their college admissions decisions, some celebratory and others devastated. These short clips provided a glimpse into the immense amount of pressure students face today to get into college. There are increasingly high expectations to be involved in numerous extracurriculars, have a high GPA, get perfect test scores, and more.
The expectations we place on students are simply unrealistic and toxic. I remember feeling miserable my senior year of high school, juggling all honors classes, a number of leadership and membership positions in sports and clubs, and working 20+ hours a week to support myself financially.
Hence, it was so angering to watch teenagers’ dreams be crushed juxtaposed with stories of rich parents bribing and stealing those very spots. One moment, you are watching a high school girl crying about her rejection from USC, finding solace in the thought that whoever did get in must have been really deserving. The next clip is of Olivia Jade, a famous YouTuber and the daughter of Lori Loughlin, who cheated acceptance into USC through Singer’s sports recruitment scheme.
The contrast of these clips back-to-back underscores how unfair the process is. We've created a toxic environment where kids are pushing themselves to their absolute limits to get into college, but the privileged few can cheat their way in. This pressure and stress placed on developing minds is unacceptable but is especially detrimental to non-white, poor, and rural kids.
It’s necessary to note how flawed the American education system is, rooted in classism and racism. Accessibility to both good public and private schools is largely determined by demographics such as race, class, geography, etc. Standardized testing contains racially biased language, disadvantaging Black and brown students. The wealthy can afford the best tutors, college advisors, and so much more.
In the documentary, the majority of families involved are extremely wealthy and white. Yet, despite having all of the resources and advantages, these families cut corners for the sake of attending a prestigious school. Parents desired bragging rights over allowing their child to test their merit and go to a university more on target with their demonstrated academic abilities.
Simply put, parents thought top-ranked schools are worth all of this high-risk cheating. This elitism is fueled by the belief that more prestigious universities are better than accessible public institutions such as state schools or community colleges.
While yes, one may have access to more rigorous classes, a wider choice of subjects, and networking, does that really give one more worth and value? Is education not worthy of admiration or praise just because the school wasn’t featured on the U.S. News Top 10 Best Colleges list?
The idea that attending a high-ranking college will somehow make you a better person or guarantee success just isn’t true. Therefore, giving power to prestigious colleges by denoting them as more desirable not only contributes to false perceptions but also inherently upholds a flawed education system.
Who cares if you go to Harvard or community college or state school? It doesn’t really matter. Prestige is a societal construct that we have to collectively actively subscribe to in order to maintain. Placing too much emphasis on prestige disproportionately benefits the rich and white, and our generation has a responsibility to move away from this belief.