Each year the competition for Ivy League admission grows, and so does the desperation of both parents and potential students. High school students pour hours of dedication into SAT prep, coursework and filling their resumes with a plethora of extracurriculars to round out their high school performance. Years of sleepless nights and sky-high stress all for the chance of better academic opportunities. It seems like it would be a no-brainer for college admissions staff to grant admission to students with highly decorated resumes, or the students who prove they have the merit to perform well at their schools despite the circumstances they may be living in. “Operation Varsity Blues” proves that is not always the case.
Netflix’s “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” dives into the many moving parts of 2019’s college admissions conspiracy scandal. Director Chris Smith explores the story of Rick Singer and his role in helping wealthy families exploit their influence to give their children admission into some of the nation’s most sought-after universities. Through testimony from lawyers, journalists, admissions counselors and attorneys, viewers see exactly how broken the American education system is — and why some pay for it to stay that way.
While Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were the faces of the scandal in the majority of the 2019 media coverage, “Operation Varsity Blues” spotlights the man behind all of the schemes: Rick Singer. Singer, a man who falsified his own credentials, built an empire based on counterfeiting records to help wealthy parents secure a seat for their child in elite universities. The documentary also establishes that Singer himself was heavily connected to admissions officials and would use his connections to help his wealthy clients “donate” directly to universities. Through official FBI transcribed wire-tap conversations, the true depth of the scheme was revealed.
Singer was paid thousands of dollars by each family to perform a slew of fraudulent actions. Most infamously, Singer arranged for the client’s test scores to be modified, or even for someone else entirely to take the test in their place. One of the biggest bombshells dropped in the documentary was Singer’s history of falsifying students’ racial identities. E! News reports, “Singer ‘cut corners’ early on, ‘exaggerating’ or ‘fabricating’ kids’ achievements on their applications—or even changing someone’s race from Caucasian to African American or Hispanic to give them a boost with affirmative action.” In doing this, Singer was deliberately exploiting the systems meant to help the students he was ultimately eliminating from the competition.
Though “Operation: Varsity Blues” primarily focuses on the high-profile figures involved in the scheme, an astonishing 53 people in connection with Singer have been charged for their involvement. Of those 53 people, 33 were parents. Scandals like the one in “Operation Varsity Blues” may seem as though they exist in a vacuum, but such scandals spotlight the discriminatory undertones lingering in the American education system.
On the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum sits disadvantaged students tirelessly fighting to compete with their elite counterparts for academic opportunities. One particular case of this discriminatory disadvantage is the case of Kelly Williams-Bolar. When Williams-Bolar, a single African American mother, used her father’s address as residency criteria to send her children to a better school district, she was sentenced to five years in prison. In this instance, Williams-Bolar wasn’t carrying out a deliberate scheme; her father lived in a neighboring town where she and her daughters lived part-time. Following the discovery of her true residence, the school officials immediately asked Williams-Bolar to pay them $30,000 in back tuition fees. Williams-Bolar was rightfully upset and did not want to pay the outrageous fine, and she was subsequently federally indicted for falsifying residency records. She was then convicted of the charges and sentenced to a shocking five years in prison. An article written by Andrea Canning and Leezel Tanglao for ABC News details Williams-Bolar’s opinion on the fine and conviction. “I don’t think they wanted money,” Williams-Bolar said. “They wanted me to be an example.”
Though Bolar ultimately only served 10 days, the charge changed the trajectory of her life. At the time of the arrest, she was studying to receive her teaching license, but the conviction rendered her legally unable to teach. When thinking about Williams-Bolar’s case compared to Loughlin’s or Huffman’s, it becomes abundantly clear that both the legal and education system treat people of different backgrounds and status differently. Williams-Bolar’s attempts to help her daughters have a way out of poverty through academic opportunities only ending in turmoil shows how deeply engrained discrimination and the wealth gap in education is. These issues will continue to fester if the rich aren’t held accountable for gaming a system that already grants them immense privilege.
Despite the guilty families already having every privilege imaginable, their superficial desire for elite status was insatiable. In an interview with Kate Feldman of NYDailyNews, Director Chris Smith spoke openly about how the wealthy used their privilege to influence the education system. “There’s so many facets of American life where there’s two tiers, a different set of rules for people who have wealth and privilege. It’s almost like, ‘oh this is how this is done. This is how all the other people are doing it. This is the unspoken way that wealthy people or connected people get their kids into school.’”
As trials for the scandal in “Operation Varsity Blues” come to a close, many wonder what happens now. What will be done to prevent wealthy parents from edging out lower-income students from academic opportunities? Universities that were involved in the scheme have fired countless crooked coaches, but there needs to be adequate checks and balances put in place to correct the systemic flaws running rampant in the education system.
The documentary notes that the charged parties should have been fined extensively and that the money be used to support disadvantaged students, but the majority of those involved were only sentenced to anywhere from 2-14 days in prison to a slap on the wrist for such deliberate crimes. This scandal brought to light the desperate need to ensure every student has an equal chance at higher education. Students from lower-income households shouldn’t have to fear that all of their hard work to build their resumes will be edged out by the efforts of a classmate who comes from an upper-crust home. Regardless of background, status or address, all students deserve a fair chance at academic opportunities.