by Dave Argento ’21 A&E Staff
Providence students are not likely to hold fond memories surrounding the standardized testing and application process that haunts most high school juniors in the United States. Beyond the pressures of future career prospects and connections being influenced by colleges attended, parental expectations have managed to warp the priorities of a young adult’s educational flourishing into a toxic rat race for bragging rights. Netflix’s new documentary, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, dives into how independent college counselor Rick Singer capitalized on the college admissions industry through his illegal scheme exposed in 2019.
Singer’s system brought in approximately $25 million from wealthy parents; he would bribe coaches and administrators so that their children would have surefire ways of being admitted into the most prestigious colleges in the country. Singer often used the phrase “side door” when selling the metaphor for his services to celebrities like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman to show how he would subvert the known, legal paths to student acceptance. With top ranked colleges becoming increasingly difficult to get into through the “front door” of the standard application process and the exorbitant price tag on the “backdoor” of donating tens of millions of dollars to schools to buy acceptance, wealthy parents disregarded moral judgements to use Singer’s side door option.
Singer used many techniques to pull off his heinous operation. His primary method involved bribing notable members of coaching staffs and athletic departments at top schools to commit players to their teams that often had never even played the sport. Admission via sports teams of lesser notoriety subverted the usual criteria for acceptance if coaches gave approval, allowing Singer to get students through this channel for years. His other method of having students fake learning disabilities so that their private proctor could take their standardized tests to near perfection made genius applicants out of ordinary students in the eyes of those judging applications. Following the scandal, there have been investigations and crack downs on both the student athlete recruiting processes and the standardized testing protocols.
Lauren Kranc of Esquire writes, “In total, 50 people—33 wealthy and influential parents, two SAT and ACT administrators, one exam proctor, nine college athletics coaches, and one college administrator—were charged in Operation Varsity Blues.” The documentary combines acted -out portrayals of the major players within the scandal with real life interviews from some of those who worked to bring Singer and his clients down in the FBI’s operation. To this day, Singer has yet to be sentenced or to spend any time in prison, as his assistance with exposing many of his clients to authorities earned him some leniency with the law.
The college search and acceptance process has always had inequality based on income, but Operation Varsity Blues shows how many of the nation’s wealthiest went beyond the law in disregarding morality to favor what could be debated as either parental egotism or doing the best for their children. Netflix’s documentaries have continued to bring greater transparency to specific topics that might have the mainstream reach to force greater reform within the U.S college admissions process. Operation Varsity Blues may just be the tip of the iceberg