Just in time for the nervous weeks of March and April when college rejections and acceptances go out to America’s high-school seniors, Netflix released “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,” a documentary that tells how the admissions maestro Rick Singer helped rich people, including the actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, cheat their kids into highly selective colleges and universities, and how they got caught.
The film is both gripping and, in its docudrama format, weirdly well put together. The dialogue is taken from F.B.I. transcripts, and, unlike more experienced criminal suspects, the wealthy moms and dads who are the film’s dramatic villains are so garrulous on wiretaps that the movie makes a joke of it. A former prosecutor tells the camera, “Historically, white-collar defendants have almost no filter on the phone,” and then the film cuts to a mom crossing the sculptured lawn of a huge mansion, flirting guilelessly on a call with Singer, her co-conspirator. “My husband and I laugh every day,” she tells him, “about how great your work was. We’re, like, ‘It was worth every cent.’ ” When Singer starts coöperating with the F.B.I. on phone taps and wants his clients to hurry up and incriminate themselves already, he gives them crude, obvious prompts that would earn any wiseguy a death sentence. “What I’m going to tell them is that you made a $50k donation to my foundation,” Singer tells a maker of fine Napa Cabernets, referring to the I.R.S., “not that Mark took the test for your daughter. . . .”
For the filmmakers, these rich, bumbling perps are too deliciously hateable not to dwell on, and most of the movie’s talking heads take this dramatic emphasis as the story’s moral point: wealthy dimwits getting what they deserve. One independent college counsellor says that she only wished the Feds had “hit them hard,” had taken away more of their money and then “put that money to work for underprivileged kids.” But several times near the end of the film, it seems like the filmmakers are trying to divert our attention to a different story, in which the rich cheaters are really bit players in a much bigger scam. One lawyer, in a case involving bribes to Stanford’s athletic department, drily points us to the true mastermind. He remarks that he does not know of “any [other] case where the victim of a racketeering conspiracy”—Stanford—“ended up seven hundred and seventy thousand dollars richer than they were at the beginning of the conspiracy.”
But it’s the reporter Daniel Golden, author of “The Price of Admission,” who delivers the punch line: he chooses, he says, to focus his criticism “on the colleges and universities that created this system,” instead of the parents. The élite schools actually like a good scandal, he suggests, because “it makes the colleges seem more exclusive and desirable than ever.” After such fun pursuit of stock villains so easily caught, this is a jarring coda. So it wasn’t Lori Loughlin. It was the colleges. Whoa. This, in turn, makes “Operation Varsity Blues” feel like one of those movies with a twist ending, featuring a penultimate shot of a hapless chump in a prison cell and then a final shot of the real mastermind at a beachside bar on a tropical island, nudging aside a tiny umbrella as he raises a mai tai to his smiling lips.
To the extent that “Operation Varsity Blues” tries to tell a more serious story about the college “system,” it can’t escape the dilemma that Golden identifies. Like most other commentary on the college-admissions process, the film laments how “loopholes”—special breaks for legacy students, grandchildren of generous donors, “recruited athletes” in posh sports like sailing and fencing—unfairly benefit the wealthy and perpetuate inequality. But, like the scandal story, this just makes the colleges look more prestigious by showing how far moneyed people will go to improve their chances. Whatever the film’s critical gestures toward social injustice, the message that a nervous parent with a sense of agency could take away from its shots of undeserving fencers is: fencing! We have to get Cody into fencing!
But there’s an even more serious moral hazard in bewailing the unfairness of these loopholes, which is that the discourse of “fairness” in college admissions ratifies the weird American assumption that a transcendent right is in play when these decisions are made. Yes, the colleges dispense tainted benefits to unworthy jocks and legacies, but they also bestow their priceless gifts on kids who really deserve it. Every earnest complaint about unfairness in college admissions implies that the venal colleges are also sacred bodies from which issue these holy gifts, and true and righteous judgments of who is worthy to receive them.
Our fixation on rich people exploiting loopholes in the admissions process gives implicit sanction to the regular admissions process, which is terrible, too, but on a larger scale, with worse effects on more people. The most disturbing scenes in “Operation Varsity Blues” feature contemporary high-school seniors, captured in grievous closeup by their laptop cameras, writhing in agony as they await their admissions decisions, then weeping bitterly after being rejected, or exploding in triumph when they get the big acceptance (to Brown, one assumes). These students are not only being cheated by scammers like Lori Loughlin, the movie tells us. They’re under pressure—from themselves, from their parents, from the general message that success in America requires a prestigious degree—and the colleges do their cruel part in ratcheting up the pressure when they gloat about their tiny acceptance rates.
Yet those tortured high-school faces tell a deeper story. This process wouldn’t visit such personal torment on the students if they didn’t, on a personal level, identify with it. And they wouldn’t identify with it, or buy into the insidious notion that their real worthiness is being judged through a stupid process, if admissions personnel didn’t cultivate this identification. The personnel do this by augmenting the extreme academic competition they stage—the race for good grades and high test scores—with a more “holistic” side of the college application, in which students display their distinct personalities and compete over whose is better.
In this competition, élite schools no longer want “well-rounded” grinders, cynically padding their résumés. They want “well-lopsided” kids, whose individuality stands out. They want one or two stellar activities that are “heartfelt” and “passionate.” They want quirky and likable admissions essays, not braggy ones. They want applicants to speak in their “true voice,” to be “vulnerable,” indeed, to reveal their “imperfections.” They want them to get to “know themselves” through their essays. They make their process sound like a branch of adolescent psychology, with admissions deans as gentle therapists conducting a careful search for “authentic” insight into “the real person behind the application.” It is hard to overstate how often admissions staff from the more selective schools say forms of the word “authentic.”