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Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal Review

By: Emily Bunn

Chris Smith’s production of Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal lended an insightful eye into the wealth gap inequalities that permeates the American higher education system. Smith’s documentary focused mostly on Rick Singer, the mastermind behind the college admissions scandal of which involved 50 people nationwide. While at first, he seemed to have a dedicated stake in the futures of his client’s children, this narrative took a complete 180 once Singer was caught by the FBI, and happily participated in wiretapped phone calls to help incriminate his own clients. I enjoyed that Singer’s ex-partner exposed that he was so dedicated to his work and had no real passions of his own. The light cast on Singer as a heartless, workaholic, con-man helped show the delegitimization of his work and the absurdity of this entire scandal.

The exposure of Rick Singer focused the conversation of film on the simultaneously accessibility and inaccessibility of colleges, and the high regard given to “prestigious universities,” especially in wealthy families. While it is likely any student could get into a college in America, the extremely small pool of students attending the top universities shows this simultaneously reachability and impossibility. Uncovering the prestige associated with higher education reveals the underpinnings of self-aggrandizement evident in these scandals, as opposed to an actual appreciation for the education these universities provide. What was most insidious to me about this scandal is the facts that so many of the students didn’t even know that this plan was going on behind their backs. It was embarrassing that so many of the involved parents were living their own unattained dreams of their past youth vicariously through paying their children’s way into big name universities. On the other hand, other students such as Olivia Jade, Lori Loughlin’ daughter, knowingly participated in these pedagogical schemes.

While the film chiefly focused on the slimy, selfish sleuthing of Singer, it also looked at the life of Olivia Jade, which provided a student’s perspective. This inclusion was important, as the film mainly broadcasts the experiences of Rick Singer and parents involved in the scandal, so having the point of view of someone who was actually participating in the lived college experience is necessary. The juxta positioning in the beginning of the film was very successful in showing clips of students cheering as they were granted access into their dream universities purposefully contrasted by YouTube vlog clips of Jade, in which she expressed her disdain for school. Later in the film, clips of students being rejected from their universities was also shown, creating a strong emotional appeal to viewer’s pathos.

Another focus of the film, Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, was exposed to be involved in accepting Singer’s donations (aka bribe money), but put all of the money into the betterment of his struggling athletics team. Whereas the motives of Singer and the involved parents was blatantly selfish, Vandermoer’s story added dimension to the story, as he actually wanted to contribute to the success of his student’s futures and athletic involvement at Stanford.

At the end of the film, Smith successfully invoked pathos again, this time stirring up feelings of anger. It was infuriating to see how many of those involved in the scandal were let off as non-guilty. Even those who were charged as guilty were only assigned several weeks or months of prison, none of the  sentences lasting longer than a year. Most upsetting of all, Rick Singer awaits trial but currently is still living as a free man. Whereas the scandal ripped away the hopeful future dreams of hundreds of deserving students, it seems as though not enough justice was granted as compared to the severity of crimes committed. However, it was uplifting to see that the University of Southern California donated over $700,000–all of the bribe money the college accepted­­­–towards scholarships for students in need. Hopefully as a result of this scandal and it’s documentation on film, this issue will be eradicated from the American education system. However, money is power, and loop-holes may always exist for those willing to pay the price.

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