Operation Varsity Blues: Who Should Be Held Accountable for the College Admissions Scandal?


Photo courtesy of Robert Bye on Unsplash.com

Peter Sloniewsky, Staff Writer

Operation Varsity Blues is a Netflix documentary which, at surface level, is an intriguing retelling of the highly publicized college admissions scandal.  It circles around the center of the conspiracy, Rick Singer, who, from his career as a college coach for wealthy families, manipulated test scores and college sports coaches to get students from wealthy families accepted to high-profile universities.  Through connections that Singer described as a “side door,” parents made payments which he used to bribe athletic coaches, pay people to take standardized tests, and forge photos.  

However, while the documentary makes clear that Singer is in the wrong, it also asks the question of who is really at fault for the scandal.  Is Singer the root of the problem?  Or is it a culture inspired by declining acceptance rates, increased stress, and parents’ desire for their children to do what they couldn’t?

Around the middle of the documentary, the narrator makes an important note about college rankings.  Since U.S. News began ranking colleges, the rankings have not been objective whatsoever they are based on a metric described as “prestige.”  It can be said, in a way, that prestige is the only thing that really matters about a school at all an education at Harvard is likely almost the same as a school with a higher acceptance rate, but the connotation of acceptance to Harvard is simply greater than to a school which is easier to get into.  

Prestige also allows a school to charge more for tuition, and a lower acceptance rate and higher tuition are two of the most important ways for a school to gain prestige.  As a result, according to the documentary, students are put under pressure to get into a school that “looks better.”  

For parents who can afford it, a side door into an exclusive school for a child who won’t be able to take the typical route, for a lack of ability or otherwise, looks appealing.  To a parent who couldn’t make it into Stanford, it’s also a source of pride for their child to get into Stanford. The parents are able to live through their children despite not being able to do it themselves. Rick Singer saw an opening to sell his formula for college acceptance success, and was willing to compromise his morals to make money on parents who wanted the best for their children.

The greed of top schools is also a top contributing factor to the fact that this conspiracy worked at all. They are who the documentary holds accountable.  Singer, and other people involved, describes two methods to get into an exclusive school.  The front door is the typical route of admissions that most students take, while the back door is a large donation, typically in the tens of millions for guaranteed acceptance, to the school of choice.  

However, Rick Singer offered what he referred to as a “side door,” simply making students look more appealing and bribing coaches to see to their admission into the school.  

According to ABC News, Singer reached out to seven Stanford athletic coaches in an effort to pull them into the scheme, but only one, sailing coach John Vandermoer, took the bait.  Colleges are greedy for additional funds, to the extent that Singer was able to donate $770,000 to Stanford, most of which went to the sailing program, at which nobody bat an eye.  Coaches for sports which do not guarantee revenue are encouraged to raise funds themselves; the Stanford athletic department found no reason to complain about having to put more money into a program which was always in the red financially.  Even now, Stanford remains in denial, and hasn’t made major changes to the way they fundraise for athletics, despite the scandal.  

In conclusion, what this documentary really makes us ask ourselves is not why the parents did it, but what colleges, who are supposed to be acting for the benefit of deserving students, will do for money while compromising their morals.