Get your Buddies, Teachers, Parents, and Their Employers to Watch Operation Varsity Blues

10 Min Read

A N A L Y S I S – M O V I E

Lamia Karim

If you’ve never heard of it, Operation Varsity Blues was the codename given to a series of college admissions scams in the United States orchestrated by a person called William Rick Singer. The magnitude of the incident shook the entire nation and grabbed the headlines right after the federal prosecutors shed light upon the case on 12 March, 2019. 

Authorities called it the “largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the US Department of Justice”.

As for a rough outline of the scheme, Rick Singer’s proposition served wealthy families to get their children into America’s top-ranking universities with the help of fake credentials. These parents involved with him were people from coast-to-coast; some of them were renowned actresses from Hollywood while others were members of the board of established international companies. These wealthy parents paid fortunes for Rick’s cheap methods — ranging from photoshopping fake athletic pictures to bribing people associated with the colleges, and the list goes on. And with the right connections, Rick offered these families a guaranteed entry into their universities of choice. He called them ‘side doors’ to college admission. 

A year since the news conference with the prosecutors and Netflix has finally released a documentary on the matter earlier this month. Directed by Chris Smith, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal revolves around wiretapped phone conversations between Singer and his clients.

One characteristic of Smith’s documentaries is that they are virtually never the type to state the facts alone. Instead, he stylistically constructs these facts into a sort of plot that a feature-film would have had. At first glance, Smith’s method seems risky because it might alter the story’s facts and ultimately lose its meaning as a documentary. However, that is not the case. 

The drama elements in this doc might seem cheesy at times, but that’s as negative as it gets. Smith never misses out on presenting the necessary information as what they are and keeps it grounded as a documentary at the end of the day. This blend of facts and fiction makes his works easier to watch for people who aren’t die-hard documentary nerds. 

What Smith did for Operation Varsity Blues was by combining reenactments of the wiretapped conversations with short snippets of interviews of experts commentating on the incident and its impact on our society. These reenactments follow a plot that chronologically unfolds the events during Rick Singer’s cheating scheme. It’s far from a boring watch since it always keeps you at the edge of your seat with anxiety, and a fair bit of morbid curiosity, about what Singer will do next. And before long, you’ve run yourself down the 1 hr 40 mins length of this documentary feeling and knowing a bit more than you did before you started watching. 

However, this much only doesn’t seem to justify the utterly direct command made in the title. Sure, it’s a decent documentary, but it doesn’t have that spark that would make sure you recommend it to everyone around you. Does it? 

Operation Varsity Blues does something outside than just informing its audience about the events of 2019, which constitutes the spark aforementioned. It points out the flaws within the education system, which continue to exist to this day. One of the interviewed experts says, 

“I try not to blame the families or the parents. I tend to focus the criticism on the colleges and universities that created this system. If they didn’t have these loopholes and these preferences for families of privilege, then I don’t think there would be these kinds of temptations.”

This is just one example; there are plenty of others where these experts emphasise how rigged the system is. 

All of us have heard of how flawed the recent education systems are, but the way Operation Varsity Blues points out this periodic statement hits very differently. This is because the whole scandal discussed in the documentary holds as a testament and validates the sentence in question. 

More and more of us are dreaming of getting into elite universities. Our mothers’ honour and prestige bragging about the fact that we got into Harvard almost blinds us out. If a university is ranked higher, it must be better — it is what we think. But have we ever questioned why it might not be?

The popular belief is that elite universities provide better resources and networking and therefore provides better education and career prospects down the road, which to some extent they do. However, a study done in 2002 has debunked the belief that showed that students of high calibre who weren’t enrolled in top-ranked universities did equally well in how much they were earning as to those who attended these top-ranked universities. Studying at a top-ranking university might give one a headstart in their career but might not provide the highest return on investment in the long run. This just proves that future success is what students make out of it instead of which universities they go to.

Another study showed how top universities did not provide the best upward mobility for lower-income students. It means that top universities did not significantly alter the “rich get richer, and the poor get poorer” phenomena. It was the mid-tier universities that pushed their students from low-income backgrounds to higher-income ones i.e. provided the best upward mobility.

Another factor that influences one’s college performance is the big fish little pond effect. Simply put, we compare ourselves to our peers who are on the same boat as we are. If our peers are better than us, we tend to feel demotivated even though we might be better than other people on the same footing on a global scale. This affects our academic performance since being surrounded by ultra-smart classmates in an elite school might significantly lessen our output than people who study in so-so universities but are considered more intelligent than their classmates.  

That is not to say that all lower-ranking colleges are better or that top-ranking colleges are always a waste of money. It is essential to see where you fit in the best. Lower-ranking colleges could provide just as incredible resources and even a better environment than Harvard or MIT. But if you can afford it and feel like you can sustain the cutthroat elite school environment, it can prove to be a great college experience and result in a fruitful future ahead. 

What most of us forget is that it is all about us at the end of the day. Top-ranking colleges might not be the best for everyone. We, as students, should be allowed to choose a college that is the best fit for us, exempt from external judgements regarding prestige and honour. What matters is where we can foster our creativity and drive to learn, and a degree from Yale or Stanford might not be the evidence for it. 

What Operation Varsity Blues does is point this out in the most subtle yet hard-hitting way possible. And it has become a priority for us to realise this problem and, as a society, grow to provide better learning environments for the future generation. 

So, watch Operation Varsity Blues with your parents, friends, and your tutors. It’s time everyone realised where the problem lies to figure out what the solution might be.


Lamia is always striving to write an absolute bomb article. Let her know if this one was disastrous or not at [email protected]


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