Operation Varsity Blues on Netflix

3.19.21

Remember back, before Covid-19 entered our lives, when the most scandalous thing in our lives was the parents who hired Rick Singer to get their kids in the “side-door” to top schools around the country?

One of the best articles written on the topic at the time was by Caitlin Flanagan, called “The Had it Coming”. If you are planning to watch the new Netflix documentary – which you should – be sure to refresh your sense of outrage by reading Flanagan’s pithy article first. If you have more time, check out the podcast Gangster Capitalism, that did a deep dive into the scandal in 2019.

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal blends fictionalized versions of wiretapped conversations (Rick Singer is played as a complete cipher by Matthew Modine) and real life interviews with FBI agents, college admission and testing experts. Real life kids are interviewed, reminding us that the hopes and dreams of a generation are what’s at stake when the elite cheat –  kids, and the one coach who pled guilty and served time (the Stanford sailing coach, who I felt most sorry for by the end of the story).

The doc is a delicious dive into all the complex, frustrating layers of getting into college right now – I can say delicious because the process is behind me and phew – am I relieved. It takes up a lot of brain space and jostles family life in the process.  If you are approaching this milestone, or smack in the middle of it, the corrupt decisions of the uber-wealthy highlight the inequities that are baked into the process.

The first takeaway is that absolutely nothing has changed in terms of what families experience during the process.  The schools have not changed their stripes – they’re still charging gobs of money, their admissions rates are higher than ever (with the pandemic-era banishment of SAT and ACT requirements), and the rich have gotten richer throughout Covid.  So- use the film to remind yourself what NOT to focus on in the process -look past status and ranking and focus on how many colleges are out there. The job is to find the right match for your child – that’s best for your kid, for you, and for the sanity of your family.

The second takeaway is that the children of the cheaters got the very worst deal.  You don’t come out of the film with any pity for parents – they may have provided everything for their children financially, but failed in epic fashion to give their kids the only thing any kid needs: the sense that they are good enough.

That’s the cautionary tale.

Dan Golden is interviewed in the film – his Pulitzer Prize winning book – The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates – on getting into college is worth looking at, as well. He remains an expert on the topic, writing frequently in major publications.

Other worthy books about the college process:

Frank Bruni: Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania

Jeffrey Selingo: Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions

Julie Lythcott Haims: How to Be An Adult

Jacques Steinberg: The Gatekeepers

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Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal is reviewed at Common Sense and is appropriate for 15+