Learning From the College Admissions Scandal Two Years Later

This March, Netflix released a documentary that reminds viewers of one of the most infamous events of 2019: the college admissions scandal. With a global pandemic, a historic presidential election, and other momentous events having occurred since this story first broke, there’s no doubt that it might have been largely forgotten by many until now, me included.

Netflix screen Photo by Thibault Penin on Unsplash

However, even if Operation Varsity Blues has been edged out of the current discourse, it’s very important that we learn from it, even two years later. Similar to how Framing Britney Spears has created a dialogue over how the media, Hollywood, and society as a whole often unfairly and uncompassionately treat young women, I hope that Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal can continue to stimulate discissions about the role of privilege in higher education.  

The film is a mixture of reenactments by professional actors, interviews with real people involved in the affair, videos of students talking about their college admissions process, and commentary by those involved in higher education and admissions. Through the reenactments, I watched as Rick Singer, the wealthy parents who hired him, and officials at top colleges like USC and Yale engage in bribery, fraud, and general dishonesty in order to secure a coveted spot for the children of these wealthy parents, through what Singer calls the “side door” into these institutions.

AP

In order to get prospective students in through this “side door,” Singer serves as the middleman, manipulating ACT and SAT scores, fabricating transcripts, masquerading the children as college athletes, and bribing college officials. While it may seem easy to dismiss this scandal as just a handful of greedy, corrupt college officials and desperate, immoral parents (the most famous involved in the scandal being actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman), Operation Varsity Blues reveals so much of what is wrong with college in the United States. According to the New York Times, it proves that the admissions system is “exploitable, arbitrary, broken.”

One of the biggest flaws shown by this scandal deals with something we have all gone through in our academic careers: standardized testing. Both COVID-19’s disruption of the usual testing process and racial and social justice moments of recent years have loudly questioned the validity of the ACT and SAT and what their role should be in the 21st-century admissions process—and colleges are finally listening.

 In fact, KU announced in March that incoming freshman would no longer have to take standardized tests in order to be accepted into the university. Much more selective Ivy League institutions like Harvard and Cornell, as well as other elite universities, have waived mandatory standardized tests for the next few admissions cycles due to the pandemic, with the intention of perhaps phasing them out for good.

woman student doing homework Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

Some might be wondering, what’s so bad about standardized tests? The issue is that the ACT and SAT primarily benefit children from affluent families, and they disproportionately hinder children of color. Wealthy parents can send their kids to fancy private prep schools, hire tutors, purchase expensive test prep booklets, and utilize a multitude of resources not available to less priviledged students. Often scores have less to do with the actual intelligence, merit, or college readiness of the test taker, and more to do with how loaded their parents are. Elite colleges, obsessed with maintaining their prestigious ranking among other equally competitive universities, often won’t even look twice at an applicant with below-average standardized test scores, no matter the bigger picture of their life. This must change.

More than anything, Operation Varsity Blues tells us it’s time to seriously question the way we view elite colleges as status symbols and the cultural obsession with an Ivy League degree. While there are countless brilliant, hardworking students and professors at these institutions, many of whom having overcome significant hurdles to get where they are, there’s also plenty of Jared Kushners roaming these campuses. Kushner, son-in-law of the previous president, is a real estate heir whose father made a fat donation to Harvard to ensure his spot in the class of 2003—which is an all-too common phenomenon at these schools that is technically legal (and tax-deductible). It’s an important reminder to question the power dynamics that occur behind the scenes of these universities, even if the activity isn’t egregious enough to be investigated and prosecuted by the FBI like Singer’s was.

Students in the documentary also describe the immense academic pressure being placed on them by their parents, schools, and society. While kids should aim high and strive to attend the school of their dreams, this pressure can become unhealthy real quick. woman wearing graduation cap Photo by Brett Jordan from Unsplash

Especially when, as a society, it’s so bad that people are willing to literally bribe and steal their way there. We definitely have some work to do.