I sat curled up on the couch with my mom watching the ending montage of Netflix’s viral documentary Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal. Clips of couples hounded by paparazzi played alongside text revealing the short prison sentences they received for fraudulently getting their children into top universities. I had expected my heart to fill with satisfying schadenfreude as the crooks got their comeuppance, but I mostly just felt angry. The movie made it abundantly clear to me that even though one fraud ring was dismantled, the U.S.’s entire higher education system is still rigged.
The Operation Varsity Blues documentary details the controversy of Rick Singer’s college admissions criminal enterprise, a story which hits home to me as a student who a year ago went through college admissions process herself. Through interviews and dramatized recreations of conversations wire-tapped by the FBI, the film effectively illustrates how going to college has become a ruthless competition that gives the privileged a head start. As I watched the movie, I found myself forced to reckon with the advantages that I had as a college applicant and reassess the value that I previously assigned to prestigious universities.
The goal of getting into my dream college truly dominated my life towards the end of high school. I scheduled time every single day to study for my SAT test, pushed myself to take seven AP classes during senior year and cultivated my resume of achievements and extracurriculars. My high school was a rigorous, public-magnet school, so the topic of college admissions was also always buzzing around campus. I was hyper-aware that all of my classmates were similarly fighting to get into high-ranking name-brand schools, and I allowed myself to buy into the whirlwind of pressure. At home, my parents were supportive of my academic goals but not overbearing, and they let my own ambition fuel my college admissions process. When I got into UCLA during the spring semester of my senior year, I felt an enormous weight lifted off of my shoulders, and I couldn’t have been more relieved and proud. It was easy for me to believe that I got into college as a result of my hard work and overlook all of the external factors at play.
The truth is, getting into college isn’t just a product of working hard; some people work very hard and don’t get into their dream schools, and as Operation Varsity Blues shows, others don’t work hard at all and waltz into elite universities. The poster child of the college admissions scandal, and a character fleshed out in the film, was YouTuber Olivia Jade Giannulli, the daughter of actress Lori Loughlin. Olivia openly spoke out on social media about not caring about going to college, but her parents paid hundreds of thousands of dollars and lied that she was a student-athlete in order to get her a spot at USC. In the past, it has been easy for me to roll my eyes at figures like Olivia for being ultra-privileged millionaires who took their education for granted. Now, however, the documentary has prompted me to consider what privileges I myself took for granted while applying to schools. My parents aren’t celebrities, but they are college-educated and speak English. This was a huge help to me when I was researching schools and proofreading my essays. I also had a high school counselor who met with me to discuss my progress towards college, and I didn’t have to work a full-time job during high school to support my family, meaning I had time to dedicate to my apps. All of these privileges, and more, mean that even though I worked hard, I had a much easier path to college than other students. It can be difficult to recognize your own privileges and not feel like you’re diminishing your achievements, but I think that it’s important. I now realize more fully that the higher education system doesn’t just favor the Olivia Giannullis of the world- it favors all forms of privilege.
Beyond prompting me to check my privileges, the documentary also taught me to put less weight behind universities’ rankings and prestigious names. I remember checking the lists of colleges on US News throughout my senior year. When I compiled my school list, I researched how prestigious each university was, and I’ll admit to referring to the rankings when hearing about which schools my peers got into. I knew that a school’s ranking is not the most important factor about deciding where to go, (and I ended up choosing my college based on lots of other factors like location, affordability and specific programs), but the importance of prestige was a subconscious, looming factor. I took for granted that everyone is always trying to get into a more widely renown and high-ranking university and never stopped to critically think, “Why is our college application system set up like this?”. The film did a great job exposing the folly behind lusting over prestige. The microcosm of the families involved in Rick Singer’s scam encapsulates how prestige can just be bought and doesn’t necessarily correlate with high academic standards. As an American student, trying to unlearn the hierarchy of colleges that I’ve been taught for years is difficult, but I’m making strides to detoxing my brain of the hype around elite schools.
My anger at the end of the film was rooted in these realizations surrounding privilege and prestige. I got limited satisfaction in seeing the likes of Lori Loughlin sentenced to brief stints in jail because the problems in college admissions range far beyond the scope of Rick Singer’s inner circle. The sentences doled out were slaps on the wrists of the high-profile criminals, but the film makes clear that deeper work must be done. We need to focus less on the flashy drama of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal and move on to advocating for a more equitable college admissions system.