“The most tragic and devastating phone call of my life.”
That’s how former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer describes a conversation he had with Rick Singer, the criminal mastermind behind the shocking 2019 college admissions scandal.
What made the call so “tragic” is that FBI agents heard every word of it. … Busted.
Vandemoer got snared in the scandal, was fired by Stanford and then became the first person to be sentenced in the infamous bribery investigation.
“Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,” a compelling — and infuriating — hybrid documentary on Netflix, deftly uses transcripts of the FBI’s wiretapped discussions between Singer and his accomplices to re-create exactly how the independent college consultant coaxed people to participate in a multimillion-dollar scheme that enabled privileged students with less-than-sterling grades to attend elite colleges and universities.
The film serves up interviews with real people like Vandemoer, and blends them with dramatic enactments in telling this twisted story. Singer, played with a galling air of indifference by Matthew Modine, collected millions of dollars in under-the-table payments from super-rich parents. He, in turn, paid college coaches and administrators to accept non-athletes as recruits to niche sports teams. In some cases, he even hired an adult know-it-all to take entrance exams for the spoiled rich kids.
At least 53 people have been charged in the conspiracy, including TV stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, and several Bay Area parents. Along the way, the massive scam exposed the lengths wealthy families are willing to go to attain preferential treatment, and enraged a nation already coping with the effects of ever-widening income inequality.
“Operation Varsity Blues” succeeds in fleshing out Singer, who until now, has been an enigma. A failure as a Sacramento State University basketball coach, he changed course and became an educational counselor. People in the know describe him as extremely driven, methodical, a workaholic loner.
And apparently, he always had a thing for slime-ball schemes. One acquaintance recalls how, as a kid, Singer paid an adult to buy booze, which he then re-sold for a profit to minors.
But while the production mostly focuses on Singer and the parents, much of its emotional power comes from the way it targets the entire college admissions process.
“Higher education has become increasingly a commodity. Something that you purchase — a product,” says former Stanford admissions officer Jon Reider in the film. “(Admittance) is a goal in and of itself, rather than the goal being to get an education.”
Too many anxiety-ridden young Americans, the film asserts, put enormous pressure on themselves to be accepted by a handful of prestigious institutions and feel like failures and rejects if they’re not. Meanwhile, “test preppers” profit off the system, charging as much $1,500 an hour to help students with their entrance-exam studies and college applications.
And then there are the moms and dads who regard admission to top-ranked schools as yet another status symbol, all while living vicariously through their kids.
“If you’re a parent and didn’t get into Harvard, this is your chance to go to Harvard,” says Barbara Kalmus, director of Equity in Access, an organization that aims to close the college admissions guidance gap.
While watching “Operation Varsity Blues,” one can’t help but experience a seething resentment toward Singer and the shameless co-conspirators who rigged a system already designed to benefit the privileged.
But you’re also left wondering if the entire system itself is hopelessly beyond repair.
Dan Carter was a reporter for nomad Labs, before becoming the lead editor. Dan has over forty bylines and has reported on countless stories concerning all things related to tech and science. Dan studied at CSUF.