Varsity blues: Documenting the US admissions scandal

A documentary and a novel about the US admissions scandal? Paul Greatrix previews some media outputs to look forward to.

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

The 2019 college admissions scandal in the US really was something extraordinary. A criminal scheme which saw wealthy parents of university applicants hand over large sums of money to help secure their offspring places at leading institutions through fraud and bribery.

Scamming

The scam was organised by Rick Singer and over 50 people were charged including some famous and wealthy individuals. The scheme involved:

– bribing exam administrators to facilitate cheating in university entrance exams
– bribing staff at elite universities to identify applicants as talented athletes to help their admission
– laundering money through a charitable organisation

Anyway, the exciting news is that there is a Netflix documentary on the way which will set all of this out in a mix of real footage and dramatised action:

Everything you’ve heard is true. But you haven’t heard everything. Using real conversations recreated from FBI wiretaps, the filmmaker behind Fyre brings you Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal  An examination that goes beyond the celebrity-driven headlines and dives into the methods used by Rick Singer, the man at the center of the shocking 2019 college admissions scandal, to persuade his wealthy clients to cheat an educational system already designed to benefit the privileged.

Using an innovative combination of interviews and narrative recreations of the FBI’s wiretapped conversations between Singer and his clients, Operation Varsity Blues offers a rare glimpse into the enigmatic figure behind a scheme that exposed the lengths wealthy families would go to for admission into elite colleges, and angered a nation already grappling with the effects of widespread inequality.

Here’s the trailer

From the documentary to fiction

Inside Higher Ed reports on the publication of a novel based on the same events. ‘Admission’ by Julie Buxbaum is a story told from a student’s perspective who is surprised how well she scores in her SAT and secures entry to a good college:

The novel opens with an early-morning visit to her home by seven armed men from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Coming,” she shouts at them. “Relax, dude.” She imagines that they are strippers, hired by her aunt for her mother’s upcoming 50th birthday.

Of course, they are not strippers. They have come to arrest her mother, Joy Fields, the star of Blood Moon, the CW’s latest royal vampire show.

Yes, it turns out that her mother was involved in bribing officials, helping with that SAT score and getting her unsporty daughter to describe herself as a pole vaulter on her application.

I’ve not read it yet but it does really sound like an interesting take on the scheme.

Scandalous

This admissions scam really was a genuine scandal, not just because it involved the wealthy and celebrities and their children and saw them prosecuted for their crimes, but because it showed that some admissions officials, sports coaches and university administrators in some US universities can be bribed. This is the most shocking aspect of all of this for me. Not that the privileged and well-off would seek to circumvent the normal procedures to secure advantage but that university staff would be complicit and open to bribery.

But maybe this scandal will teach everyone a lesson.

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