By Holly Downes
Picture this. You are about to run in a 400m sprint race you have put every effort into preparing for. You have been waking up at the crack of dawn to train, eating clean, pushed through moments of low motivation – everyone is rooting for you. As soon as the whistle blows, the other runners sprint ahead at record-breaking speed. You give it everything to overtake them, but your legs cannot physically go any faster. You come last. Disappointment bombards you. Thoughts that you will never be good enough begin to accumulate. You see yourself as a failure. Yet, behind the scenes, you were a better runner than all of them. They had all been taking performance-enhancing drugs to win every race – it was inevitable you would be beaten.
The same was happening in the college admissions bribery scandal. Over 750 American families helped their children get admitted into top colleges through bribes totalling a hefty 25 million dollars. These children became the drug-enhanced runners – it was guaranteed they would take the place of a student who rightly deserved it. A student who spent every moment studying to achieve their dream since childhood, a dream now crushed by the privileged. That is a total of 750 dreams ruined – 750 lives that could have been changed had the elite not been so desperate to elevate their status.
With the documentary opening with videos of teenagers nervously waiting to hear the news of whether they had been accepted into their dream colleges, it forced me to revisit the rollercoaster of emotions on A-level results day. A day mixed with uncertainty, a fear of what was inside the envelope that would determine my future. However, those of privilege never experienced these emotions. When they opened the envelope, it only confirmed what they already knew – that their parents’ wealth guaranteed their admission into America’s top colleges.
This guarantee was made possible by Rick Singer – the mastermind behind the ‘Operation Varsity Blues’ admissions scandal that lasted more than 20 years. Famous CEOs and celebrities would pay him millions of dollars which he used to bribe those employed by top colleges.
The documentary focused particularly on John Vandemoer, a sailing coach for Stanford University, who accepted six-figure donations for his under-funded sport in exchange for agreeing to consider Singer’s sailing ‘candidates’, allowing students to go through Stanford’s ‘side door. By disguising bribes as donations to college sports clubs, Singer would make their admission more believable by photoshopping pictures of these children playing sports, altering their test results, or even hiring someone to take the test for them.
A particularly famous member of Singer’s ‘Operation Varsity Blues’ was the Giannulli family who paid bribes totalling 500,000 dollars for their two daughters, including the famous Youtuber, Olivia Jade, to be admitted to the University of Southern California. Their admission was facilitated by the two daughters posing as rowing athletes despite having never rowed in their lives – it was the bribes that guaranteed their place. Even then, their daughters had no interest in going to university – it was merely to satisfy their parent’s motivations. For status elevation, not fruitful education.
This increases the injustice of this scandal. As Olivia Jade slyly snuck through Singer’s ‘side door without a slight interest in education, she took the place of those whose passions were to learn and be taught by world-leading professors. They wanted education. The elite wanted status. And, as at the heart of capitalism lies the shallow motto that money buys everything, the elite always get what they want.
Nevertheless, the documentary ends on a solemn tone, highlighting that despite over 50 celebrities and famous CEOs being caught, justice was only partially served. The maximum prison sentence was a mere nine months. Fines were given, yet they were meaningless to these millionaires. Olivia Jade lost most of her followers, but this can never give back a place to a deserving student. If anything, this scandal merely made these universities look more desirable than ever when the rich were willing to risk jail time to get their children places.
Regardless, this Netflix documentary is an eye-opening one, one which begs attention to the sickening injustice still prevalent in society today – that money buys success. That those who are not born into wealth cannot achieve success as easily as those of privilege who can reach the top of college and workplace hierarchies with their wealth. And until America’s top colleges stop contributing to these inequalities, this gap will only widen.
Illustration: Verity Laycock