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New Netflix Documentary Shows How Money Can Buy Admission To A Top U.S. University


I spent much of my high school career stressing about getting into really good colleges. I still remember that stress vividly, which is why when news broke about "Operation Varsity Blues," it really touched a nerve. Remember; this was the federal investigation into a huge college admissions scheme involving super-wealthy parents. And at the center of this scheme was Rick Singer. He would bribe coaches and other university officials to secure slots for students. Singer called his technique the side door.


MATTHEW MODINE: (As Rick Singer) The front door means getting in on your own. The back door is making a donation, which is 10 times as much money. I've created this kind of side door in because with the back door, there's no guarantee. They're just going to give you a second look. My families want a guarantee.

CHANG: Chris Smith directed a new Netflix documentary called "Operation Varsity Blues." It traces how Singer built an enormously profitable business. In parts of the film, actors reenact real conversations pulled from wiretap transcripts from the investigation. I asked Smith how these transcripts helped him tell a different kind of story.

CHRIS SMITH: In documentary, you're always looking for some - you know, to try to get to the truth and try to find - you know, help the audience understand what happened. In this case, when researching the project, my writer and editor on the project, Jon Karmen, had done a deep dive into the affidavit that was released. And in that, he discovered that there were all these transcripts of wiretapped phone calls that had happened between Rick Singer and the parents that were involved. And in looking at that, we realized that it was this window into a world that we rarely would see just because these people were, in many cases, being recorded without knowing that they were being recorded. So in a way, this was as close as you could get to the truth.

CHANG: Right - so interesting. It was like the audience of your documentary could eavesdrop on these parents. But were you at all concerned that using actors so heavily might make this documentary feel actually less real for some people watching?

SMITH: I think ultimately, the conversations that were had between the parents and Rick told you so much about the story. You know, we didn't have Rick Singer on camera for an interview, and we didn't have the parents. In many cases, you know, we either didn't hear back from parents. We didn't hear back from their lawyers. In the cases that we did, often the word was they were awaiting sentencing, and they were worried that doing an interview might adversely affect the sentence. So absent their voice, these transcripts really helped us come to understand the scam and the scheme in a way that we couldn't have otherwise.

CHANG: Well, about those conversations, I mean, something I noticed - in your film, these parents aren't shown to feel any moral wrestling.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) To be honest, I'm not worried about the moral issue here. I'm worried about the - she gets caught doing that, you know, she's finished. So I just - it never happened before in 20-some odd years. The only thing that can happen is if she...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Someone talks.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah.

CHANG: I was wondering, were there actually moments of remorse in these wiretap transcripts and you just decided to exclude them?

SMITH: You know, my memory was just that I think the parents in many cases were - their biggest concern was that their kids wouldn't find out...

CHANG: Yeah.

SMITH: ...You know, that they wanted to shield and protect the children.

CHANG: Right. They wanted their kids to feel like they got in on their own merit.

SMITH: Yeah. I think that's one of the things that's somewhat overlooked. I think some people, you know, are holding the kids responsible, but often in many cases, the parents and Rick went to great lengths to keep them from finding out.


MODINE: (As character) She'll think that when she's done with the test, she has taken the test - no doubt about it. She'll walk out the door at the end of it, and she'll say to you, Dad, it was so hard, or, I'm so tired, or whatever the typical reaction out of the kid. You guys will leave, and then Mark will look at all her answers. Mark will then take the exam and then ensure that whatever score we decide that we want to get - he has it down to a - it's unbelievable what he can do.

SMITH: And so I found that to be a really interesting aspect of sort of the scam and scheme overall - was that that was important to everyone.

CHANG: Well, it turns out no one who's been convicted so far has received more than a year in prison. Some of these cases are still pending, of course. But let me ask you right now, who do you think are the real villains in all of this? - because honestly, when I got to the end of your documentary, I felt like, God, this is so much bigger than Rick Singer and a bunch of rich parents.

SMITH: In terms of culpability, I mean, you know, Rick recognized an opportunity and exploited it. And I think you see in these conversations him sort of - the way that he would at times manipulate the parents, I think, into feeling like - that this was the only way for their children to get into the school that they, you know, wanted to get into.

So there's so many factors at play that come into this that, for us, it was really exciting to look at all those different things and sort of the way that social media has added pressure. The rankings have just become more intense in terms of people wanting to get into the select number of schools. I think what we tried to do is take a step back and sort of show, you know, from a lot of the experts we talked to, that you could get a great education at a number of schools. And how do we try to take that pressure off of kids and parents to sort of think in a different way about education? You know, if it really is about getting educated, there's a lot of great opportunities.

I think the one thing that has yet to be figured out with that idea is just, you know, if people are looking at college as a networking opportunity. You know, I think that there's a lot of people that feel if you want to really move ahead in this world, that going to a prestigious school, you're with these other people that have access to power and wealth and that that is really the benefit that's coming out of college. And so it's becoming less about the education and more about the network. And so how we undo that is - I think that's why we try to include experts in the education space - to sort of open that dialogue.

CHANG: It is worth noting that these parents did not expect nor want to be caught when they were doing what they were doing. But this film - it did leave me thinking, however the justice system shakes out for these families, for these institutions, there is still the larger question of whether the college admissions system will ever be an equal playing field. Do you think that's even possible?

SMITH: In terms of the process of applying to colleges, you know, I think what upset people so much in this particular case is that, you know, there's some semblance of an understanding that things are fair and that everybody's competing on the same playing field. And I think when people discovered that Rick had found this way to subvert the system, whether it's through the test-taking scheme or whether it was through using university athletics to get their kids in through what he called the side door, it really upended this idea that America is a pure meritocracy, you know, that...

CHANG: Right.

SMITH: ...If you work hard, you know, that you have the opportunity to move forward. We see this echoed in America all the time. You know, if you go to an amusement park, you can pay more money to get the FastPass, and it allows you to cut the line. And, you know, if you buy a plane ticket, a first-class ticket, you can board when you want. You sit up front. I think people thought that education was different. And I think when the story broke, this was laid bare that, you know, even in something as sacred as education, the system still was there for the wealthy. And I think in some ways, it didn't surprise people, but I think it appalled them.

CHANG: Chris Smith directed the documentary "Operation Varsity Blues." It's out now on Netflix.

Thank you very much for speaking with us today.

SMITH: Yeah, of course. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EX-POETS SONG, "STILL WAITING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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