Every Disturbing Thing We Learned From Netflix's College Admissions Scandal Doc

A new Netflix film unpacks the scandal that ensnared Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman and more rich and powerful parents accused of paying bribes to secure their kids a spot at elite colleges.

By Natalie Finn Mar 17, 2021 9:00 PMTags
Rick Singer, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions ScandalNetflix

The wait for the fat envelope—or, these days, that one consequential email or a refreshed web page—can be the most agonizing time of a teenager's life.

And for parents, too, finding out whether or not their kids have been accepted at the college of their choice, it can feel as if the whole family's future is hanging in the balance.

So, enter the moms and dads who decided that sweating it out wasn't their style.

While it wasn't exactly a secret that the very wealthy and connected have been able to grease the wheels at certain higher learning institutions, writing big donation checks years ahead of schedule to ensure that Junior's application is looked favorably upon when the time comes, it was the story of the year (or month—who can remember the times before even the Ivy League resorted to virtual learning?) when the FBI revealed the results of the massive college admissions fraud investigation they so cleverly titled "Operation Varsity Blues."

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The sting was anchored by college admissions counselor Rick Singer, who pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice and agreed to cooperate with authorities. He'd been perpetuating his scheme under the guise of soliciting donations to his charitable foundation, most memorably ensnared Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giuannulli, as well as Felicity Huffman (though not her husband, William H. Macy), but dozens of deep-pocketed parents were arrested and charged with conspiring to cheat the system.

And the system itself may be wildly unfair, but the new Netflix "documentary film" Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal would posit that these people's kids already had every advantage but it wasn't enough to ensure that they wouldn't be denied.

Matthew Modine, in athletic wear and sporting Singer's "little monk hairdo" (as one commentator describes it), plays the disgraced businessman in parts of the film that reenact real conversations Singer had with parents, the dialogue adapted from FBI wiretap transcripts that were released by the U.S. government, "some combined or modified for time and clarity," the film notes.

The rest is documentary-style commentary from lawyers, education and college admissions experts, journalists, former clients and cohorts of Singer's, and FBI reports (quoted from in narrative sequences) as the film unpacks the case that resulted in 50 people being indicted in March 2019. (More charges came down the pipeline at later dates.)

Adam Rose/Netflix

While the hybrid style of storytelling can be a little distracting, it still effectively communicates the absurd-sounding lengths these parents would go to in the belief that their kid deserved one of these coveted spots and paints a picture of the increasingly competitive environment that made people feel that getting their teen into Stanford or USC was so important in the first place.

Director Chris Smith could've spent more time on the intense response the scandal triggered around the country, including the backlash against so-called elites who thought lying and cheating was part of the deal and the overwhelming unfairness felt by those who've had to climb the ladder all by themselves. For instance, the segment featuring home videos of kids reacting to deferrals or, more heartbreaking yet, letters of rejection, rams home more than anything else in the movie just how harmful Singer's little service was.

But right off the bat you see how rewarding it feels when all that hard work comes to fruition with a "we are pleased to welcome you to the Class of..." your dreams, the film opening with a montage of stressed-out teens getting the good news.

Before it gets very uncomfortable.

Here's what we learned:

Adam Rose/Netflix

Side Door Deals

In a reenactment of an Oct. 15, 2018, phone call captured by the FBI on tape, Singer tells a dad inquiring about the cost of Harvard (as in, how much would he need to "donate" to get his kid in, not how much is the tuition once they're in) that he had done upward of 730 "side door" deals to arrange admission. In Singer's lexicon, as he described to parents in recorded calls, the front door was legitimate admission, the back door making a donation directly to the university (and that could run you $45 million at Harvard, he explains, and doesn't even guarantee admission).

The side door was paying a bribe to an official or coach at the university by way of "donating" to The Key Worldwide, the nonprofit foundation arm of Singer's for-profit college counseling business, The Key.

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He Had a Legitimate Business, Too, But...

It wasn't all fraud, all the time, as former clients attest. In Sacramento in the 1990s, Singer opened Future Stars, a college counseling service that, at a time when there weren't many options in town, became the go-to place for guidance for families that could afford the help. (Perry Kalmus, an independent education consultant, estimates in the film that the low-end cost for such counseling is nowadays $200 to $300 an hour, while a more premium firm can run between $500 and $1,500 an hour.)

"I believe that there were many students he worked with who had very good credentials and he performed the normal services of a counselor and facilitated their admission to college by advising them on their recommendations and so on," says journalist Daniel Golden, author of the 2005 book The Price of Admission.

At the same time, Golden adds, Singer "cut corners" early on, "exaggerating" or "fabricating" kids' achievements on their applications—or even changing someone's race from Caucasian to African American or Hispanic to give them a boost with affirmative action. "He was quite brazen," the writer notes.


Only a Number

A college's so-called prestige factor (in the original French, it means "deceit," points out former Stanford admissions officer Jon Reider) almost has nothing to do anymore with the level of academics offered at the institution, according to various experts interviewed here. Acceptance rates factor into the annual US News & World Report university rankings, so the more selective a college is, the higher its ranking, the more kids clamor to get in. And so on.


The value of a dollar sure isn't what it used to be anymore. Perry Kalmus says not even a $3 million donation guarantees your kid admission to the most elite schools these days, adding, "If you're not writing a $10 to $20 million check, I'm not sure it moves the needle as much for them."

In turn, Golden explains, paying Singer a mid-six-figure sum to do what he did was "certainty of admission at a bargain-basement price."

Per another reenactment of a taped call, an investment manager is poised to go in on a scheme to get his son into college by, at Singer's suggestion, making him look like he can be a kicker for the football team (Singer brags that last year he made a 145-pound kid look like a long snapper). The dad marvels on the phone, as he's told to look for photos of his son to Photoshop, "Pretty funny, the way the world works these days. Unbelievable."

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In Too Deep

Former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, who agreed to accept two donations to the sailing program from Singer in exchange for two spots at the school (neither applicant finished the process), was the first of the 50 people indicted to be sentenced after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering. With the judge determining that he was the least culpable of anyone involved, because he never sought to enrich himself, he received two years of supervised release, the first six months of which he had to serve in home detention. He completed his sentence in December 2019.

Participating in the movie, Vandemoer recalls when Singer first approached him, to inquire about a spot for aspiring Cardinal Yusi "Molly" Zhao. The coach said his recruiting was about done for the year. Life went on, but Singer later got in touch to thank him—Molly had gotten in and her family wanted to donate $500,000 to the sailing program, seemingly apropos of nothing. When Vandemoer mentioned Singer to his bosses, he says, the head athletic director said, "'Oh yeah, I know Rick.'" (A title card in the film notes that Stanford has denied that the AD knew of Singer or any inappropriate gifts to the university. It has since dispersed $770,000 in donations concerning two students who were not admitted to the school to various causes.)

Robert Fisher, Vandemoer's lawyer, surmises that the $500,000—which seemingly came in without strings attached—"may have been a huge down payment to access to the campus sailing program."

Prosecutors alleged that the Zhao family (pharmaceutical company billionaires in China) paid Singer a total of $6.5 million and then Singer gave $500,000 to the sailing program. No one in the Zhao family was charged with any crime, but Molly, who started Stanford in 2017, was expelled in April 2019. Per the Los Angeles Times, a spokesman for Stanford confirmed the university had expelled a student for submitting a false application that month and wouldn't give a name, but said the student was connected to a $500,000 gift the school had received.)

An attorney for her mother told the New York Times in May 2019 that they were victims of Singer's scheme and believed they were making a legitimate $6.5 million donation to the school.

"This generous act was not only done for the good of the school and its students, but also done out of the love and support of Yusi by a caring mother," the lawyer said, who also noted that Molly applied and was accepted to a number of schools "through ordinary channels." 

Adam Rose/Netflix

Trojan Horse

"You understand that my daughter's not worthy to be on that team," winemaker Agustin Huneeus (also played by an actor) tells Singer in a reenactment of one of their recorded phone calls. Singer then assures him, "No, no, he's my guy, and he knows she's not coming to play, he knows all that." (Huneeus pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud and was sentenced to five months in prison.)

Singer's guy was allegedly USC water polo coach Jovan Vavic, one of several people at the school who were linked to Singer. Another was associate athletic director Donna Heinel, who allegedly was getting $20,000 a month from the counselor to smooth over any issues that could arise if someone had a question about the high school cheerleader who made the lacrosse team or the 5-foot-5 member of the men's basketball team—all details alleged in the FBI's 2019 indictment.

"Donna Heinel essentially puts them on the recruited walk-on list, which happens all the time, and they just don't show up for practice—and that's fine," Singer assures Huneeus.

(Vavic and Heinel have both pleaded not guilty on all counts pertaining to the college admissions indictment and are scheduled to go to trial in November.)


Jaded Approach

It was Heinel who, per federal authorities, presented beauty influencer Olivia Jade's application to the athletic department, because her application—complete with staged photos of her on a rowing machine—stated that she was a crew team coxswain. Olivia had said that she didn't even want to go to college, but her parents, Full House star Lori Loughlin and fashion mogul Mossimo Giannulli, insisted. (An E! News source said last year that Olivia was "extremely embarrassed" about the staged pictures.)  

Her high school guidance counselor had no knowledge of Olivia or her sister Isabella ever rowing crew, and told USC as much. According to FBI records, Giannulli found out that the counselor had flagged his daughter's application and went to his office to talk to him. "He aggressively asked what I was telling USC about his daughters and why I was trying to ruin or get in the way of their opportunities. His tone made me visibly nervous," the counselor recalled in an internal report filed into evidence against the Giannullis in 2020 and excerpted in the film.

After initially trying to fight the charges, Loughlin and Giannulli eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud (as well as honest services mail and wire fraud for him) and were sentenced to two and five months in prison, respectively. Loughlin completed her term in December and Giannulli is currently serving his sentence and is due for release in April.

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Fraud Upon Fraud

Felicity Huffman spent 11 days of a 14-day sentence in jail after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, having paid $15,000 to ensure a competitive SAT score for one of her daughters.

"My understanding of the Felicity Huffman case," says federal prison consultant Justin Paperny, "[is Singer] told Felicity, 'Well, your daughter's scores aren't good enough to get into this school.' Turns out, that was made up, that was false, her daughter would've got in regardless of that. It's identifying those pain points. Felicity can begin to rationalize, 'Am I a good enough mother? Have I spent too much time on my career? Don't you want your daughter to go a good school?' [Singer was] leveraging off the weakness, the pain point."

Testing Turmoil

"If I were appointed czar of American college admissions," says Reider, the former Stanford admissions officer, "I would abolish standardized testing. All these test prep companies would have to find something else to do." Because, he soon explains, "All standardized testing automatically advantages the people who are already advantaged."

Test prep expert Akil Bello notes, "When you look at it in light of the scandal, when you have predominantly rich families who had every advantage that said they should be fine on the SAT, they're going to score in the highest demographic, they had all the prep in the world that they wanted—and yet they still cheated."

Adam Rose/Netflix

The Ugly Truth

A reenactment of Hot Pockets heiress Michelle Janavs based on FBI wiretaps shows her telling Singer that her elder daughter had blown off the ACT, calling it "bulls--t," but her younger daughter was "totally different" from her sister and was actually studying, so Janavs was concerned that the child would find out why she was going to be allowed to take the test over multiple days, as Singer arranged for them. (A multi-day testing window is supposed to be afforded only to kids who really need the extra time).

"It's weird family dynamics," she concludes, "but every kid is different." 

To which Singer simply replies, "Cool."

Price of Admission author Golden reflects, "I thought the conversations recorded on tape were achingly poignant. You ache for the children reading these transcripts and you may also ache for the parents who I'm sure bitterly regret being so candid."

Janavs was sentenced to five months in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and honest services mail and wire fraud, as well as conspiracy to commit money laundering. The film notes that she paid $100,000 to boost her daughters' test scores and agreed to pay twice that to get one accepted at USC as a beach volleyball player.

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They All Fall Down

Singer didn't make a mistake that directly put the authorities on his radar. Rather, one of his clients was arrested in an entirely unrelated financial case, and in order to improve his own situation he told federal investigators that he heard Yale soccer coach Rudy Meredith was taking bribes to get people into the Ivy League school. When the FBI got ahold of Meredith, he explained who Singer was and agreed to be an informant, according to investigators.

Faced with what the FBI had on him already, including wiretapped conversations, Singer agreed to ensnare more people in the Feds' growing web.

He proceeded to start calling people he had worked with to tell them his foundation was being audited, so he'd then walk through what they'd done and spell out the story he planned to tell if investigators asked about the "large sums of money" they'd paid him. "I just want to ensure that you and I are on the same page, in case they call," Singer offered one concerned wealthy mom, as previously detailed in the 2019 indictment.

His calls were recorded and he wore a wire and hidden camera to in-person meetings.

"He was just as zealous in cooperating as he was in getting these parents to pay him to get their kids into school," observes Paperny. Says Roger Fisher, Vandemoer's lawyer, "Historically, white-collar defendants have almost no filter on the phone." On the other hand, he adds, if Singer was trying to be a mob informant, they'd have made him in 30 seconds.

Bruce/Javiles / BACKGRID

Singer pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice and has moved back to Sacramento while he awaits sentencing. However, his cooperation with federal prosecutors isn't complete until all the other cases have reached their conclusion so no date for sentencing has been set.

While 38 parents, including Huffman, Loughlin and Giannulli, pleaded guilty and were fined and sentenced to anywhere from probation and community service to seven months in prison, the rest have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial—except for Miami investor Robert Zangrillo, who had pleaded not guilty but was ultimately pardoned by President Donald Trump hours before he left office.

Rudy Meredith, the now former Yale soccer coach, pleaded guilty to charges of fraud and conspiracy in 2019 but has also yet to be sentenced. Meanwhile, ex-USC staffers Heinel and Vavic have pleaded not guilty on all charges and their cases are set to go to trial in November.

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal is streaming on Netflix.