A fast-track ticket to a superior college education is something wealthy parents take for granted, according to the director of a new Netflix show examining the US college admissions scandal of 2019.
Chris Smith, the film-maker behind movies including Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, as well as the hit series Tiger King, has now made the docudrama Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal.
Dozens of wealthy Americans, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were jailed after the cheating was exposed by the FBI, with many parents paying huge sums to get their children into the country’s elite universities.
The scam was masterminded by Rick Singer, an education expert who used part of the money to fraudulently inflate entrance exam results and to bribe officials.
“I think as far as some of those parents were concerned, this is how it works in the USA,” says Smith. “They’re familiar with the idea that if you’re wealthy and connected, a whole different system of rules apply.
“Think of fast passes to amusement parks and first-class aeroplane tickets that allow you to skip the queues. This may seem like a natural extension of the idea.”
The programme is partly dramatised, with Stranger Things actor Matthew Modine taking the part of Singer, along with other actors playing parents and college coaches.
The narrative is intercut with YouTube videos of teenagers describing their stress, joy and heartache around getting into their desired colleges. Loughlin’s daughter, Olivia Jade Giannulli, a successful YouTuber, is also featured through her social media posts. She was heavily trolled after her parents were charged with bribery to get her and her sister into top universities.
Smith agrees that the pressure on some young people to get into an elite establishment is immense – for social as well as academic reasons.
“I think one of the things we’re hoping to get across in this film, and this came from a lot of education experts, is that you don’t have to go to a top college, you can get a great education at any number of colleges,” he explains.
“But by going to a particularly great school, you’re going to be put with a group of people who are already connected, already wealthy and already privileged. So, it perpetuates a system of disparity.
“Your social circle and network is very different from those who are going somewhere else. So yes, your education can be the same in a number of colleges, but is it about the education? Or is it about the opportunities you’ll get when you finish college?
“We use the YouTube footage to show the torment and the pressure so many kids feel they’re under, so some of these parents involved may even have felt they were doing their best for their children. There were probably a variety of motivations.”