Operation Varsity Blues’ Disappointing Impact on Higher Education

Jack P. Carroll ’24

News Editor

The newly released documentary Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal has brought the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal back into the national spotlight. The film’s investigation of the $25 million scam–in which a group of celebrity families used their wealth to cheat their way into top U.S. colleges and universities–serves as a testament to the inequities that exist within the college admissions process.

However, the DOJ’s prosecution of the parents and coaches who were involved in the affair has done little to weaken the reputation of our country’s overrated and overpriced network of colleges and universities. If anything, the scandal has further bolstered the perceived value of a degree from a prestigious school. The unique and individual realities of the college experience have become commodified: many now view an elite education as a valuable asset that guarantees one the path to a successful future—a promising concept that is far from reality.

As the author of The Price of Admission Daniel Golden states in the film, “This scandal is not necessarily a reason for colleges to change their ways. Because it makes these colleges seem more exclusive and desirable than ever.” Golden explains that, “If all these rich people are willing to go to these incredible lengths and risk jail time just to get their kids into these colleges, then they must be extremely valuable.”

Unfortunately, a review of this year’s admissions cycle confirms Golden’s analysis. In March, the Wall Street Journal reported that the decision to waive SAT and ACT requirements by many highly selective institutions has resulted in a surge of applications. For example, Harvard University received more than 57,000 applications for next fall’s incoming class which marks a 47% year-over-year increase. In addition, applications to New York University were up by 17%; while the University of Southern California (a party to the 2019 scandal) experienced a 7% increase.

Drawing from Common App data, the same WSJ article notes that applications through Mar. 1 were up 11% nationwide; however, the number of applicants has only risen by 2.4%. This means that “roughly the same number of students are just sending out more applications”; as well as that the “flurry of applications are concentrated at more selective colleges.”

Beyond these data, I have personally noticed a cultural obsession over prestige and rankings among members of my peer group. During my senior year of high school, my classmates (who were academically-inclined) would frequently rave about the low acceptance rates and high reputations of the colleges to which they applied. Also, my peers would complain about not being able to attend their “dream” schools. On one occasion, I remember a student complaining to her friends that she had to attend the University of Connecticut – mind you, it is among the most well-respected and competitive schools in the state.

As these data and stories demonstrate, Operation Varsity Blues has done absolutely nothing to improve the operations of higher education. In addition to legitimizing a broken admissions system, this scandal has shifted the focus of the college search away from the distinct needs and interests of the students applying to them. Unless we teach our nation’s students to see beyond the falsehoods and hysteria of the admissions process, our greedy colleges will continue to preside over our youth’s decisions about their own futures.

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