When the Varsity Blues college-admissions scandal came to light earlier this year, its dramatic details captured the nation's attention. In March, dozens of wealthy parents, including bankers, CEOs, and movie stars, were charged by federal prosecutors for taking part in a fraudulent scheme to effectively buy their children a place at some of the nation’s top colleges. There was money, fame, deception—it only made sense that, eventually, the seemingly made-for-television drama of it all would actually be made for television.
Lifetime, perhaps best known for happy-ending-heavy holiday programming, was the channel that fulfilled this near-inevitability. On Saturday, the station premiered its dramatization of the scandal, a two-hour movie called The College Admissions Scandal. The real-life scandal arguably could not have been scripted better—no one expected the parents to Photoshop their kids’ heads onto the bodies of water-polo players to make them look like athletes—and Lifetime didn’t try too hard to deviate from it. But in sticking to the drama, the producers and writers obscured a deeper, much more pressing problem with college admissions.
The film follows two fictional families angling to get their children into prestigious colleges. One set of parents is fixated on Stanford, where Danny, their son, stands a good chance of getting in: He is a “double legacy,” his dad boasts, meaning both of his parents went to the university. An acceptance letter is, at least according to his parents, his birthright.
Getting into Stanford won’t be easy, though, and Danny’s parents know it; they fret over his GPA and SAT score even more than Danny himself does. Stanford is one of those highly selective institutions that seems to get more selective each year. (The annual release of its admit numbers became such a spectacle that the university, in 2018, announced that it would no longer issue news releases about the data.)
But then something comes along that might save Danny from those daunting admissions numbers. When a group of parents is gathered over coffee, engaged in an anxious conversation about their children and college, one mom mentions the name Rick Singer.
Singer is one of the figures Lifetime dragged and dropped—name and all—into the movie from the actual Varsity Blues scandal. In real life, Singer orchestrated schemes to fabricate test scores and exaggerate students’ athletic abilities to get them admitted to selective colleges through “side doors”—such as those reserved for athletes—for a hefty price. The fictional Singer is not much different. He’s a master salesman in the film, convincing parents that he can discreetly provide them with a crucial admissions nudge.
The College Admissions Scandal also runs with the notion, backed up by the federal investigation, that overbearing parents, not their children, were the ones instigating the deception. At one point in the film, a mother persuades her daughter to take photos in front of a green screen to make it seem like she’s really a soccer player, as her application indicates. “It seems so easy—I’m surprised everybody doesn’t do it,” the daughter says, almost gleefully, before posing for the pictures. (Her mom replies that, well, not everybody has a quarter of a million dollars to spare.)
Other children in the movie are unaware of their parents’ machinations. In this regard, the film also hews closely to reality. In the transcript of one conversation released from the Varsity Blues investigation, one parent, who’s worried that her daughter will get suspicious, asks Singer, “How do you do this without telling the kids what you’re doing?” “Oh, in most cases,” Singer assures the parent, “none of the kids know.”
In telling this tale, The College Admissions Scandal frequently leaps ahead in time, fast-forwarding to the most dramatic points of what was otherwise a more drawn-out disaster for the families involved. One jump takes viewers to the testing rooms for students granted extra time on the SAT—securing additional time for students, even if they didn’t really need it, was a central part of Singer’s real-life cheating operation. There are jumps to the moments of bliss: One student gets into Yale, and another gets into Stanford. And of course there is a jump to the point in time when all the wrongdoing comes to light, with scenes of flashing police sirens and children fuming at parents.
But through this predictable narrative arc, there is an omission—one that, admittedly, would bother a film critic less than it does an education reporter. Just like most media coverage of the Varsity Blues scandal, The College Admissions Scandal dwells almost entirely on the misfortunes of a small group of affluent families. This focus obscures the fact that college admissions have substantive, systemic problems that will not end with a little jail time and fines for those trying to cheat their way in; there remain big, unanswered questions about why colleges don’t enroll more low-income and minority students, whether they could put the billions they have in endowment funds to better use, and whether the most selective schools should just let more people in.
But the film, perhaps predictably, leaves the system itself unexamined. Occasionally, the unfairnesses of it are addressed in a surface-level way: There are numerous references to the edge that students get if they are athletes, legacies, or the offspring of someone who can sponsor the construction of a building on campus. But The College Admissions Scandal never goes deeper than that. In life and in art, people eagerly watch as some are caught cheating in a broken system, but take less of an interest in how that system might be fixed.