Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, the newest entry in Netflix’s impressive lineup of buzzy documentaries, is transfixing for the same reason any bombshell report indicting wealthy people is transfixing: We are undeniably obsessed with the rich, and we love (and hate) watching them lose. Twin sensations of voyeurism and victory arise when watching Operation Varsity Blues, which details how Rick Singer created illegal “side door” Ivy League admissions for high school students, paid for by their parents. You can’t wait for these conniving folks to get caught. But also, Wow, look at their gorgeous house. Wouldn’t it be nice if life were that easy?
Yet, perhaps a neglected aspect of the doc is the once-or-twice-mentioned “back door.” This pathway to admissions involves plenty of cash as well, but, unlike with Singer’s “side door,” it’s perfectly legal. Here’s what we know about this morally ambiguous entry point for rich kids.
What is the “back door” method?
Think of the “front door” to college admissions as the so-called “normal” pathway to get into a school. Students apply to a university and are accepted on merit, or through an athletic scholarship, or because an admissions agent was having a good day and liked their essay. This is the legal, typical way ambitious students get into top-tier schools, and though it’s inherently flawed, it at least doesn’t involve exchanging millions of dollars for placement.
The “side door” was Singer’s infamous method, in which parents paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars to create fake athletic scholarships for their kids through his university connections. The “side door” is named such because it’s less expensive than the “back door,” plus it offers a “guarantee” of admission. Thus why Singer attracted so many clients.
The “back door,” on the other hands, involves huge sums of money, but they’re made in the form of direct donations to the school. Think of them like a goodwill offering, a wink-wink-nudge-nudge that urges admissions officers to ogle at the dollar signs and remember the last name of the donor. That way, when their kid’s college application comes through, admissions officers will remember the name and repay the favor with an acceptance.
What’s the problem with the “back door” method?
Well, for one thing, it’s not a guarantee. Donor parents could give Harvard University, for example, millions of dollars, and an admissions officer could still choose not to accept their kid because the donation is not, technically, a transaction or bribe.
In addition, the “back door” method only benefits the ultra-ultra wealthy, i.e. billionaires, because the only eye-catching sums are in the millions. Parents like those caught in Operation Varsity Blues have a lot of cash to blow, but not enough to ostensibly buy Harvard’s attention.
Is the “back door” method a real thing?
Clearly, yes, or else Singer’s “side door” method wouldn’t have been as successful as it was. The “back door” was always an option—it was just too expensive, so parents opted for the criminal “side door.”
As Princeton University professor Shamus Khan wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post, “The problem wasn’t the money they’d given; it was who they’d given it to. Writing a big check to the university development office would have greatly increased the odds of their children being admitted, with no criminal liability. It may have even garnered them some praise. Donating a building or endowing a scholarship is a tax-deductible act of philanthropy. Paying Singer is fraud … These families are a red herring, a drop in an ocean of purchased advantages.”
He later added, “For the super-rich, the legal scam of buying your child a spot at an elite school through, say, giving a building is a secret so open it’s hardly a secret at all.”
Is the “back door” method unethical?
The “back door” method is legal, but whether or not it’s ethical depends on whom you ask. Billionaires have lots of money—why not donate it toward an educational institution? And if their kid gets into college because of it, what’s the harm done?
The problem is that the “back door” points out just another way in which income inequality provides opportunities for some students and none for others, which further stretches the income gap.
Khan writes, “Parents deploy their wealth to make their children look interesting and have the right ‘talents.’ It works: Children from the top 1 percent are 77 times more likely to attend elite colleges than children from the bottom 20 percent.”
The “back door” also demonstrates how certain circles are able to perpetuate their upper-class status through legacy. In 2018, an Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions leaders found that 32 percent of admissions directors at private colleges and universities admitted legacy status plays a role in admissions decisions. So if your dad happened to go to Harvard, and he donates several million dollars to build a new biology lab? Well, it’s hard for admissions officers to ignore that when your application rolls through.
And while that might not be unethical on paper, it does statistically disadvantage students from other backgrounds—for instance, those with parents who never went to college, or who could only afford trade or public school.
Are colleges doing anything about the “back door”?
It’s hard to know for sure. While some universities stress “the reality that there are no shortcuts,” as one author wrote for the University of Georgia’s undergraduate blog, many education experts seem to take Khan’s perspective: This is an open secret, and it’s not going to disappear any time soon. Universities might try to deny they’ve participated in the “back door” cycle, and Khan says many officers have even signed nondisclosure agreements. But that doesn’t stop the deals from happening. The parents involved in Operation Varsity Blues might have had their comeuppance, but higher education as a whole has yet to face its true reckoning.
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