Seven months after news of Operation Varsity Blues first broke, the story of powerful parents (including a few celebrities) allegedly scamming their kids into elite universities has made its way to the small screen.
Lifetime’s based-on-a-true-story movie The College Admissions Scandal premiered Saturday, depicting fictional families taking desperate measures to secure their children’s bright futures — and failing miserably.
Below, PEOPLE separates fact from fiction, comparing the film to the real-life scandal and subsequent sting operation that ensnared actresses Felicity Huffman (who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 14 days behind bars) and Lori Loughlin (who denies the allegations against her, rejected a plea deal and awaits trial).
On March 12, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts announced that it had charged 50 people — including Huffman and Loughlin — in the cheating scandal. The two actresses, along with coaches, admissions counselors, parents, and Laughlin’s husband, fashion designer J. Mossimo Giannulli, were indicted on accusations of falsifying SAT scores and lying about their children’s athletic skills, among other alleged crimes. Huffman and her husband William H. Macy have daughters Sophia, 19, and Georgia, 17; Loughlin and Giannulli share YouTube influencer Olivia Jade, 20, and Isabella, 21.
Lifetime’s movie does not mention the Hollywood stars, focusing on two fictional mothers instead. There’s interior designer Caroline (Penelope Ann Miller), her lawyer husband and their son, a pot-smoking, guitar-playing, algebra-hating high school junior who’d rather pursue a music career than follow in his helicopter parents’ footsteps at Stanford. “Your entire fantasy of me getting in is a massive delusion,” he tells them early on in the movie.
Then, there’s Bethany (Mia Kirshner), the cut-throat owner of a financial firm and single mom to two high-school daughters. The elder girl doesn’t quite care about her mother’s Ivy League expectations, but she’d be happy to join her boyfriend at Yale.
A highly sought-after college consultant, Rick Singer counseled hundreds of families as they navigated the arduous process of getting their kids into top universities. There were different manners of cheating, according to authorities. In Huffman’s case, Singer’s firm received money to ensure that their older daughter’s SAT scores were fixed by a proctor. Loughlin and husband J. Mossimo Giannulli allegedly paid exorbitant bribes to designate their daughters as recruits on the crew team — even though they don’t even row. As things closed in on Singer, he pleaded guilty to multiple federal charges, including racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and obstruction of justice. As part of his guilty plea, he agreed to cooperate with the FBI to gather incriminating evidence against his alleged co-conspirators.
The movie portrays him pretty accurately: Singer (played by Michael Shanks) reels parents in with traditional tutoring services before bringing up his higher-end, hush-hush offers. The fictional Singer calls the practice of pretending kids are on sports teams and paying off college coaches to secure them admission “a very common tactic, a kind of side door.” And his cooperation with the FBI (one scene shows him calling his clients, coaxing them to confirm their crimes on the record) rings true.
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In a lengthy apology letter to a judge, Huffman described her “desperation to be a good mother” as one reason for why she participated in a plan fix her daughter’s SAT exams and facilitate her entries into good schools. “Please, let me be very clear, I know there is no justification for what I have done. Yes, there is a bigger picture, but ultimately it doesn’t matter because I could have said ‘No’ to cheating on the SAT scores,” she wrote. “I unequivocally take complete responsibility for my actions and will respectfully accept whatever punishment the court deems appropriate. I keep asking myself, why did I do this? Why did I say yes to a scheme of breaking the law and compromising my integrity? What interior forces drove me to do it? How could I abandon my own moral compass and common sense?”
She said she first hired Singer because of Sophia’s learning disabilities.
“I honestly didn’t and don’t care about my daughter going to a prestigious college. I just wanted to give her a shot at being considered for a program where her acting talent would be the deciding factor. This sounds hollow now, but, in my mind, I knew that her success or failure in theater or film wouldn’t depend on her math skills. I didn’t want my daughter to be prevented from getting a shot at auditioning and doing what she loves because she can’t do math,” she said. ““From the moment my children were born I was worried that they got me as a Mother. I so desperately wanted to do right and was so deathly afraid of doing it wrong,” she continued. “My own fears and lack of confidence, combined with a daughter who has learning disabilities often made me insecure and feel highly anxious from the beginning.”
In the movie, the parents seem to be motivated to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak; one father caves and agrees to cheat when his boss’ son gets into a prestigious college. But the characters also demonstrate a primal fear for their children. Caroline quite dramatically warns her son that if he keeps procrastinating on a homework assignment, he’ll “end up homeless and on the streets.”
“People donate millions for gyms and libraries to get their kids into college all the time. Is this any different than that?” she later asks her husband.
“Parents are supposed to do anything they can for their kids,” he agrees.
What the Kids Knew
Huffman and Loughlin have insisted their daughters did not know about the alleged scam. But in The College Admissions Scandal, Bethany consults her elder daughter about the scheme, and she is fully on-board, posing for photo shoot with a soccer ball even though she never played the sport.
“Wait, seriously? I say I’m in soccer and I see a therapist and that’s it? I’m just like accepted to Yale? Wow,” she says after learning of the plot.
And when Singer reads an essay that he’d commissioned for her, she replies with a laugh, “I can’t believe I wrote that!”
The movie shows the parents being arrested — and tearfully confronted by their children — but stops short of any court hearings. It does show Bethany explaining her refusal to accept a plea deal, much like Loughlin.
“Me, prison? For doing anything I can to help my child? That’s not something I’m going to apologize for,” she tells her attorney. “I’m going to seek counsel with the balls to stand up to a lynch mob.”