With mental health challenges on the rise for students—and Covid-19 exacerbating the situation—many have pointed a finger at how students throughout the country compete against each other for a variety of honors, including most prominently chasing admission to prestigious colleges.

It’s not new to note that this competition is often for extrinsic reasons—out of a desire to be the best for its own sake, not for the intrinsic value of the experience students will get to enjoy—and creates an endless cycle of competition for its own sake.

People from The New York Times’ Frank Bruni to Harvard’s Michael Sandel have offered observations on the current system and raised questions about how healthy this is—for the individuals themselves as well as for society writ large.

 “Our credentialing function is beginning to crowd out our educational function,” Sandel said recently in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Students win admission to [exclusive institutions] by converting their teenage years—or their parents converting their teenage years—into a stress-strewn gauntlet of meritocratic striving. That inculcates intense pressure for achievement. So even the winners in the meritocratic competition are wounded by it because they become so accustomed to accumulating achievements and credentials, so accustomed to jumping through hoops and pleasing their parents and teachers and coaches and admissions committees, that the habit of hoop-jumping becomes difficult to break. By the time they arrive in college, many find it difficult to step back and reflect on what’s worth caring about, on what they truly would love to study and learn.”

The good news is that through the prism of the Jobs to Be Done theory and some insights on zero-sum versus positive-sum systems, we can see a path forward that could lift students out of this spiral.

In our book Choosing College, which details the causal reasons why students enroll in higher education, we found that there are many students who choose the college they do with the primary purpose of getting into their best school. If that sounds circular, it’s because in many respects it is.

These students’ driving motivations are much more about getting into college for its own sake, and less about what college will help them do or attain. They are swayed by everything from the opportunity to have the “classic college experience” on a beautiful brick-and-mortar campus to the opportunity to reinvent themselves among new people at a prestigious place that is highly regarded. They view college as simply the next logical step on their journey and as a benefit they are entitled to—not the investment on which many parts of society think prospective students ought to evaluate their decision.

Take Talikha, a student we interviewed in the course of our research whose name has been disguised as a term of our research protocol. Growing up in California, she attended a prestigious all-girls high school and hoped that she would be able to attend college out-of-state.

By her sophomore year, she had worked with the counselors at her school to create a first draft list of colleges she would apply to. When senior year rolled around, she applied to 22 schools all over the country. She got into 19 of them and then visited several.

Going to school was never in question—it was just the next logical step. One of the criteria in her list was whether they had a good business program, but she freely admitted she didn’t know what she would do after college and might even go to law school. The college’s ranking, that it was out-of-state, and that it had a vibrant campus in the middle of an urban environment similar to where she grew up were far more influential in helping her decide where to go.

Talikha, like many students, was running a race with an unknown destination. That’s OK, but when it becomes a never-ending race for its own sake, that can lead to a range of social and emotional problems.

And it doesn’t actually prepare students for the so-called real world, which, it turns out, isn’t built around a race up an imaginary ladder. To mix metaphors, life is a long journey, and as you branch out into the real world, the artificial rat race we have constructed around accolades and “being successful” becomes less relevant. The “train” that we have been led to believe we must stay on – and ride in the front car, no less – will still be waiting for us.

When Diane Tavenner and I interviewed Todd Rose, author of The End of Average and cofounder of the think tank Populace, for our podcast Class Disrupted, Rose pointed out how insane this competition to be the best is for its own sake.

“Literally you gotta be the same as everyone else only better,” he said. “Take the same test score, [but just get] higher. Right? Take the same classes. Get better grades. [And the assumption is that] is going to give way to something that I think is really cool.”

The problem, Rose pointed out, is our current system of education—and selective higher education in particular—is zero-sum. For every winner, there’s a loser.

The solution, Rose observed, is to move to a positive-sum system. A positive-sum game is one in which the pie grows larger as individuals achieve success. One of Adam Smith’s central insights in the 1700s, Rose said, is that “the mercantilist idea of zero-sum economies was just fatally wrong” and that society should instead create the correct conditions in which self-interest could create positive-sum outcomes.

Rose said there’s a big benefit from moving to a positive-sum system, which is that instead of competing to be the best—as in a zero-sum game—you compete to be unique.

“The last thing you want to do is be competing with some other people on the exact same thing. It limits you. It limits your value,” Rose said. “[Our research shows that trying to be unique] translates into much higher life satisfaction.” That’s the opposite of those who compete to be their best, “in which even higher levels of achievement do not correlate with higher life satisfaction or happiness. So there’s something about understanding how to compete, to be unique, and achieving on that uniqueness. That matters both for personal fulfillment and the life I want to live, but also ultimately my greatest contribution to society.”

One of the challenges, however, is that although people’s behaviors can change rapidly, it’s hard to change the fundamental Jobs to Be Done people have. Jobs like “Help me get into my best school” are sticky.

But we’ve also found that Jobs to Be Done are context and circumstance specific. If the fundamental conditions—or underlying system—change, then perhaps a new Job to Be Done might emerge for which students hired higher education.

In a positive-sum game rather than a zero-sum one, perhaps students might stop trying to get into school so they could be “their best” and instead seek to enroll to help them be their “most unique.” A new job might materialize.

There, of course, could be downsides to this, given that there are positive and natural reasons for some social conformity. But perhaps a new job wouldn’t even have to arise. Perhaps the definition of “best” would simply change for millions of students.

Or students would just enroll for other reasons that already exist today.

For example, many might go to school to help them extend themselves—a job that we found already existed and exists at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as it allows students to enroll to learn more and challenge themselves, often along the lines of what fulfills them and allows them to contribute more.

Were that to happen, many more students would be attending for intrinsic reasons rather than extrinsic ones. The key to unlocking it seems tied to escaping our current exclusive, zero-sum higher education hierarchical system and moving to a positive-sum education system that eschews forced curves and embraces the idea that when one student wins, we all can.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.