In the wake of the massive college admissions scam in which parents allegedly used fraud and bribery to help their children get into elite colleges, commentators and aghast onlookers have speculated about the answer to one big question: Why?

Why would wealthy and famous parents break the law to help their children get into top schools when their large fortunes and connected social networks all but ensure that their children will be OK in life?

We may never know the real answer. But research that my colleagues and I conducted for my upcoming book Choosing College (Jossey-Bass, August 2019) sheds light on the question.

In the book, we address the question of why—why are students seeking more education in their life?

A key finding that helps explain why private equity moguls and beloved television stars may have committed admissions fraud is that a significant number of high school students choose college for its own sake with little consideration for what doors college will open or what they will do once enrolled. Simply put, many students’ “why” is to get into the best college for them. They are on a ladder with a singular focus on being and getting into the best.

That myopia suggests how parents could so brazenly disregard the rule of law in giving their children a leg up to get into the best possible school.

To arrive at our findings, we conducted extensive interviews with people to collect more than 200 detailed stories of individuals making choices around college, followed by surveys of more than a thousand students.

We then analyzed the data using the theory of Jobs to Be Done that the renowned Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen and Bob Moesta created.

The basic idea behind the Jobs Theory framework is that people don’t buy products or services, like college, for their own sake. They instead “hire” products or services to make progress and attain a certain outcome in a specific circumstance in their life. By understanding human behavior—what people actually do, not just what they say they will do—we can better understand why people make certain choices.

The choice to go to college is unsurprisingly complicated. There are lots of underlying forces and reasons that shape people’s decisions. As we coded and analyzed all the forces pushing and pulling people to go to college, we uncovered five “jobs” for which people “hire” college.

What’s important to understand about the Help Me Get Into My Best School job is that, apart from all the others we found, it’s a strange job because the outcome that people desire is the affirmation that comes from getting into school, not the schooling experience itself or the pathways it could lead to.

The students with this job are typically looking to take the next logical step in their life by having the classic “college experience” on a beautiful campus, belonging to a place with prestige and a great reputation, and reinventing themselves with new people.

Sure, students might be going into school as a pre-med student or to get employed “in business.” They might have a sense of the classes they will take and the parties they might attend. But deep down, the emphasis is all about getting in, being the best and having the best—as the individual defines the best. What they will do once they’re in and why they are going are not concrete.

The daughter of one of the actresses charged in the scandal admits as much in a moment of candor in a YouTube video when she said, “I don’t know how much of school I’m gonna attend … I don’t really care about school.”

Given the high-status symbol of college and the big bucks that some families spend helping their children get in, perhaps it’s not surprising that the college admissions process would descend into lawlessness. Because ultimately, success isn’t about the work an individual has done or what college will lead to, but simply the act of getting into “the best” school.

With that mindset, it’s not hard to imagine how parents slipped down a slope into the muck of lying and cheating to supposedly help their children. Following a fair process and hoping for a better life outcome were beside the point.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

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