The Practical or the Purposeful: A Study of Academic Decision-Making Among College Students in an Elite Institutional Context
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CitationTing, Tiffanie Lui. 2014. The Practical or the Purposeful: A Study of Academic Decision-Making Among College Students in an Elite Institutional Context. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
AbstractIn this dissertation, I investigate how thirty-nine undergraduates at Harvard College make one of their first consequential, academic decisions in the context of a powerful cultural narrative about the economic purpose of college. By examining students’ narratives about their academic decision-making, namely how they chose their concentrations, I seek to understand the underlying rationales behind their choices and relatedly, students’ ideas about the purpose of their college education. I focus on sophomores considering Economics – widely considered the most “practical” concentration and also the most popular, and those considering the arts, often considered among the “least useful” by students.
I demonstrate that the dominant cultural view of the economic purpose of college also governs the academic decision-making of participants, reflecting the national norm. Despite their position as students in an elite liberal arts context, participants held this rationale as the basis for justifying and/or undermining their choice of major. Both the
economics and arts students reference a shared narrative of “what Harvard students do” that is rooted in economic considerations and notions of achievement and legitimacy associated with their group identity as Harvard students.
I argue that “what Harvard students do” is a shared cognition that has assumed a rule-like status in the context of Harvard. It draws upon a discourse of practicality that involves: 1) a separation between practicality and happiness; 2) a technical rational view of education that privileges quantitative skills and ways of knowing as more practical; 3) pay range expectations that will be “decent” enough to live on comfortably, to pursue hobbies and a certain lifestyle, and 4) a concern for prestige and elite status achieved through competition for particular work opportunities. I examine the ways in which this discourse informs students’ conceptions of opportunity and risk and document their strategies for decision-making in relation to this institutional constraint.
Finally, I discuss the implications of these findings for students’ conceptions of the legitimacy of a liberal arts education, the impact of achievement culture and the elite admissions process on students’ approach to their education, and the dilemma of a group identity based on brand versus community.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:13383550