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Codes of Commerce and Codes of Citizenship: A Historical Look at Students as Consumers within us Higher Education

The University Under Pressure

ISBN: 978-1-78560-831-5, eISBN: 978-1-78560-830-8

ISSN: 0733-558X

Publication date: 5 February 2016


Is the aim of the university to prepare citizens to contribute to civic and social life as well as to travel flexibly and successfully through a rapidly changing work world? Or is the purpose of higher education more narrowly to advance students’ individual economic interests as they understand them? Should we think of students as citizens or consumers? Many analysts argue that, in recent years, the notion that higher education should serve to advance students’ individual economic position has increasingly taken prominence over broader notions of the purpose of American higher education. In this paper, we examine whether and to what extent a shift from considering students-as-citizens to students-as-consumers has occurred in US higher education. We provide a longitudinal analysis of two separate and theoretically distinct discourse communities (Berg, 2003): higher education trustees and leaders of and advocates for liberal arts education. Our data suggest a highly unsettled field in which commercial discourse as measured by the student-as-consumer code has surely entered the US higher education lexicon, but this code is not uncontested and the more traditional citizenship code remains significant and viable.




The authors would like to thank an anonymous reviewer and Elizabeth Popp Berman, Catherine Paradeise, Clifton Conrad, Sara Goldrick-Rab, Steve Hoffman, Michael Olneck, and Steve Vallas for their helpful suggestions as we sought to strengthen this paper. Funding supporting this endeavor comes from the US National Science Foundation (SES-1026516), the National Research Foundation of Korea (grant NRF-2013S1A3A2053087), and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (through the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison). The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors.


Kleinman, D.L. and Osley-Thomas, R. (2016), "Codes of Commerce and Codes of Citizenship: A Historical Look at Students as Consumers within us Higher Education", The University Under Pressure (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 46), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 197-220.



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