Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Committee Chair

Patrice M. Buzzanell

Committee Member 1

Stacey Connaughton

Committee Member 2

Melanie Morgan

Committee Member 3

Pamela Morris


This research examines student understandings of the relationships between higher education and career since the implementation of the Gainful Employment Rule. The Gainful Employment Rule states that education and training programs lead to degrees or prepare students for "gainful employment” in an occupation (USDOE, 2014). Policymakers during President Obama’s administration sought to provide better oversight with increased accountability for low performing colleges and universities and enhance transparency related to the student loan debt crisis by implementing protections for students as consumers of education. These guidelines initially were designed moreso for community colleges and proprietary institutions of higher education but the ramifications with the changing of the guard and new leadership with President Trump’s administration will likely expand current policy to include not only four-year public institutions, but all institutions. An assumption is that the stakeholders for whom such guidelineswere made would know about Gainful Employment and the practices and events designed to assist students in employability preparation, career development, and lower time to degree completion and debt. Another assumption is that such expanded notions of student success would be built into more linear career trajectories of and discussions about occupational preparation (see Buzzanell & Goldzwig, 1991). However, no one has investigated these assumptions by examining students’ d/Discourses (everyday talk and interaction, or discourses, as well as the societal understandings, Discourses, that make mundane language choices and conversations sensible and politicized; see Alvesson & Kärreman, 2000). Moreover, no one has examined how these d/Discourses might correspond with the text in institutional websites or other materials that are aligned with the Gainful Employment Rule. Interpretive methods and Critical Discourse Analysis were used to analyze both the transcripts of focus groups with recent graduates and the promotional materials from nonprofit and proprietary institutions of higher education. These analyses revealed micro/macro tensions related to the purpose of education, determinants of career success, and career development and placement approaches and practices. Specifically, identifying tensions—whether higher education is for personal growth or job attainment, and whether career success is determined by finding fulfillment in one’s work or receiving high levels of compensation, and whether personal and institutional approaches result in career achievement—highlighted how and why there are disconnects between Gainful Employment Rule d/Discourses and intent. This study contributes to career communication and policy scholarship in organizational communication, particularly that which takes d/Discursive and tension-centered approaches. Moreover, findings indicate that future research and practice would benefit from examination of issues from lenses associated primarily with emotional labor, sensemaking, and resilience. These implications touch on other areas such as meaningful work and career competency theories. They do so by gaining insight into the emotional labor exerted by students as they pursue career success, into students’ sensemaking of their worlds and knowledge related to careers, and into career resilience processes by which student overcome disruptions and create new normals to meet personal career expectations. This study also contributes to current pedagogical and student development practices and identifies future opportunities to better prepare tomorrow’s workforce.