Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2011

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Educational Policy and Leadership Studies

First Advisor

Morphew, Christopher C.

First Committee Member

Colvin, Carolyn

Second Committee Member

McNabb, Scott

Third Committee Member

Sauder, Michael

Fourth Committee Member

Bills, David


The purpose of this study is to understand how colleges and universities use language to represent themselves on their institutional websites (official websites of higher education institutions). Organizations, like colleges and universities, seek to create and maintain a distinctive identity in an effort to build legitimacy (i.e., status) and attract students (i.e., tuition dollars). Institutional websites are increasingly important to the admissions and marketing practices of colleges and universities due to their ability to rapidly communicate a significant amount of content to a vast audience. Colleges and universities use language, whether textual (i.e., written) or visual (i.e., images), to position and differentiate themselves from other institutions and promote their efforts.

This study utilizes Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) to examine the language on the institutional websites of 12 colleges and universities across a number of characteristics (e.g., control, type, geographic region, admissions selectivity) in the United States. Theoretically, CDA provides the means to examine everyday language in an effort to raise awareness about issues of inequality, such as access to education. Methodologically, Fairclough's approach to CDA has three dimensions of analysis. The first dimension is descriptive analysis where the intent is to describe the properties of the textual and visual elements. The second dimension involves interpretive analysis where the goal is to examine the contents of language and its functional parts to understand and interpret the connections between the role of language and the greater social structures it reflects and supports. Societal analysis, the third dimension, focuses on explanations of larger cultural, historical, and social discourses surrounding interpretations of the data.

The analyses from this study suggest that colleges and universities utilize a common promotional discourse en masse to market rather systematic representations of "higher education" despite the fact that they vary widely by a number of institutional characteristics. Specifically, analyses reveal that institutions use language to repeatedly establish prestige and relevancy by touting the accomplishments of their institutional actors. The institutions attempt to engage the viewer with relational language, present numerous co-curricular experiences along with numerous images related to generic institutional characteristics (e.g., architecture, campus scenery), and multiple layers of navigation. The scholarly commitment associated with higher education plays a reduced role while the intangibles available to the prospective student are at the forefront of representations in the sample.

Institutions also poorly represent other social goods (e.g., class, sexual orientation). Of the 453 images in the study, 98 feature a non-white actor (21%) and 146 feature a female actor (32%). Representations of diverse actors often appear in the form of caricatures (e.g., Native American in tribal dress). Given the mission and rhetoric stemming from many postsecondary institutions, including the institutions in this sample, to increase access to education for underrepresented individuals and enhance diversity in all its forms, the language utilized on the websites does not align with such statements.

By deploying similar promotional discourse, the institutions choose what to present, emphasize, and exclude. Hence, institutions retain a great amount of control over information the viewer has access to on the institutional website. The language in use reveals that the institutions retain significant control over its actors with strategic placement of obligational discourse and, in most cases, complete silence on issues. Such discourse constructs an unrealistic portrayal of higher education while simultaneously reducing the role higher education has as a social institution committed to teaching, research, and service.


Admissions, College Choice, Critical Discourse Analysis, Higher Education, Marketization of Higher Education, Websites


xii, 205 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 195-205).


Copyright 2011 Kem Saichaie