The growing interest in horizontal stratification has led researchers to recognize qualitative differentiation in the choice of academic fields of study (FOS), mainly along the lines of professional and non-professional fields. Still, adopting either rational action theory or Bourdieusian perspective, most researchers still evaluates FOS through their future utility, and accordingly assume a calculative or strategic choice process. This portrayal may reflect the stratifying effect of higher-education, as its ongoing professionalization. Nevertheless, higher-education and choice are associated with autotelic and expressive cultural ideals, such as the ideal of 'pure knowledge', the model of liberal-arts education and models of choice as an expressive action. To date, these ideals and their relationship with FOS choice have been mainly overlooked.
Drawing upon ‘culture as tool-kit’ perspective, I argue that when choosing FOS, students use dominant cultural perception of higher-education, as models through which they make sense and assign value to their choice. Accordingly, I show how the choice of professional or non-professional fields, reflects two distinct cultural models of higher-education and choice.
This paper is based on in-depth interviewssh of middle-class students from professional and non-professional fields. In light of a review of cultural representations of higher-education, two ideal-types of FOS choice are elucidated. The first, draws upon the ideal of acquiring knowledge as a tool for the future; characterized by a calculative FOS choice; and a utilitarian approach towards studying. The second, draws upon the ideal of knowledge for its own sake; characterized by an expressive FOS choice process and an autotelic approach toward studying. Moreover, all students experienced their choice as a tradeoff between the two models - between success and personal authenticity. These findings support recent challenges to current line of explanations, and their implications for present and future research are discussed.