Date of Award

Fall 2020

Document Type

Dissertation - Restricted

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Policy and Leadership

First Advisor

Jessup-Anger, Jody

Second Advisor

Birren, Jill

Third Advisor

byrd, derria


Health disparities stemming from inequities in healthcare are of growing concern particularly because of their existence among many of the largest growing segments of the U.S. population. To address persistent disparities, the health professions have been compelled to increase the number of health professionals from diverse backgrounds to the existing workforce. Despite these recommendations, the physical therapy profession has struggled to graduate clinicians into the workforce who are fully representative of the U.S. population. The purpose of this study originates from the need to achieve a greater understanding of the admission practices and meaning-making processes through which merit is socially constructed by faculty in physical therapist education programs. Identifying the meaning of merit and implicit and explicit values espoused by faculty will ultimately assist in the development of a better-informed approach to address underrepresentation in physical therapist education.This study employs Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction, a dynamic model of structural inequality enabling the examination of social and educational advantage. Using interpretive research methodology and case study methods, the meaning of merit was explored across three programs each possessing varied amounts of program resources and representing differing status positions within the field of physical therapist education. Findings reveal differences in the meaning of merit across programs with wide-ranging levels of commitment to addressing underrepresentation. Faculty display a preference for institutionalized academic capital contextualized by judgements of rigor which are often conflated with factors which further legitimize dominant social class capital. Predilections for varied forms of capital which privilege a narrow set of social ties and patterns of cultural knowledge and behavior are reflective of class-based dispositions. Findings further indicate faculty habitus serves to orient value and judgement applied to various forms of capital within the stratified field of physical therapist education. Differing interests which are reflective of the interaction of habitus and field serve to both challenge and reproduce traditional barriers for underrepresented applicants. By challenging the arbitrary values and meanings offered as legitimate, this study underscores the need for a paradigm shift in physical therapist admissions, one which unites excellence and equity and supports a meaning of merit which upholds a broad commitment to addressing underrepresentation.



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