5 Elements to Succeed in Education Leadership

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Education Administrators collaborate in a meeting


In the context of higher education, leadership can mean a few different things. Colleges and universities of all sizes, from regional community colleges to large public and private universities that attract students from around the world, need responsible and experienced leaders to give direction and guidance.

Candidates for educational leadership can come from the ranks of professors, or from administrative staff at departments such as admissions or student affairs. Promotion into top roles, with the ability to have a direct impact on policy and priorities, may depend on applicants’ ability to build relevant knowledge and experience through their own graduate-level education.

Colleges and universities today need educational leaders who understand the unique nature of higher learning. From legislative programs impacting the field to the increasing impact of technology on the learning and teaching experiences, there is a vast amount of subject matter to master. People who gain this knowledge can find their place in academic leadership.


Education Leadership Jobs and Opportunities

Professionals currently employed in the higher education field or considering a move into this space can familiarize themselves with the various types of leadership positions available within community college, four-year college and university structures. As enrollment in postsecondary education increases, the associated administrative departments will need to staff themselves with top candidates, and competition for the best of these roles could intensify.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that administrators at colleges and universities earn a median of $94,340 a year, and that openings for these professionals are set to grow 7% between 2018 and 2028, a rate faster than the 5% for all jobs over the same period.

The BLS added that becoming an administrator in higher education typically requires at least a master’s degree level of education. Hiring managers at colleges and universities are looking for candidates who have built up a strong base of knowledge about the academic world.

The professionals who rise to positions of leadership and responsibility within higher education take on direction of specific departments. In admissions, this can mean setting policy about how large the incoming class should be and determining academic standards. Provosts and academic deans have oversight over faculty matters such as appointments and tenure, while registrars are tasked with managing records and databases. Deans of students sign off on housing, events and other nonacademic parts of the college experience.

The paths to such positions of influence can take several forms. Some individuals will join the administrative side of the school in entry-level roles, while others will build their experience in different professional environments and seek appointment as an outside hire. Professors may also seek out education leader jobs as a way of continuing and deepening their association with a school. Whatever the exact course chosen, there are a few skills and areas of knowledge uniquely suitable for these roles. These are the concepts imparted when a professional earns a degree in educational leadership.


5 Top Qualities of Education Leaders

Rising to a position of authority within the competitive academic space means taking on specific and relevant knowledge and experience. The following are a few of the characteristics that can make candidates particularly appealing to hiring managers at community colleges, four-year colleges and universities. These institutions will only turn over control of their future direction to professionals with comprehensive and up-to-date understanding of the educational field.


1. Awareness of Legislative and Social Context

The direction of U.S. educational policy is often shaped by government action and political maneuvering. To rise to positions of influence within colleges and universities ― and be effective in these high-ranking jobs ― administrators should be familiar with present priorities, the history of public sector actions and the potential for further changes in the near future. Approaching the political side of educational leadership with a desire for equity and opportunity can help a professional ensure the quality of the student experience.

Whether an administrator is actively called on to lobby for legislative action or mostly deals with government policies in the internal context of their institutional impact, an up-to-date knowledge of politics is a key element of effective and informed decision-making. Every college and university around the country will have its plans shaped by the decisions of lawmakers, and informed leaders can help schools exert some control over this process.


2. An Understanding of Technology’s Place in Colleges and Universities

The average student experience today is very different than in past decades, with online interactions and digital tools in general changing the way students gather information. Educational leaders have a prime opportunity to integrate these new developments into the programs within their colleges and universities, using trends such as mobility and distance learning to improve academic performance. Due to the rapid pace of technological change, it is important for prospective administrators to frequently refresh their knowledge on the subject.

With greater use of digital learning methods, including for standardized tests and other student assessments, higher education institutions now have access to more academic data than ever before. Using this information effectively to design policies that encourage student success is a potentially valuable use of technology. Administrators who are able to implement such programs within colleges and universities may be especially welcome.


3. The Ability to Work Interdepartmentally and with Boards

No department within a higher education institution is able to thrive in a vacuum. Decisions made by the provost will affect deans of students and registrars, and vice versa. A college or university’s identity is a composite of the policies set in each part of the institution. Administrators must also be able to work effectively with board members, and incorporate the input of the community at large.

Every impactful decision made by an educational leader has to satisfy many constituencies. Students, parents, faculty members, board members and fellow administrators will all be directly or indirectly affected by major changes to policy and direction. Considering the perspectives of all these groups and communicating effectively across roles to shape strategies are important abilities for leaders to have in academia. Treating any department as disconnected or independent is likely to cause strain and weaken an organization’s ability to make cohesive policies.


4. Strong Familiarity with the Financial Aspects of Higher Education

Budgeting is a responsibility that appears throughout the leadership structure of any college or university. Each departmental head is tasked with creating an appropriate financial structure, one that can help the team and the school as a whole achieve its aims. While the chief academic officer or provost will likely be the official with the greatest degree of budgetary responsibility, sound money management is a universally relevant leadership skill.

Members of an academic institution’s C-suite may bear especially pivotal financial duties related to securing funding for the school in the years to come. The flow of money into an institution’s budget may rely on factors such as governmental policies or the relationship between a university and its donors. Navigating the ever-shifting political landscape and securing a steady budget for a college requires the careful application of interpersonal skills as well as highly specific knowledge.


5. Well-Developed Soft Skills and Personal Leadership Ability

While there are many ways in which academic leadership is different from practices in the larger corporate world and numerous special practices to learn, some of the ideal traits for professionals to possess are universal. For example, good educational leaders are typically able to get the best out of their coworkers through solid interpersonal skills. People who are able to express themselves clearly, display empathy toward others and keep meetings on track can have a positive influence on their teams.

One frequent misconception about soft skills is that they are innate, rather than taught. Taking the view that one can learn to be a better leader, then practicing the related abilities through processes such as academic group work can assist professionals seeking to take on leadership roles. When hiring managers seek the next generation of administrators at colleges and universities, they’ll likely consider the ability to communicate and inspire alongside hard knowledge and experience.


The Online Doctor of Education Program

Professionals aiming for a career in educational leadership can choose to focus their own learning on concepts and knowledge directly related to the field by enrolling in the online Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) program at Bradley University. This doctoral program is administered 100% online to allow participants to take the necessary courses on their own schedules while employed full time.

Student learning in Ed.D. courses is based on an up-to-date view of the most important concepts surrounding educational policy and practice today. From the impact of technology on academic outcomes and the effective use of data to the political imperatives shaping overall college and university operations, these ideas are conveyed by faculty members with deep engagement in, and understanding of, contemporary administration.

Taking an educational leader job, no matter the department or the size of the school, brings out the need for unique skills. In courses such as Leadership in Higher Education and Community College, Ed.D. students can build these abilities while developing their overall familiarity with the academic field. Ethics, online learning and up-to-date student preferences are all among the topics covered in Ed.D. coursework.

The online Ed.D. program includes a two-semester internship which embeds participants in the educational leadership framework, while also promoting effective interpersonal communication. This course, and the degree program as a whole, can prepare graduates to deal with the realities of academic decision-making today.

Visit the program page to learn more and determine whether this is the next step for you.


Recommended Readings

Discover What It Takes to Work as an Academic Dean at a College or University

A Look at The 4 Ed.D. Foundational Courses

Bradley University Online Ed.D. Program



Bureau of Labor Statistics – Postsecondary Education administrators