6 Higher Education Administration Career Paths

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university administator meeting with students

Taking on an administrative position at a college or university provides an opportunity to influence the direction of educational policy, both at a particular school and in the academic field as a whole. Pursuing a higher education administration career path can be both challenging and satisfying. While the rewards that come with administrative work can be great, it requires years of preparation, including advanced degrees and years of professional service.

Those interested in a role in higher education administration should consider the best paths to their chosen positions. Full-time work as a professor or in another on-campus role is a natural part of the experience-building process, alongside studies to earn an advanced degree. Completing a program such as Bradley University’s online doctorate in education is one way to develop a resume that focuses on highly specific concepts concerning leadership at community colleges and private and public colleges and universities.

How to Start a Career in Higher Education Administration

The amount of experience required to pursue an administrative career at a community college, four-year college, or university may depend upon the type of position in question, as well as the size of the school. The path to a position in higher education administration can be broken down into three main steps.

1. Earn a Degree

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that most administrative positions go to candidates who’ve earned at least a master’s degree. Bachelor’s degrees may prove sufficient if the school in question is a smaller college or university. However, the more advanced the degree, the more likely a candidate will be able to move into a senior position later in their career. Some institutions require a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) degree to be considered for certain roles.

Some who move into administration begin their educational careers as professors, which usually means they already have a doctorate in their area of expertise. (For those interested in this path to a career in administration, it’s worth understanding the difference between an associate professor and a full professor.)

2. Gain Experience

Professional experience is critical. When candidates who don’t have faculty experience enter the administrator ranks, they may begin by working entry-level jobs in departments such as student affairs and admissions. Here they can learn how educational institutions operate and how effective administrations work to improve student outcomes. Several years’ experience working in administrative roles is required before advancing to higher positions, and candidates should consider volunteering for department committees and other opportunities to gain different expertise.

3. Earn a Senior Higher Education Administration Role

The BLS specifies that becoming a registrar or an academic dean often hinges on a candidate’s experience in postsecondary academic settings. While working in lower-level positions, administrators can pick up essential technical skills, including the ability to work with modern educational technology, alongside soft skills, such as interpersonal communication expertise, organizational aptitude, and problem-solving.

Departmental leadership roles such as provost and dean often go to candidates who have a Doctor of Education degree. When competing for in-demand roles, candidates will likely find themselves up against other highly qualified applicants. A doctorate can help aspiring administrators stand out from other job seekers.

6 Careers in Higher Education: Job Titles and Duties

Administration in postsecondary education involves a varied set of roles and responsibilities, each with the ability to shape a key element of academic policy and day-to-day operations. The exact career path an administrator follows will determine the responsibilities and duties involved, as well as salary potential and possible avenues for promotion. The following are a few of the most prominent positions that fall under the higher education administration umbrella:

1. Academic Dean

Academic dean roles are among the highest-profile careers in higher education. The position involves directing other faculty members and engaging in employee development. Academic deans are tasked with creating and implementing policies with far-reaching impact. They oversee staffing decisions, budgeting, academic programming, and course scheduling. The academic dean is also responsible for maintaining a school’s accreditation status and ensuring that the institution complies with industry standards.

2. Dean of Students

The dean of students manages an institution’s educational environment, ensuring that the student body has the tools to succeed. When issues on campus negatively impact the student experience, the dean of students is the official most responsible for correcting the situation. Everything from ensuring the effective use of technology in classrooms to creating a positive environment for learning may fall under this dean’s purview. Success in this role is easier for candidates with strong interpersonal abilities, as they must develop and implement policies that serve a variety of needs and interests.

3. Director of Career Services

Working in the career services office means interacting with current college students and alumni, helping people associated with the college or university in their search for fulfilling work. One of the hallmarks of a successful university is its ability to forge strong connections with companies and the business community at large, and administrators in the career services department are tasked with creating these partnerships. Career fairs and other employment services events are also typically within their purview.

4. Provost or Chief Academic Officer

With duties that deal with the academic direction of a college or university, provosts are expected to collaborate closely with institutions’ presidents. High-level decision-making, such as determining professor tenure status, is often the duty of provosts. In addition, the provost is the official who oversees the research projects undertaken by faculty members, ensuring effective direction of this side of the academic enterprise.

5. Director of Admissions

The admissions department must make important determinations about a college’s student body, including the right number of pupils to be enrolled in a given year, as well as admission standards. A director of admissions analyzes data about prospective and admitted students, as the relative success of an admitted class is often borne out in complicated statistics. It’s normal for members of the admissions department to be assigned territories to visit and speak with prospective students. These professionals are also tasked with coordinating financial aid offerings to incoming students.

6. Director of Financial Assistance

The financial assistance department manages the many forms of aid that enable students to fund their education. The Balance Careers, a job advice website, explains that employees dealing with financial aid may work as advisers, counselors, or directors. To thrive in any of these careers in higher education, professionals have to understand the policies behind grants, loans, and scholarships. Leaders in these departments determine the scale of the awards and the requirements to earn them. Financial assistance work involves compiling reports internally and sharing them with state and federal agencies to demonstrate regulatory compliance.

General Administration Duties and Needed Competencies

While all institutions of higher learning need responsible teams of administrators, specific responsibilities for certain roles may vary based on the size of the school and other factors. For instance, it’s normal to consolidate departments at smaller schools. At these colleges, the Office of Student Life may assume oversight of functions such as athletics that would have their own departments at larger universities.

There are a few competencies and skills that are relevant for virtually all positions in the higher education administration field, at large and small institutions alike. Experience managing people is the most valuable of these abilities in terms of increasing an administrator’s earning power. Strategic planning skills are also crucial because — whatever duties an administrator is tasked with — making and executing a sound plan will help them manage that work effectively.

What Are Average Higher Education Administration Salaries?

The average salary for an administrator varies across types and sizes of schools, with further adjustments for how long the professional has served in the field and the nature of the role in question. With great potential for salary increases and promotions to roles with expanded responsibilities, higher education leadership can become a rewarding long-term career path.

Data on salaries for higher education administrators indicates the potential for progress within such roles. The median annual wage for higher education administrators was $96,910 in May 2021, according to the BLS. While the bottom 10% of earners in the field made less than $59,150, the highest-earning 10% made more than $190,770.

The BLS adds that there are unique benefits to taking a role in higher education administration. For example, these professionals may have access to discounted or free classes at their institutions. To earn these benefits and the high salaries that come with administrative roles, professionals will likely have to work a year-round schedule, even when classes have let out for the summer. While activity on campus may slow down in the summer, administrators at most schools will still have full-time hours.

Breakdown by Position

Payscale divides positions into more granular categories, revealing which types of academic administration work will potentially allow professionals to earn the greatest higher education salaries. For example, Payscale’s salary projections for academic deans are similar to those of the BLS, with the bottom 10% earning less than $62,000, the median earning around $93,000, and the top 10% earning $159,000 or more in April 2022. Deans of students earned less, with a median salary of roughly $64,000. The associate provost of a school, on the other hand, earned a median salary of $136,000, according to data from October 2021.

Projected Hiring Trend

Hiring for higher education administration positions is expected to rise, with the total number of such positions projected to increase by 8% between 2020 and 2030, according to the BLS. The figure is on pace with the projected growth for all professions over the same span of time. This demand can be explained by the need for more personnel to supervise the growing student bodies at colleges and universities. Greater enrollment over time is leading to improved opportunities in higher education employment ― though state academic budgets may fluctuate over time, adding some doubts to the growth projection.

What Does a Doctor of Education Degree Entail?

Considering the diversity of roles in higher education administration, there’s no single answer when considering what type of graduate school education will point a professional toward this field. There are a few highly relevant programs, however, that deliver information and experience directly related to administrators’ work. The online Doctor of Education degree program at Bradley University, for instance, is based on up-to-date higher education leadership strategies and practical ways to apply these concepts.

Graduates earn a degree with a focus in higher education administration on a schedule that makes sense, due to the fully online nature of the coursework. While still working full time, online Ed.D. students receive instruction from experienced and industry-connected faculty members, as well as hands-on experience with research strategies that will serve them well as academic administrators.

A Program Focused on Contemporary Higher Education Administration

The online Doctor of Education degree program is a relevant choice for prospective administrators because its curriculum focuses on the practical issues facing higher education today. Professors involved in these courses have experience in the types of educational administration roles students are aiming for. The curriculum, with its emphasis on matters of social justice and public policy, incorporates the realities of the industry and political forces that define higher education today.

Earning the Ed.D. degree can serve as a sign that a candidate is engaged in continued learning about academic leadership. This may prove helpful in seeking an administrative role, as even at smaller colleges and universities many potential applicants have earned the terminal degrees in their chosen subjects. It’s getting harder to stand out against such tough competition without a higher-level degree, such as an Ed.D.

A Curriculum Dealing With Community College, College, and University Leadership

The courses that make up the online Doctor of Education program directly address the challenges and opportunities facing today’s academic leaders.

  • Ethical and Political Foundations of Educational Policy is designed to assist students in seeking equality and inclusion within their own institutions.
  • Learning in an Era of Technology incorporates the latest developments in the IT field, instructing participants in the ways they can incorporate these tools into their own leadership styles.
  • Advanced courses such as The Contemporary Learner are focused on the unique traits of today’s students, as well as the innovative policies that can create positive connections between educators and their pupils.
  • Student and Academic Affairs is a class entirely dealing with ethical leadership in today’s educational climate.
  • Financial Affairs in Higher Education equips graduates with the knowledge and experience they need to responsibly and strategically manage an academic budget.

The higher education administration program concludes with the end of a research project that’s ongoing throughout students’ time studying for the Ed.D. To complete this project, students use the action research methodology to investigate academic matters of particular professional interest. Over the course of five interconnected classes, participants collect data, analyze that information, and present their findings. The research project requirement welcomes participants into a research community, supporting and receiving assistance from fellow members of the program.

Why Work in Higher Education?

Graduates from the online Ed.D. program often seek out new roles in either teaching or administration in higher education. One career path can lead to the other, as hiring managers may select professors for high-level administrative roles that open on campus. This can present an alternative career path for educators who don’t end up in tenure track teaching positions.

The information imparted in the Doctor of Education program curriculum may also prepare graduates for work on the public sector side of academic administration rather than a role at one particular college or university. States need informed executives to assist with the creation and execution of educational strategies, with matters such as budgeting and overall academic strategy calling for specialized knowledge.

Corporations, where employee education programs are increasingly taking on the focused nature of academia, may also employ experts in educational policy and leadership. Organizations developing strategies that reach multiple offices around the world and incorporate the latest IT innovations need professionals who’ve mastered the concepts behind effective instruction, and Ed.D. graduates may suit this requirement.

While professorial roles, public sector jobs, and corporate positions remain options for Ed.D. recipients, the primary focus of the degree program remains on the world of higher education administration. From entry-level roles in admissions and student affairs to high-level leadership positions, these jobs encompass an enormous range of essential functions that keep colleges and universities functioning.

Although there are many reasons why working in higher education can be rewarding, perhaps the most important is that it presents the opportunity to shape young minds and usher in a new generation of capable graduates. Promising job growth and competitive salaries are two more compelling reasons to pursue a career in education administration.

If you’re interested in this kind of role, your graduate education choices can push your career in the right direction. To determine whether the online Ed.D. is the right option for you, visit the program page for Bradley University’s online Doctor of Education, where you can inspect the curriculum and learn about the expert faculty, as well as more specifics on the kinds of roles graduates can seek after receiving their diplomas.


Recommended Readings

5 Elements to Succeed in Education Leadership

Career Opportunities for a Doctor of Education Degree

Education Policy Jobs, Career and Salary Information


Indeed, “How To Become a School Administrator in 4 Steps”

Payscale, Average Academic Dean Salary

Payscale, Average Associate Provost Salary

Payscale, Average Dean of Students Salary

Payscale, Average Education Administrator, Postsecondary Salary

The Balance Careers, “Best Jobs in Higher Education Administration”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Postsecondary Education Administrators