How to Become a College Dean

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An academic administrator leads a meeting

For professionals who want to make a difference in a higher education setting by setting the academic agenda for their respective colleges and universities, a career as an academic dean can be a satisfying goal. Because of intense competition for academic dean openings and the demanding work these executives have to accomplish, it’s important for candidates to seek out advanced degrees.

A Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) degree is one such credential, especially when it’s a course of study specifically designed for administration in higher education. Individuals interested in becoming a college dean should consider earning a doctorate in education.

What Is a Dean?

A dean is a senior-level administrative position that oversees an entire college or university. In larger institutions with multiple subject-focused schools, each college has its own academic dean. For instance, a university with a school of law as well as a college of arts and sciences will likely have an academic dean for each of those colleges. Within a school, faculty members take their cues from the dean’s day-to-day leadership and direction. Deans have to be adept at communication, negotiation, planning, and budgeting, among other skills.

Establishing a long-term vision for their institution is one of the dean’s responsibilities. They are in charge of obtaining and maintaining accreditation for new and ongoing programs. They make important decisions about new faculty and staff members in their departments, from recruiting and hiring to training and development. Being involved in the academic planning process is an essential aspect of a dean’s job. They’re responsible for enhancing the quality of programs through curriculum, teaching, and scholarship.

Academic Dean Salary

Moving from another academic role to become a college dean may come with a salary increase. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports administrators in postsecondary education earned a median annual salary of $95,410, as of May 2019.

Academic deans earned a median annual salary of around $92,000 as of December 2020, according to the compensation website PayScale. Dependent on the school and the dean’s tenure, it’s possible for salaries to comfortably reach six figures. Salaries can range from about $58,000 to more than $161,000. To unlock this increased earning potential, prospective deans must cultivate varied skills related to leadership and people management.

Academic Dean Job Description

One of the primary objectives academic deans seek is improvement of scholastic performance. Achieving that goal requires hands-on intervention in faculty management, including hiring professors and setting expectations for academic staff.

Academic deans can also have a significant role in marketing their school to prospective students by determining how many students to admit and meeting one-on-one with applicants. They work with faculty to review applications and decide who is qualified for admission. Boosting enrollment and retaining the most academically successful students is another aspect of a dean’s job description.

College deans manage financial records, help connect students to financial aid or scholarships, and help manage budgets for various departments. They also oversee the disbursement of funds for programs and research studies. Working in conjunction with their university’s registrar’s office, a dean ensures students have met the necessary requirements for graduation. They organize student academic records and prepare transcripts and diplomas.

How to Become a Dean

The process of becoming a college dean can look different for each individual. Many begin by earning a bachelor’s degree in education or liberal studies. They earn their teaching credentials and begin gaining experience as K-12 teachers. Often, middle school and high school teachers earn a degree in a specific subject area, such as history, mathematics, biology, or English.

Individuals can also earn a master’s degree and gain experience teaching at a community college. After working as an assistant or associate professor, they can then earn a doctorate and apply for a position at a university.

Another possible route for an individual who wants to become a college dean is to earn a master’s degree in education administration and work in an administrative position at a university. Being socially active and professionally invested in a university allows faculty members to network with one another and build connections that can help set a prospective dean apart from other candidates.

Academic Dean Requirements

A master’s degree in a related field is the baseline educational requirement expected of candidates, with additional credentials, like the Doctor of Education, which potentially helps applicants stand out from their qualified and well-educated competition. Strong leaders possess a clear vision for themselves and their organizations. Prospective deans must have a vision for how institutions can best serve students and possess the skills to implement changes to meet the goals of their college or university.

Candidates who are ready to express and defend their personal plans and big ideas for a university’s future will be more successful than those who care more about systematic or incremental efficiency. The role of a college dean requires long tenure and advanced credentials to go with the philosophical demands of the position.

Applicants may need five years or more of management experience in the academic world. Larger colleges may not accept a new academic dean who does not have experience in a similar role at another institution.

Ed.D. Curriculum

Fortunately for academic professionals who seek to become deans, courses in Ed.D. programs can impart an in-depth and up-to-the-minute look at higher education leadership today. This begins with the core courses, which lay down the foundations of educational policy. Some Ed.D. curriculum courses include the following.

Learning in an Era of Technology

Due to the increasing role that technology plays in the way information is disseminated, educators have to understand the impact of new channels and devices. This course informs students on how they can keep up with tech trends and integrate those developments into their work.

National Trends in Assessment, Data Analysis and Accountability

Great leadership is driven by continuous improvement based on data and analytics, rather than intuition. By taking this course, practitioners get an up-to-date picture of data use in academia.

The Internship

Serving under the tutelage of a mentor for two semesters allows prospective educational leaders to witness the practice of academic leadership up close and develop a network of relationships in the field.

Leadership in Higher Education and Community College

This course acquaints professionals with roles and responsibilities facing administrators at different kinds of colleges and universities. By examining specific cases, students see what leadership means in the academic world.

Administration of Online Programs in Higher Education and Community College

This is a course dedicated to the modern world of digital education, a relevant topic at many colleges and universities. Curriculum planning, ongoing faculty professional development, acquiring and managing necessary funding and resolving technological issues are a few components of successful online programs.

Student and Academic Affairs

Leading a student body isn’t always a straightforward process. Deans and other administrators can find themselves searching for ethical and mutually acceptable ways to resolve students’ most challenging questions and issues. This class is designed to focus on these crucial situations.

The Contemporary Learner

This course prepares professionals to serve the requirements of today’s higher-education pupils, applying detailed research to ensure graduates have an accurate and actionable picture of contemporary issues.

Financial Affairs in Higher Education

Professionals who attempt to take on budgetary responsibilities without sufficient knowledge may be surprised by the ethical, political and logistical dilemmas that come with funding their departments. This course helps ensure prospective administrators can intelligently plan and implement financial plans.

Pursue a Career as a College Dean

Successful candidates for an academic dean position will require an impressive professional history and strong academic credentials. Seeking an online Ed.D. enables academic administrators to further their interests and ambitions while remaining engrossed in full-time work. The flexible schedule of the online program ensures classwork fits alongside current responsibilities.

There are many facets to being an effective academic dean and raising the scholastic performance of a college and its students. In an online Ed.D. program, students can gain essential knowledge about these specialized duties.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to become a college dean, explore how earning an Ed.D. can prepare you for this rewarding career.

Recommended Readings

The Higher Education Administration Career Path

A Look at the 4 Ed.D. Foundational Courses

Career Opportunities for a Doctor of Education Degree


Bradley University, Higher Education Administrator Curriculum

The Chronicle of Higher Education, “So You Want to Be a Dean?”

PayScale, Average Academic Dean Salary

The Princeton Review, College Administrator

UCAS, Education Administrator

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