The Higher Education Administration Career Path

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university administator meeting with students

Taking on an administrative position in a college or university is a way to have an influence on the direction of educational policy, both within a particular school and the academic field as a whole. Pursuing such a role can represent a challenging and satisfying way to continue a higher education career path. While the rewards that come with administration work can be great, taking on such a role requires years of preparation, with both advanced degrees and years of professional service serving applicants well.

People who wish to become higher education administrators must 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 receive an advanced degree. Completing a program such as the Bradley online doctorate in education is a way to develop a resume that focuses on the highly specific concepts concerning leadership in community colleges, private and public colleges and universities.

How Do You Become a Higher Education Administrator?

The amount of experience required to pursue an administration career track 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 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that most administration positions go to candidates who have earned at least a master’s degree. Bachelor’s degrees may prove sufficient if the school in question is a smaller college or university.

Departmental leadership roles such as provosts and deans may go to candidates who have doctorate degrees. The BLS added that candidates moving from professor positions into administration commonly possess doctorates in their subjects of choice already, as these credentials are often a requirement to teach at the collegiate level. When competing for in-demand roles, candidates will likely find themselves up against other highly qualified applicants. A doctorate can help a prospective administrator remain competitive in these situations.

When candidates enter the administrator ranks without serving as professors, they may do so by taking resident assistant roles while studying at a college or university. There are also some entry-level jobs in administrative departments such as student affairs and admissions offices that may be open to people who are just beginning their careers in the higher education field.

Experience working professionally in a college or university setting is generally a must for administrator applicants. The BLS specified that becoming a registrar or academic dean will likely hinge on the candidate’s history in postsecondary academic settings. While collecting this professional experience, administrators will pick up the skills that can prove essential in their work, including the ability to work with modern educational technology, alongside soft skills such as interpersonal communication expertise, organizational aptitude and problem-solving.

What Are Higher Education Administrators’ Duties and Responsibilities?

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 envisions 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, along with the duties these roles encompass:

Academic Dean

Academic dean roles involve directing other faculty members and engaging in employee development. The academic dean at a college or university is tasked with creating and implementing policies with far-reaching impact. For instance, staffing decisions, budget determination and academic programming are these leaders’ responsibilities, alongside course scheduling and oversight of programs and classes. The academic dean is the internal employee tasked with overseeing a school’s accreditation status and ensuring the college or university remains up to industry standards.

Dean of Students

The dean of students is focused on managing the educational environment at an institution, ensuring the student body is on a path for success. When issues on campus negatively impact the experience of being a student at a college or university, 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 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.

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 marks 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 will be tasked with creating these partnerships. Career fairs and other employment services events are also typically headed by this section.

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.

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, alongside the standards for admission. The BLS noted that it takes a keen data analyzing mind to become an effective director of admissions or other employee within this department, as the relative success of an admitted class today is 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.

Director of Financial Assistance

The many personnel within the financial assistance department are responsible for the multiple forms of monetary help that enable students to fund their education. The Balance explained that employees dealing with financial aid may work as advisors, counselors, or directors of many levels. To thrive any of these roles, professionals will have to understand the policies behind grants, loans and scholarships. Leaders in these departments will be the ones determining the scale of the awards and the requirements to earn them. Financial assistance work involves compiling reports both internally and to share 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 ― from state universities to local community colleges and any size in between ― exact responsibilities will change based on the school in question. The BLS explained that at smaller schools, it’s normal to consolidate departments. 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. PayScale explained that people management experience is the most valuable of these abilities in terms of increasing an official’s earning power. Strategic planning is also essential because, whatever exact duties an administrator is tasked with completing, making and executing a sound plan will help them manage that work effectively.

What Are Average Higher Education Administration Salaries?

The average salary for a higher education 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.

The data on administrator earnings from the BLS pointed out the potential for progress within those roles, noting that the median annual pay for employees in the field was $94,340 at the time the latest data was collected, in May 2018. While the bottom 10% of earners in the field made under $54,680, the highest-earning tenth made over $190,600.

The BLS added that there are some unique benefits to taking a role on the administrative side of higher education. For example, these professionals may have access to discounted or free classes at their colleges or universities. To earn these benefits and the high median salaries that come with administrator roles, professionals will likely have to work on 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 salaries. For example, PayScale’s salary projections for academic deans are virtually the same as the BLS numbers, with the bottom 10% earning under $57,000, the median making $90,339 and the top 10% earning $163,000 or more. Deans of students earn less, with the median salary coming in at $62,476. The associate provost of a school, on the other hand, is set to earn a median salary of $131,239.

Projected Hiring Trend

Hiring for higher administration administrators is expected to rise, with the total number of such positions in the U.S. increasing by 7% between 2018 and 2028, according to the BLS. The figure is higher than the expected 5% growth for all professions over the same span of time. This increase can be explained by the need for more personnel to supervise the student bodies at growing 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 Do Students Learn When Studying for a Doctor of Education Degree?

Considering the diversity of roles in higher education administration, there is 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.

Program graduates earn a degree with a focus in higher education administration on a schedule that makes sense, due to the 100% 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 experiences with research strategies that will serve them well as academic administrators.

A Program Focused on Contemporary Higher Education Administration

The online Ed.D. degree program is a relevant choice for prospective administrators because of its curriculum focus on the practical issues facing higher education today. Professors involved in these courses have experience performing the types of educational administration roles students are aiming for. The curriculum, with its focus 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 for administrative roles have earned the terminal degrees in their chosen subjects. It is 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 Ed.D. program directly address the challenges and opportunities facing today’s academic leaders. For instance, 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 polices that can create positive connections between educators and their pupils today. Student and Academic Affairs is a class entirely dealing with ethical leadership in today’s educational climate, while 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 which is ongoing throughout their 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 their fellow members of the program.

What Can Come After Graduation with a Doctor of Education Degree?

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 represent an alternative career path for educators who do not end up in tenure track teaching positions.

The information imparted in the Ed.D. 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 will 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 have need of professionals who have mastered the concepts behind effective instruction, and Ed.D. graduates may suit this requirement.

While professorial roles, public sector jobs and corporate roles 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 administration to high-level leadership positions such as dean of students, provost and academic dean, these jobs encompass an enormous range of essential functions that keep colleges and universities functioning.

If you are interested in such an administrative 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, 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

College Professor Requirements: Steps to Become a Professor

How to Become a Professor of Education

Bradley University Online Doctor of Education Program



Bureau of Labor Statistics – Postsecondary Education Administrators

PayScale – Education Administrator, Postsecondary

PayScale – Academic Dean

PayScale – Associate Provost

PayScale – Dean of Students

The Balance – Best Jobs in Higher Education Administration