Higher education professionals work at postsecondary institutions as professors, researchers, or administrators. Higher education majors study educational theories and techniques related to college courses.
On this page, readers can find information about different higher education career paths. This guide also details common educational requirements, salary potential, career outlook, and professional development opportunities in the field.
Why Pursue a Career in Higher Education?
Careers in higher education require critical and analytical thinking, oral and written communication, and organization skills. Most higher education professionals work in a classroom or an office.
Many careers for a higher education major require a master's or doctoral degree. For example, most college professors need a doctorate in their field. These degrees take many years to earn, but allow for a high level of specialization.
Careers with a higher education degree typically involve interactions with college students. Professors, in particular, must manage their time efficiently and plan ahead to balance personal research projects with teaching.
Higher Education Career Outlook
Every state needs professionals in higher education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the top industries hiring educational administrators include colleges and universities, junior colleges, and technical and trade schools.
California and Massachusetts hire the most educational administrators, while New Jersey and New York offer the highest average annual salaries.
Below, readers can find more information about the salary outlook for a few common jobs in higher education. The table provides the median annual salaries for these careers based on a worker's experience level.
Readers should keep in mind that wages can change significantly depending on a professional's education level and location. When looking for employment, aspiring higher education professionals should consider factors like cost of living and employment demand.
Skills Gained With a Higher Education Degree
Degree-seekers enrolled in higher education programs learn to help students achieve their academic goals by conducting individualized advising sessions and developing support services. Prospective administrators also build organizational and public policy skills, including specific competencies that bolster diversity and help institutions maintain accreditation.
Because the higher education landscape continually evolves, professionals in this field strengthen their skills after graduation by completing professional training programs and earning specialized certifications.
- Technical Communication
Higher education students learn to convey complex information to nonexpert audiences through oral and multimedia forms. Students also learn to produce technical documents, working through the writing cycle and examining research and citation.
- Ethical Leadership
Ethical leadership provides the framework professionals need to conduct thoughtful analyses and make sensible decisions. Students delve into management systems theories and practical strategies, including how to form partnerships and affect organizational culture. They also examine motivation and corporate social responsibility.
- Higher Education Organization
All administrators must understand the structure and governance of higher education institutions. They learn the different operating models for community colleges, universities, and for-profit schools. In addition to administrative functions, students learn about higher education policies, including government regulations relevant to financing and assessment systems.
- Student Affairs
Higher education administrators support individual programmatic areas, as well as the overall institutional mission. They learn to promote holistic student development, which includes social, emotional, moral, and intellectual growth. Administrators also examine multicultural student community development, which highlights how a learner's background informs their needs.
- Budgeting and Financial Analysis
Students examine the roles of budget officers and how financial planning affects an institution's operations. They learn to assess budgets, strategically allocate resources, and use alternative financing methods. They also explore how macroeconomic factors impact a school's cost structures and revenue streams.
Higher Education Career Paths
Careers for a higher education major offer many specializations. For example, learners can prepare for roles dealing with student development and higher education technologies. Many higher education professionals end up working in colleges, but they can also find careers in other settings.
Below, readers can find out more about different specializations for careers in higher education.
- Student Development
This concentration teaches participants to assess and meet the diverse needs of learners. Coursework centers on student learning styles, characteristics, and values. Degree-seekers also learn to evaluate the impact of college education on students' lives to develop prommagratic and educational interventions.
- Higher Education Technologies
This concentration teaches students to integrate educational software to enrich classroom discussion and student engagement. Coursework investigates blended learning environments, instructional computing, and advanced instructional design. Students also delve into distance teaching with regard to educational standards and available tools.
- Enrollment Management
In this concentration, students learn the fundamentals of student recruitment in the context of changing regional demographics. They explore the interactions between admissions, institutional aid, and federal funding policies. Typically, an enrollment management concentration also covers marketing and communications.
- International Education
In this concentration, students explore the effects of globalization on higher education, including enrollment strategies and institutional governance. This concentration prepares administrators for positions with accreditation agencies, international education associations, and NGOs.
- Community College Leadership
This concentration covers the history, development, and working philosophies of community colleges. Students examine operational models for two-year schools in relation to distinct student populations and workforce development. Additional topics include the legal aspects of higher education, program development, and organizational behavior.
How to Start Your Career in Higher Education
The higher education careers you can access depend on your education level. Undergraduate programs teach the foundational skills and knowledge needed for entry-level positions. By earning a master's degree, you can work as a postsecondary education administrator in admissions, academic advising, career services, or student leadership programs.
Entry-level administrators generally spend their first few years fulfilling assigned duties. Depending on your role, you may also travel to recruit potential students and network with colleagues.
As you build work experience, you can advance into positions like senior program manager, consultant, and dean. For the most advanced positions, you need a doctoral degree. Many higher education institutions provide free or greatly reduced tuition to employees, allowing you to earn your Ph.D. or Ed.D. at a discount.
Bachelor's Degree in Higher Education
Bachelor's programs require approximately 120 credits. Full-time students can graduate in four years. However, learners can expedite graduation by enrolling in accelerated tracks.
Schools seldom offer undergraduate degrees in higher education administration. Instead, students usually enroll in programs that align with the administrative role they want to occupy.
For example, students who want to work as HR coordinators typically pursue degrees in business administration with a concentration in human resources. They take classes like employment and labor law, performance appraisal, and compensations and benefits.
A bachelor's degree in communication can also prove useful for aspiring higher education administrators. These programs provide students with transferable skills, such as those related to technical writing and public relations.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Higher Education?
- Administrative Services Manager
Administrative services managers coordinate maintenance and daily office activities like mail distribution and bookkeeping. They hire, train, and supervise office staff and establish goals for their departments. Administrative managers work with other leaders at an organization to develop and enforce organizational policies. These professionals also ensure that their organization's operations meet industry and government regulations.
- College Administrator
With a bachelor's degree, graduates qualify for entry-level college administration roles. College administrators oversee communications, handle student requests, and field questions from other offices. They work with senior administrators and managers to develop, implement, and evaluate programs.
Master's Degree in Higher Education
To earn a master's degree in higher education, students must typically complete at least 30 credits. Schools may offer on-campus and online options. Most programs require 1-2 years to finish, although working professionals often take 4-5 years to graduate.
Core coursework focuses on topics like student development, leadership, and diversity in higher education. Master's students also learn to implement resource management techniques for long-term institutional and strategic planning.
Learners take advanced courses in their chosen concentration and complete a capstone requirement. During this culminating experience, students work with faculty advisors to develop and execute a project.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Higher Education?
- Postsecondary Education Administrator
With a master's degree, higher education administrators qualify for leadership positions as diversity specialists, human resource managers, and recruitment strategists. They can work in the registrar's office, helping students pick classes and meet graduation requirements. These administrators also maintain academic records and plan commencement ceremonies.
Doctoral Degree in Higher Education
Doctoral candidates can pursue a Ph.D. or an Ed.D. Ph.D. programs emphasize teaching and research, which suits students who want to work as postsecondary teachers and applied researchers. Ed.D. tracks prepare learners to solve problems in the higher education system as administrators, trainers, and consultants.
A Ph.D. student writes a research-centered dissertation, while an Ed.D. candidate typically completes a community-based project.
What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Higher Education?
- Postsecondary Teacher
Postsecondary teachers facilitate classroom instruction and/or laboratory training in their field of study. They help students find internships and plan for graduate school or careers. These professors also pursue independent research projects. Additionally, they help their academic departments update curricula and recruit new students.
- Dean of Students
With significant experience and a graduate degree, administrators can earn promotions to academic deans and provosts. The dean of students plans and directs programs related to student activities and campus life. Working with their teams and other departments, these organizational leaders develop initiatives that bolster success for specific student groups, including students of color, international students, and transfer students.
How to Advance Your Career in Higher Education
Higher education professionals can pursue continuing education or professional development opportunities after earning a degree in higher education. These options help them stay current with the latest methods in the field. Continuing education and professional development also help higher education professionals learn new skills and gain experience with new technologies.
Below, readers can find more information about next steps for higher education professionals after they earn a degree. The following sections explore certification and licensure requirements, continuing education options, and additional steps that professionals in this field can take.
Certifications and/or Licensure
Some careers require certification or licensure after graduation. Certifications come from professional organizations, companies, or other independent organizations, whereas professionals receive licensure from government agencies.
Not many higher education careers require certification or licensure. While teaching jobs in elementary or secondary schools often require state licensure, professor positions at universities typically do not.
Depending on their subject of expertise, some professors may need a license or certification to teach. For example, a nursing professor may need a current RN license. Administrators may also seek additional training to master emerging technologies or to increase their efficiency.
Readers should research certification and licensure requirements for their chosen careers.
Continuing education takes place after a student graduates and starts their career. This method of professional development helps professionals learn about new theories and advancements in their field.
Colleges offer certificate and diploma programs for professionals in specific subject areas. These programs typically last less than a year, and professionals must pay tuition to attend these classes.
Some colleges also offer free continuing education courses, including massive open online courses (MOOCs). MOOCs usually consist of one class — or sometimes a series of classes — on a single topic. Students in MOOCs can sometimes earn a certificate of completion.
Higher education professionals should explore the resources provided by professional organizations. These groups bring together qualified individuals in the same field and help set relevant professional standards.
Professional organizations also offer networking opportunities, such as conferences and workshops. Networking allows professionals to connect with their peers and collaborate on common issues. Networking can also lead to new job opportunities or chances for career advancement.
Many professional organizations provide online resources, such as scholarly publications, continuing education classes, and certification courses. Most professional organizations restrict full use of their resources to members.
Readers can join most professional organizations as a student or as a working professional. Many industries offer their own professional organizations. Readers should research which organization best suits their needs.
How to Switch Your Career to Higher Education
Individuals in other areas sometimes want to switch careers to join the field of higher education. In many cases, this switch occurs when a professional decides to teach in their field instead of practice.
In some cases, this switch requires a doctoral degree. However, some schools may hire professors who do not have a doctorate but have significant experience. For example, a former business executive might teach business courses at a college without a doctorate.
For other higher education roles, such as education administrator, experience in a related field may also qualify new workers without an advanced degree.
Where Can You Work as a Higher Education Professional?
Higher education professionals can work in any state across the country. Most of these professionals find jobs at community colleges, four-year universities, and technical schools. Some might work for government agencies and help form education policy. Job prospects differ depending on a worker's education level, location, and field of interest.
- Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools
Colleges and universities are the primary employers for higher education administrators. Professionals can work in human resources, admissions, residential life, student affairs, and development.
Average Salary: $115,890
- Junior Colleges
Also known as community colleges, junior colleges offer associate degrees, certificates, and noncredit courses. Due to the nature of their funding, junior colleges predominantly enroll lower-income students. To support these underserved learners, administrators must develop specialized skills.
Average Salary: $97,970
- Technical and Trade Schools
Technical and trade schools deliver vocational training that prepares students for careers in industries like construction, agriculture, precision production, and healthcare. Administrators who work for these institutions possess keen knowledge of workforce development and career-entry strategies.
Average Salary: $89,210
- Elementary and Secondary Schools
Some students who earn a higher education administration degree go on to work for K-12 schools. In this industry, administrators may serve as academic counselors who help students plan for college or develop skills for entry-level professions.
Average Salary: $102,670
- General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
Hospitals employ administrators who help them provide quality patient services at lower costs while maintaining quality standards and meeting government regulations. Human resources and data analytics are high-need areas in this industry.
Average Salary: $140,350
California, Massachusetts, and Texas employ the most education administrators in the country. California alone employs almost 12,000 professionals in the field.
However, the states with the highest level of employment do not always match the locations with the highest salaries. Education administrators in New Jersey and New York make the highest average annual salaries, earning $154,430 and $140,870, respectively.
Remember that wages can also differ based on a worker's experience and education levels.
Interview With a Professional in Higher Education
Michelle Person has almost 20 years of experience in urban education. After graduating from Skidmore College, she joined Teach For America. She worked in various charter and mainstream urban public schools, successfully raising test scores, developing curricula, and building relationships. Michelle then obtained an MA in educational leadership.
Michelle is also a children's author. She writes books that celebrate diversity. Her company, Just Like Me Books, stresses the importance of literacy, culturally relevant reading material, and active learning experiences.
- Why did you decide to pursue a career in higher education? Was it something you were always interested in?
In college, I was talking with a friend, and he shared how he hadn't been able to read until the fifth grade. I was dumbfounded. By fifth grade, I was knee deep in the "Sweet Valley Twins" and the "Baby-Sitters Club" books.
How did he manage to get that far and not know how to read?
What came next was a story that sounded more like a Lifetime movie than actual reality: overcrowded classrooms, outdated textbooks, and teachers that didn't care. I decided right then that I wanted to work with children to make sure as many as possible had the same opportunities and experiences that I was fortunate enough to have.
- What is so valuable about earning a degree in this field right now?
A degree in this field is valuable because it is an area where there is a need. Society will always need educators, so job security is generally not an issue.
Additionally, as we redefine what higher education looks like and how we can best support students as they grow and develop, we are also redefining what types of jobs are available. It's an exciting time.
- What did your career trajectory look like after you graduated? How did you end up in your current position?
I ended up in my current position quite by accident. I am an alum of Teach For America — an ambitious program that encourages young people to spend two years working in underserved and hard-to-staff schools.
Initially, I planned to do my two years and move on — to what, I was not entirely sure. But after my first year, I knew I had to stay. The problems were too large and the stakes too high to walk away after two years.
I spent several years bouncing from school to school teaching different grade levels. I worked at schools with different resources and different educational philosophies, observing how children learn and make sense out of their worlds at different developmental stages.
The bouncing was challenging, but it gave me perspective. I saw some really great things, but I also saw some not great things. It was important to me to be able to support as many children as possible, so I made the transition from the classroom to the principal's office.
All of that bouncing around gave me phenomenal insight on how to best meet the needs of all students.
- What are the pros and cons of working in higher education?
Working in this field can often be a thankless job. We work long hours and are not always paid our worth. And we often do not get to see the fruits of our labor, since we normally see children for only one stage of their development.
But the longer you do the work, the more you realize you are planting seeds, and if you hang around long enough, you will get to see them blossom. Children do not forget. They will often seek you out years later to thank you for the small thing you did that had a profound effect on their life.
Those moments are why we do what we do.
- What are some necessary qualities and skills for someone pursuing a career in higher education?
There is no way you can do this work without a strong work ethic, thick skin, and flexibility. We work with children. Believe it or not, they do not always respond the way we want them to. The ability to stay flexible is key.
Often our work is viewed as easy, simplistic, and requiring no real skill. I mean, we are working with children, and most adults have children. It can't be that hard, right?
It is so important to have a thick skin to block out those who would discount the value of our work so we can always stay focused on what is most important: the children. This job is not for the faint of heart.
Children do not understand the concept of business hours. There will be long days and even longer nights. Be prepared.
- What advice would you give to students seeking a job in higher education?
You will be the happiest when you know exactly in what capacity you want to work with children.
Do you want to teach? If so, what age group? Do you want to run an enrichment center where you have more freedom to be creative with the children? Do you want to work with children in crisis and provide them with support?
Once you have figured that out, everything else will fall into place.
Resources for Higher Education Majors
Below, readers can learn about relevant professional organizations, open courseware options, and scholarly publications. These resources can help students and professionals discover emerging practices in higher education and connect with their peers.
- Professional Organizations
American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers: AACRAO supports more than 11,000 higher education professionals in 40 countries. The association establishes standards in areas like student services and administrative information technology. Members connect through annual meetings, strategic enrollment management conferences, and leadership summits. AACRAO delivers on-site training and online courses. Administrators also benefit from career guidance and job listings.
American Association of University Professors: Founded in 1915, AAUP helps higher education faculty and professionals expand academic freedom and shared governance within their institutions. Membership benefits include webinars, advocacy toolkits, and discounts on research materials and health insurance.
National Association of College and University Business Officers: NACUBO serves financial and business officers from over 1,900 U.S. higher education institutions. The association conducts research and advocates for issues like higher education aid and government endowments. Members enjoy professional development opportunities like leadership programs, a speakers series, and annual conferences.
National Association of Student Personnel Administrators: NASPA was established in 1918 and currently comprises more than 15,000 members worldwide. The association funds research initiatives in areas like globalism, assessment and evaluation, and civic learning and democratic engagement. Members connect through volunteer opportunities and regional and international meetings. NASPA's online learning community offers short courses and connected conferences.
National Association for College Admission Counseling: Since 1937, NACAC has provided networking and skill development opportunities to over 15,000 admissions counselors. Members can take e-learning courses in topics like financial aid and student-athlete advising processes. The association also offers webinars, leadership training programs, and continuing education resources.
- Open Courseware
Leading for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Higher Education - University of Michigan: This fully online course takes about 16 hours to complete. Students explore leadership in higher education. The course focuses on the history of equity and diversity in postsecondary institutions and how new leadership techniques may increase inclusivity.
Disability Awareness and Support - University of Pittsburgh: This seven-hour course explains how to support students with disabilities at postsecondary institutions, allowing them to participate fully in all the opportunities that colleges offer. Participants explore assistive technologies available to people with disabilities and how to incorporate these into the classroom and daily life.
Resilient Teaching Through Times of Crisis and Change - University of Michigan: This 25-hour course teaches students how to adapt to disruptions, both inside and out of the classroom. The course explores how to create new dynamics between teachers and students, allowing classrooms to accept a broader definition of learning experiences.
An Introduction to Accessibility and Inclusive Design - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: This 17-hour course covers the fundamentals of inclusivity and accessible design in higher education. Students learn about the legislation governing disability rights and how it applies to postsecondary institutions. The course uses videos to give first-hand perspectives on disabilities and learning.
Hispanic Outlook on Education Magazine: This national monthly magazine publishes stories about the Hispanic experience in education. The publication explores education news and updates, innovations in theory and technology, and the latest trends in education. The magazine sometimes offers themed issues that emphasize topics like financing college tuition and finding graduate schools.
The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education: This journal explores the Black perspective and experience in higher education. Readers can find information about racial incidents on individual campuses across the country. The journal also offers useful online resources on grants for students, historically Black colleges and universities, and graduate schools.
Journal on Excellence in College Teaching: This peer-reviewed journal helps academics increase student participation in postsecondary institutions and classrooms. The publication explores effective teaching methods, insights about how students learn, and studies on educational development. The journal's primary readers are teachers at four-year universities and community colleges. Readers need a membership to access the journal online.
Liberal Education: Published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, this magazine offers a voice to teachers, faculty, and staff at postsecondary institutions. The publication offers articles about liberal arts education, covering topics such as educational leadership and institutional change.
Peer Review: A quarterly publication published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, this journal examines emerging trends in undergraduate education at postsecondary institutions. Each issue focuses on a specific education topic, providing in-depth analysis and on-campus perspectives. Readers can find this publication online.
The Review of Higher Education: Published by Johns Hopkins University, this journal offers cutting-edge research in higher education. The journal publishes peer-reviewed, empirical research studies and scholarly essays about historical and theoretical issues at colleges and universities. Readers can subscribe online.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is a degree in higher education worth it?
Aspiring higher education professionals can find work in every state across the country. These professionals engage with peers at the top of their fields and help shape the minds of tomorrow. Readers can find careers with a higher education degree at colleges and technical schools or use their skills to become administrators.
- What can I do with a higher education degree?
A higher education degree allows graduates to pursue careers primarily at postsecondary institutions. Some graduates also become administrators at large organizations, such as hospitals. Many professionals in this field become professors, teaching courses and conducting research in a specific field.
- Is higher education a good career?
The BLS projects that certain higher education careers will see ample growth between 2018 and 2028. For example, the BLS projects that postsecondary teachers will experience 11% growth over that time frame — a rate much higher than the national average. Similarly, postsecondary education administrators are projected to experience 7% growth.
- How do I get a job at a college or university?
The level of education professionals need to work at a college or university depends on a job. Professors typically need a doctoral degree in their field. However, postsecondary educational administrators may only need a master's degree. Readers should research individual requirements for potential jobs.
- What do higher education jobs pay?
Salary potential differs depending on a worker's job, experience level, and location. However, the BLS reported that educational administrators earned a median annual salary of $95,410 in 2019. Postsecondary teachers earned a median annual salary of $79,540 in the same year.