Master’s in Higher Education Program Guide

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Published on January 8, 2021 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for postsecondary education administrators should grow by 10% through 2026, faster than the average rate of growth for all other occupations. Positions in higher education also come with exceptional compensation. In 2017, the BLS estimated the median salary for postsecondary education administrators exceeded $92,000 annually.

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According to the BLS, employment for postsecondary education administrators should grow by 10% through 2026, faster than the average rate of growth for all other occupations.

While you may qualify for some of these positions with only a bachelor's degree, the vast majority of employers prefer to hire candidates with a master's in higher education. Through coursework and internships, a master's program helps you develop the skills and knowledge needed to thrive in higher education fields such as student affairs, financial aid, development, or admissions. In addition, the professional network you build as a higher education master's student can serve you throughout the entirety of your career.

Should I Get a Master's in Higher Education?

Increasingly, colleges and universities seek out candidates with an advanced degree and several years of professional experience. A master's in higher education fulfills these conditions and requires a short time commitment. Different master's programs appeal to students based on their content; read on below about the multiple factor which can affect your decision.

Foremost is deciding on whether to attend a degree online or on campus. Online learning offers those with other personal and professional obligations increased flexibility, as students often watch lectures and complete assignments independently. On the other hand, on-campus programs may provide more structured support, as well as the opportunity to develop closer relationships with classmates and professors.

Higher education master's programs should also reflect the specific field in which you hope to work. For example, if you want to work in admissions, you should take courses such as affirmative action law. Those interested in development could study fundraising best practices and ethics. And if you aspire to a leadership position, you should seek out a selection of courses through which you can develop a broad understanding of interdisciplinary higher education.

Earning your master's degree involves more than just taking courses, however. By developing relationships with your classmates, you can call upon them in the future for help in finding a job or getting their advice on how to solve a problem. Internships also further expand the reach of your professional network and bolster your resume with practical experience.

What Can I Do With a Master's in Higher Education?

With a master's in higher education, you can take on many roles at colleges, universities, trade and vocational schools, and postsecondary training programs. Depending on the focus of your studies, you may go on to manage the construction of a new dormitory or design an onboarding program for adjunct faculty. No matter where you choose to work after earning your master's degree in higher education, you will need strong organizational, interpersonal, and problem-solving skills.

Postsecondary Education Administrator

Postsecondary education administrators oversee student services, academic affairs, operations, fundraising, and faculty research at colleges and universities. They often specialize in a particular area, such as coordinating the student admission process or maintaining institutional records as a registrar.

Median Annual Salary: $92,360*

Administrative Services Manager

Administrative services managers perform many of the same functions as postsecondary education administrators, though they often do so in for-profit environments. A master's in higher education can help position you for jobs that demand similar skills. For example, a college registrar and a position managing the records of a law firm both require strong organizational and superior communication skills.

Median Annual Salary: $94,020*

Elementary, Middle, or High School Principal

Principals manage the operations of their school, including hiring teachers and approving curriculum. The knowledge and skills in education administration developed through a master's in higher education helps prepare you for school leadership roles. Some states may require principals hold an advanced degree specifically in K-12 education administration.

Median Annual Salary: $94,390*

High School Teacher

High school teachers instruct students and help them prepare for their lives after graduation. For students planning to attend college, an individual with a master's degree in higher education can provide valuable insight into the application process and educational experience at the postsecondary level. In nearly all states, a master's degree in any field related to education qualifies you for a conditional teaching license.

Median Annual Salary: $59,170*

Postsecondary Teacher

Postsecondary teachers instruct students at colleges, universities, and trade schools. They may also conduct research and write scholarly articles or books within their area of expertise. While most academic jobs in higher education require a Ph.D., individuals with a master's in higher education may find full-time positions at community colleges or as part-time instructors at a four-year institution.

Median Annual Salary: $76,000*

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

How to Choose a Master's in Higher Education Program

Pursuing a master's in higher education presents a bevy of exciting options. To help you narrow down your search, consider the following factors.

Affordability is often a major component in choosing a master's program. A master's degree from a private university can cost significantly more than a program at a public institution. Residency status also affects the overall cost of a master's in higher education, as students attending a college within their state of residency often pay less tuition than students from out of state.

One exception to residency status is online programs, which may charge the same flat tuition rate for students across the country. Online programs offer a great deal of flexibility, but they also require more self-discipline and time management skills than their on-campus counterparts. Make sure to think about whether an online program fits your unique learning style.

Not every master's in higher education offers full- and part-time courses of study, affecting how long the program takes. Most full-time students can graduate in about one to two years, whereas part-time students may require up to four years to earn their degree. Some programs offer accelerated courses of study for industrious students.

Most higher education master's programs offer concentrations in areas like student services and academic affairs, but not all feature coursework in niches like adult education or diversity and inclusion.

Accreditation for Master's in Higher Education Programs

Accreditation indicates a school met certain academic standards and adequately prepares its students for careers in their chosen fields. If you attend an unaccredited institution, employers may not recognize your degree, and accredited schools may not accept your transfer credits. You may also miss out on financial aid opportunities.

Schools can possess three different kinds of accreditation. Most nonprofit institutions, like state schools and private universities, receive regional accreditation. For-profit and vocational colleges often receive national accreditation. Some online programs also receive national accreditation through the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.

Within certain disciplines, schools can also apply for programmatic accreditation. However, because no programmatic accrediting agency works within the field of higher education, you should instead focus on programs with either regional or national accreditation.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation maintains an online directory of all institutions that hold national, regional, or programmatic accreditation.

Master's in Higher Education Program Admissions

For the most part, admissions to either online or on-campus higher education programs share many of the same elements. To complete your application, you typically submit your academic transcripts, scores from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), resume, three letters of recommendation, and a personal statement. Most schools also charge an application fee.

After a program's admissions office receives and reviews your application materials, they may request an interview. Less selective institutions, like some state schools or online programs, often make their decisions without an interview. Schools may accept or deny your admission. They may also place you on a "waitlist," deferring your acceptance to the university because of an overabundance of qualified candidates.

Generally speaking, you should apply to at least three schools. Try to select at least one school where you feel you have extremely high chances of gaining admission.


You almost always need to hold a bachelor's degree in order to pursue a master's in higher education. Typically, schools admit applicants from a wide variety of undergraduate majors. Graduate schools of education rarely require professional experience, as many applicants enter these programs directly after earning their bachelor's degree. Applicable professional experience could potentially bolster your chances of admission. Many schools require a minimum GPA, usually around 2.5 or 3.0; however, admissions officers often make exceptions to this requirement for candidates with extenuating circumstances or exemplary achievements in other areas.

Admission Materials

The CommonApp has not yet been adopted by the majority of graduate institutions, so you should prepare to submit unique applications for each school on your list. Most schools require academic transcripts from any undergraduate and graduate schools you previously attended. To get copies of these transcripts, contact the registrars of your former institutions. Schools may charge a small fee for your transcripts. You typically need three letters of recommendation. Ask former teachers, professors, and employers, individuals who can speak to the qualifications you want to highlight in your application. Some master's in higher education programs may require GRE scores. Schools usually do not set a minimum GRE score for applicants, but a few programs do. Most schools charge an application fee, usually between $50–$100. Some applicants, such as those with financial need or current and former members of the military, may qualify for a waiver of this fee.

What Else Can I Expect From a Master's in Higher Education Program?

While some schools offer specialized degrees, such as a master's in higher education and student affairs, most allow students to customize their course of study within the broader scope of higher education administration.

Concentrations Offered for a Master's Degree in Higher Education
Concentration Description Careers
Adult Education Students in this concentration prepare for careers supporting the education of those beyond the traditional college age. They take courses in areas like human development and the use of technology in adult learning. Director of adult and community education center, community college instructor
Higher Education Leadership Rather than focusing on a particular discipline within higher education, this concentration helps students develop a broad understanding of many so that they can effectively lead institutions. Coursework covers subjects like financial management and the history of higher education. Associate dean of student affairs, chief of staff
Teaching and Learning This concentration more deeply explores topics such as instructional design, student motivation and development, and best practices in different methods of teaching. Associate dean of academic affairs, lead instructional designer
Enrollment Management Enrollment management serves as an umbrella term for the work that takes place in admissions, registration, student affairs, and financial aid. Students in this concentration take coursework in finance, organizational behavior, and recruitment. Director of admissions, registrar
Online and Distance Learning More and more colleges and universities plan to launch or expand their online offerings. Students focusing on online learning take classes in learning technologies and assessing achievement in digital environments. Coursework in this area often blends strategy and theory with the development of technical skill. Online course developer, assistant dean of distance education

Courses in a Master's in Higher Education Program

Despite the various concentrations and opportunities for customization, many higher education master's programs feature similar core curriculum. The five courses listed below represent some of the most common core courses available to higher education graduate students.

Learning and Development

Colleges and universities exist to support student learning. As such, all administrators should have a fundamental understanding of how their students learn. This course examines the principles of learning and development, with a particular focus on how the broader educational experience can improve outcomes.

Organizational Behavior and Culture

Leadership in higher education environments requires a delicate balance of control, collaboration, and negotiation. In this class, students examine how different groups within a college, such as faculty or students, respond to efforts to create change or shift culture. Students also look at the role technology plays in shaping behavior and culture.

Managing Financial Resources

Most higher education administrators manage financial resources, whether it's a departmental budget or a university endowment. This class provides an introduction to financial concepts like fundraising, asset management, endowment restrictions, state appropriations, and the administration of financial planning. Students learn to balance fiscal reality with institutional goals.

Managing Human Resources

Higher education administrators may play a role in hiring and retaining faculty. They support the efforts of their school's admission office, helping to recruit and select students. Others orient and develop reports for admissions programs. This class finds commonalities in the human resources needs across an institution and introduces strategies that administrators can use in a variety of circumstances.

Program Planning and Assessment

Especially at public colleges and universities, leaders need to show that investments made in higher education yield positive outcomes for current students and alumni. In this course, students explore the tools used in program design and evaluation, such as goal setting, improvement strategies, and community engagement.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Master's in Higher Education?

Schools generally offer master's in higher education programs in one of two formats. The most common format requires students to complete 30 credits over the course of one year. A less common structure involves students earning 60 credits over the course of two years, often with some sort of experiential learning component, such as an internship or practicum. Part-time students may need up to four years to earn their degree from schools that feature the latter format.

A handful of schools do provide accelerated courses of study for students who want or need to complete a program in less than one year. In these programs, you take on an increased course load and can earn your degree in as few as nine months. Advisors often counsel students against taking on more than the recommended number of credits in a semester unless absolutely necessary.

How Much Is a Master's in Higher Education?

The cost of a master's in higher education varies considerably from school to school. For example, the cost of one year's tuition at the Harvard Graduate School of Education exceeds $48,000. As a point of comparison, a Massachusetts resident attending the University of Massachusetts, Lowell spends just over $15,000 for a year of tuition in a higher education master's program.

Prospective students also need to consider other costs beyond tuition. If you move to another state to continue your education, housing and living expenses also factor into the overall cost of your education.

Online students can avoid many of these expenses, and they can often save on tuition as well, particularly if they attend an institution that offers in-state tuition to distance learners, such as The Ohio State University. Conversely, some institutions may charge online students extra fees in order to help cover the cost of the technology used to deliver the same quality on-campus programs at a distance. Make sure to carefully research the complete cost of your education before choosing a higher education master's program.

Certifications and Licenses a Master's in Higher Education Prepares For

Unless you provide mental health services to students, you do not need a license to practice as a higher education professional.

Some college and university administrators seek out certifications to demonstrate skills and knowledge in a particular subject, such as supporting international students during the admissions process. Certifications may improve your job prospects or allow you to negotiate a higher salary.

Certified Higher Education Professional

Administered by the Career Education Colleges and Universities association, the CHEP credential helps signal a candidate's expertise in areas such as online teaching, admissions, career services, and campus operations. To become certified, individuals must complete 48 hours of training relevant to their job function from one of 28 approved providers.

Resources for Higher Education Graduate Students

Educational Testing Service

ETS administers the GRE, which many schools use as a key component of the graduate admissions process. The ETS allows students to register for the exam and also offers free advice and practice tests.

U.S. Department of Education

The Department of Education oversees a variety of financial aid programs for graduate students, including those studying higher education. Complete the Free Application for Student Aid to determine whether you qualify for financial support.

American Educational Research Association - Division J

AERA's Division J serves as a forum for those working or studying in the field of postsecondary education. It offers both mentoring and awards for higher education graduate students. serves as one of the definitive sources of new professional opportunities in the field. Each month, more than 1.5 million higher education professionals visit the site to post or review job listings.

Professional Organizations in Higher Education

Once you earn your master's in higher education, you should consider joining a professional organization. These groups benefit members with networking and collaboration with other professionals in your field. Professional organizations also offer continuing education and training programs, publish the latest in scholarship and best practices in higher education, and share new job opportunities at colleges and universities across the country.

AACRAO represents higher education professionals working in fields like enrollment management, student services, and information technology. Among other resources, it offers online professional development opportunities and host in-person networking events across the country. NACUBO supports the work of chief business and financial officers at colleges and universities. It provides a wealth of benefits and resources to its members, including webinars, podcasts, white papers, benchmarking tools, and leadership development programs for students. NASPA's mission centers around providing professional development opportunities to its members. It also conducts research in the field, advocates for policies benefiting students and student affairs professionals, and advertises career opportunities. Founded in 1960, AFP serves fundraisers of all stripes, including those that work in college and university development offices. In addition to professional development, research, and networking resources, AFP creates and enforces a code of ethics for fundraising professionals. Through research, professional development, and advocacy, CUPA-HR seeks to act as the voice of human resource professionals in higher education. Members can access a knowledge center, a job board, and toolkits developed to address specific issues like increasing diversity in college hiring.
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