What Is a Master's in Higher Education Degree?
Higher education, also known as postsecondary education, refers to the institutions of learning available to students upon completion of their high school diploma. Primarily these entities are public or private colleges and universities. Programs such as the master's degree in higher education provide the academic pathway to prepare for a career as an administrator at this postsecondary level. These administrative or leadership roles within the collegiate setting can vary greatly, due to the many different business operations, organizational and maintenance departments, student support programs, and academic programs that are needed to facilitate the daily operations of the college or university.
Common Undergraduate Degrees for Higher Education
Given the variety of departments and programs within the higher education setting, a wide variety of bachelor's degrees are acceptable for entry into the master's level course of study. When deciding on an undergraduate degree field, it can be helpful to first identify the future administrative goal. For example, to become a college dean, the typical pathway would be to begin as a professor; therefore, a bachelor's degree in the desired teaching field could be a good option. A vice president might need a solid background in interpersonal skills or public speaking, while a chief operations officer might benefit from an undergraduate degree in project management. There are many options to choose from when considering programs for the bachelor, or undergraduate, degree.
Admissions Requirements for Higher Education Master's Programs
Unless the program is part of an accelerated bachelor's/master's degree, a completed bachelor's degree will be required. Generally, the admissions documents will need to include two to three letters of recommendation. An essay or written statement is typical, often around 500 words in length, with a common writing sample prompt to discuss future goals. Although a few programs do accept a high school GPA of 2.5, it is more likely they will require a 3.0 or higher. Most universities do not require a GRE score to be submitted for admission to this program. A current resume is usually needed, outlining work experience, professional skills, any honors or awards received, and professional organization memberships.
How to Choose a Master's in Higher Education Program
Since the administrative opportunities are widely varied in the higher education setting, many universities offer specializations or concentrations for their master's programs. Some examples of these are leadership/administration, career counseling, student affairs administration, or curriculum and instruction. Narrowing down the area of interest through a series of self-reflections can be useful in deciding between the various options. Do you see yourself working with students in a classroom setting? Perhaps a curriculum and instruction specialization might be a good fit. Are you more interested in helping students fit their course of study to their long-term career goals? Career counseling might be the specialization for you. The degree program specializations vary from university to university, so deciding if you want to specialize, and what that specialization should be, can help you narrow your list of prospective universities. Once you have determined your desired specialization, you may want to look at admission requirements for each school, the teacher/student ratio, internship opportunities and job placement services to help you finalize your decision.
Higher Education Master's Degree Courses
Although the breadth of opportunity for administrative roles in higher education lends itself to a wide variety of degree specialization pathways, entry-level coursework is relatively consistent irrespective of the chosen concentration. This set of courses is typically referred to as foundational courses and are designed to be taken within the first two to three semesters of entering the program.
Higher Education Foundational Courses
Foundational courses provide a solid understanding of the basic framework for higher education administration: leadership and decision making, student support, financial oversight, and legal issues. Typically, the course of study will begin with a history primer presented through the lens of the higher education institution. Ethical decision making and leadership courses walk future administrators through real-life scenarios they may face on the job, often expanding on the case studies presented in the legal issues coursework. These are offered alongside equity and diversity courses which highlight diversity-related issues that may be found in the higher education setting. Developmental learning courses focus on learning theory for the college age student, while the finance classes provide an overview of funding systems for higher education as well as presenting some of the current financial challenges faced by institutions of higher education. Generally, a research methods class will be included in the foundational coursework as well so that students may begin to develop an understanding of how to successfully conduct academic research in this area.
Higher Education Specialist & Elective Courses
Elective courses for the degree in higher education can provide an opportunity to develop a basic understanding of the variety of components found within the college or university setting. Courses are all presented through the lens of higher education and may include data-based decision making, policy and law, human resources, contemporary issues, career counseling, or athletics. There are also advanced courses for those who would like to learn more about a specific topic, such as academic research, facilities management, or finance and business operations.
Licensure and Certification in Higher Education
While special licensure or certification may be required for a specific administrative role in higher education, such as a CPA (certified public accountant) license for a financial department administrator, there is not a general license or certificate that is required to become an administrator of a college or university. The most common requirement beyond the designated course sequence is an internship which is conducted during the program, whereby the student documents time spent on a pre-approved project or projects that have been designed to provide relevant work experience. Typically for this type of degree an internship can carry a requirement of approximately 120 hours.
Concentrations Offered for a Master's in Higher Education Degree
Within the masters of higher education degree plan, there are a wealth of choices for specialization. This focused sequence of courses is called a concentration. Concentrations may be based on the structure of the entity, such as courses in administration of community colleges. The pathway might be focused on curriculum and instruction, with course offerings such as teaching and learning theory, assessment, or development of curriculum. Even management courses can be a launch point for a specialization, with courses offered in crisis management, management of facilities, or enrollment management for example.
Post-Graduate Options After Master's in Higher Education
Following the completion of a master's degree in higher education, there are several academic options available to those who would like to continue along a course of study. Colleges and universities present the opportunity for a doctoral degree in the content area or departmental administrative role of interest. Examples could include a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in History for those interested in becoming dean of the humanities department; an Doctor of Education (EdD) in curriculum and instruction for a program director in the college of education; or even a Doctorate of Business Administration with a specialization in project management for a chief operating office. For those who have not yet identified a specific position or department, but do have an interest in moving into an administrative role, the Doctor of Philosophy degree is available in higher education administration as well as the Doctor of Education degree.
Higher Education Professional Organizations
A leading role of professional organizations in higher education is to collect and disseminate data in an effort to systematically enhance the body of knowledge regarding current topics of interest in the field. This is accomplished both formally, through conferences and publications for example, as well as informally via social media, blogs, and consulting services. Additionally, the organizations strive to stay fluent in the established and proposed legislation surrounding higher education.
A few examples of professional organizations for administrators in higher education include:
The American Association for Higher Education & Accreditation (AAHE) is a national organization serving a dual role in professional learning and accreditation. They advocate for positive change within the field, offering assistance in the form of ongoing training, policy insight, and consultation. Student memberships are available and priced on a sliding scale based on whether the student's current program is a pathway to the bachelor, master, or doctoral degree.
The American Association of University Administrators (AAUA) was established in 1971 with the purpose of supporting all administrators within the college or university setting. What makes this association rather unique in scope is the focus on supporting the higher education administrator position irrespective of the specific management role. AAUA offers collaboration, networking, and professional training opportunities to the beginning administrator through the senior leadership level. Membership is available to anyone who has an interest in the field of higher education. Graduate student memberships are available for a nominal fee.
The National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) is a branch of the largest organization for professional educators, the National Education Association (NEA). The association offers leadership summits, conferences, and legislative advocacy specific to the field of public education. Memberships are available for those actively working in a public college or university and those who are retired from these positions. The NEA does have a student membership level available for those currently enrolled in a college or university program to prepare for a position in higher education. After joining the NEA, it is possible to join the NCHE for a nominal fee.
What Can I Do with a Higher Education Master's Degree?
The primary function of a master's degree in higher education is to provide training for a career at the college or university level, often with a focus on administrative roles. It is not uncommon to enter the career field as a college professor in order to work toward a leadership position. Most employees in the higher education setting work full time positions of 40 hours per week, possibly experiencing a slightly reduced schedule for summer hours. Duties are dependent upon the size of the university along with the diversity of academic departments and administrative functions. A student services coordinator, for example, coordinates support for students and parents via campus programs such as tutorial services, counseling, financial aid, and admissions, while an administrator in human resources focuses on managing employee relations and developing an effective workforce.
Usually there is no special exam or certification to become an administrator in higher education. A master's degree is all that is needed, although many of the leadership team tend to have a doctorate degree. Good people skills, at least a basic proficiency with technology, problem-solving skills and a high level of organizational ability are important attributes of the successful higher education administrator.
Job Outlook for a Master's in Higher Education
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of administrators in the area of higher education is expected to experience an average growth between 2019 and 2029, at approximately four percent. Adults are expected to continue seeking to extend their formal learning in order to advance their careers, requiring administrative functions to help ensure the smooth operations of these postsecondary entities. In the case of a decrease in student enrollment or budget, colleges and universities could experience lay offs in all levels of positions, including administrative positions.
Administrators in this field reported an average (mean) annual salary of $112,400 in 2019. Colleges and Universities were slightly higher at $115,890 while technical and trade school administrators reported the lowest annual salary average (mean) of $89,210. Support services administrative positions were in the middle at $107,070. Those located at institutions of higher education in New Jersey ($154,430), New York ($140,870), Maryland ($136,380), Delaware ($133,930) and California ($129,400) reported higher annual salary averages (mean) than did the other states.
How to Become a College or University Dean
Academic deans assist the provost, or chief academic officer, with the development of academic policy, hiring of staff, tenure decisions, and budget. Deans also oversee the daily management of the professors and staff within their department. Due to the academic setting, dean positions usually require a doctorate degree. Other qualifications include relevant work experience, generally as a college professor, along with experience in leadership roles and working with adult learners. Deans can make from $59,000 annually to $160,000 with a median salary of $92,439, according to a PayScale February 2021 report.
To obtain the needed experience in a leadership role, professors may choose to begin as a program director. Working under the direct supervision of the academic dean, program directors are responsible for a specified program of study within the degree options for that department. Their job is a pared down version of the dean's role, as they concentrate on managing the daily operations of that program. The average (median) salary for an academic director is $65,210, with a salary range from $44,000 to $98,000. '
How to Become a Top Executive in a College or University
Senior leadership staff, also referred to as top executives, exist in most industries including institutions of higher education. While the most visible top executive role is that of college or university president, there are a number of other positions. Top executives in this industry are often called chief executive officers, and they earn a median annual salary of $155,362
On the operations side, the chief operating officer manages human resource, finance, policy and other operational systems. In an non-profit institution, these leadership positions may be termed executive director. The chief academic officer, a position commonly named college or university provost, focuses on academic programs and policies. Provosts ensure program offerings are attractive to incoming students, participate in the selection of the faculty, and work directly with the deans of the various academic divisions within the college or university. The average (median) provost base salary is $151,447, with the scale ranging from $95,000 to $286,000.
Master's in Higher Education Program Financial Aid & Scholarship Resources
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 86% of full-time students nation-wide enrolled in four-year higher education institutions for the 2017-2018 school year were receiving some form of financial aid. These aid packages were primarily in the form of student loans or grants. Two-year institutions reported a slightly lower number of students, 78%, for the same school year. To receive financial assistance from the United States Department of Education, the process begins with completion of the FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Approximately $120 billion is awarded each year to assist students with paying for college.
Individual schools often offer scholarship and financial aid assistance to students, with information generally available on their financial aid site and via financial aid staff. Less publicized is the college or university's tuition remission benefit, where the higher education institution will permit full time employees of the college or university to attend tuition free if they meet that institution's specific guidelines. Other opportunities for funding assistance include programs such as the one offered to master's students in higher education by Central Michigan University. Benefits of their fully-funded assistantships beginning in the Fall of 2021 include tuition waivers along with an annual salary of up to $11,000.