A PLACE AT THE HELM

Options for graduate studies in higher education administration

09/01/2014
HIGHER EDUCATION
Jane Sevier

If you’re interested in leadership roles in colleges and universities, an advanced degree in higher education administration could be the gateway to a profession with growing opportunities. Studies in the field lead to careers as diverse as student affairs, admissions and enrollment management, financial aid, government and community relations, policy analysis, alumni relations, institutional and policy research, athletics administration and change management.

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And demand for skilled administrators is increasing. With college students and their families increasingly viewing themselves as education consumers, institutions must continuously analyze and upgrade their services. Similarly, federal and state requirements place a growing burden of reporting requirements on institutions. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that employment for higher education administrators will grow 15 percent between 2012 and 2022, faster than the average for all occupations.

Graduate study in higher education administration can help you consider the many dimensions and stakeholders that make up the contemporary university and can prepare you to lead effectively. Administrative positions typically require at least a master’s degree, with some jobs or institutions preferring graduates with doctoral degrees. Graduate programs leading to both master’s and doctoral degrees are available, and you can also choose to study full or part time.

If you’re just starting a career in higher education, master’s degree programs are often designed to prepare you for entry-level administrative positions in community and technical colleges and four-year universities and colleges or potentially for doctoral-level studies. Programs focus on organizational theories and practices and can be completed in one to two years. You can choose between two types of master’s degrees, the Master of Arts (M.A.) and the master of education (M.Ed.). If you want to conduct research studies in the field of education, an academic degree like the M.A. may be the program for you. If you’re looking for a professional degree that gives you greater practical knowledge and learning in the field, an M.Ed. may be the better choice. Both degrees prepare you to pursue doctoral-level studies in education.

“The higher education program at Peabody provided me an opportunity to get a strong broad-based education from some of the nation’s leading scholars in the field,” says Wesley R. Fugate, an alumnus of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development and who is vice president and chief of staff at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia.“The outstanding faculty helped relate theory to practice in a way that has allowed me to integrate theory into my every day work, which ultimately benefits the institutions I serve. The education that I received at Vanderbilt was the ideal preparation for someone in my position and was an excellent springboard from which to begin my doctoral studies.”

Both a doctorate of education (the Ed.D.) and doctorate of philosophy in education (the Ph.D.) can prepare you for a wide range of careers in education. Although both provide a basic overview of research methods in education, in an academic program like the Ph.D. you will typically take more classes in statistical analysis, research methods, and educational theory and will conduct research of your own aimed at expanding scholarly knowledge. Research in a professional program like the Ed.D. will generally encourage you to develop analytical and practical skills to address real-world problems in higher education settings.With a doctoral degree, you may advance to higher-level positions such as academic dean, director of development, dean of students, director of student affairs, director of admissions and financial aid director.

Roles within each administrative specialization may vary as well. In student affairs, for example, you may advise students on topics ranging from housing issues to personal problems to academics. You communicate with parents and families. You could create, schedule, support, and assess nonacademic program services for students such as athletic events or recreational activities. If you wish to teach student affairs or carry out research in the field, you could focus on students, faculty, diversity, teaching and learning, curriculum, history, philosophy, international and comparative higher education and institutional policy.

As the field expands to address demographic and financial changes in higher education, more institutions are adding post-graduate programs in enrollment management or student personnel administration—an area that includes admissions, financial aid, student retention and graduation. As an enrollment management professional, you formulate and carry out plans to attract the best students in ways that enhance the educational mission and reputation of your college or university. You may also develop marketing materials and tailor predictive factors in admissions criteria.

Admissions administrators decide whether potential students should be accepted to the school. You determine how many students to admit to fill the available spaces, prepare promotional materials about your school, meet with prospective students and encourage them to apply, review applications, and analyze data about applicants and admitted students. You may also work with financial aid officers to help students finance their education.

Studies in higher education policy prepare you to understand the complex interrelationship between state, local and federal governments and institutions of higher education. With a policy degree, you can hold positions in governmental affairs, government agencies or policy research organizations.

As higher education undergoes rapid globalization, opportunities in international higher education are expanding. You could work with international students at U.S. colleges and universities and with American students studying abroad. The field includes higher education policy, administration and international student affairs.

Most graduate-level programs allow you to focus your studies on one of these specialties. At the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, for example, the Ph.D. in Higher Education offers concentrations in Academic Affairs and Student Development, Organizational Behavior and Management, Public Policy in Postsecondary Education, and Research, Evaluation and Assessment. If students’ research interests cut across the designated doctoral concentrations, they may create individualized programs and requirements in collaboration with a faculty committee.

At U.M.-Ann Arbor, Academic Affairs and Student Development focus on the teaching and learning mission of colleges and universities and on the communities that surround them. Students will explore academic programs and curriculum; student learning and development; student access, adjustment, and achievement in higher education; teaching and research processes; college and university faculty; and leadership in administrative units with teaching and learning responsibilities.

In Organizational Behavior and Management, students explore and research the administration, governance, management, leadership, organizational strategy, planning and budgeting, and institutional research and assessment of postsecondary educational organizations. Public Policy in Postsecondary Education includes studies of the social, economic, and political factors that affect postsecondary institutions, particularly the effect of local, state, and federal policies on students, faculty and other constituencies.

In Research, Evaluation, and Assessment, students develop the conceptual and technical skills necessary to research higher education, including applied research related to institutional research, educational and administrative evaluation, program review and assessment of teaching and learning.

UM-Ann Arbor also offers the Master of Arts in Higher Education with several concentrations available.

At Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, students can pursue a M.Ed. degree in higher education administration in four specialized courses of study, with an option to design their own specializations. Student Affairs prepares graduates for positions related to housing, student and Greek life, multicultural affairs, international student services and admissions. Enrollment Management enables students to understand how the tools and techniques of enrollment management can help recruit, admit and graduate students. In this concentration, students examine both the practical implementation of enrollment management techniques and the field’s broader strategic concerns. Graduates can work in admissions offices, development, student affairs or institutional research. In Higher Education Policy, students explore both higher education management and education policymaking, readying themselves for careers in university governmental affairs offices, state or federal agencies, or education research and advocacy organizations.

The University of Maryland-College Park’s International Education Policy (IEP) program offers master’s and doctoral degrees designed to provide an interdisciplinary understanding of educational policy and practice in other countries. Students focus on the relation of education to economic, political, and social development in both developing and developed countries at local, national, regional and global levels. The IEP program allows comprehensive attention to education, considering both formal schooling, from pre-school to higher education, as well as non-formal, adult and community-based education.

Some graduate programs offer an overview of higher education administration rather than specialization. In Harvard University’s higher education master’s degree program, for example, students examine the policies, practices, and issues of contemporary American higher education and enhance their analytical and managerial skills. Rather than preparing graduates for one particular job, the curriculum offers them the skills and knowledge essential for professional advancement through many positions during their careers in higher education.

“The core mission of the Higher Education Program is to enhance students’ understanding of higher education policies and practices, to familiarize them with leading theories of organizations, leadership, economics, and planning, and to prepare them for an array of positions in higher education administration, policy and planning,” says Judith McLaughlin, director of Harvard’s master’s in higher education program.

The Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia offers a M.Ed. in Higher Education designed to prepare graduates for leadership roles in a variety of positions in postsecondary education. Studies emphasize knowledge of theories that underlie practice, student experiences and development and organizational and environmental characteristics of the various types of postsecondary educational institutions, as well as an understanding of the political and social forces that shape higher education. Graduates can go on to careers including academic advising, admissions, alumni relations, athletics, development, events management, financial management, human resources, institutional research and student affairs.

If you prefer to pursue your studies online, some institutions offer online degree and certificate programs.The Leadership in Enrollment Management online certificate program available through the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, for example, has been designed for emerging and seasoned professionals in admissions, financial aid, institutional research, enrollment management and related fields.

Whatever area of higher education interests you, professional and research organizations are good places to begin exploring the field and deciding which program is right for you. Information from graduate programs themselves is also available online.

Jane Sevier, M.A., is a writer in the Dean’s Office at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College in Nashville.
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