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How to Start Your Career in Higher Education Administration

By Brian Soika

In higher education administration, you work on college campuses such as the University of Southern California
Higher education administrators play a pivotal role in defining their educational institutions.

Whether you work in admissions, student affairs or executive leadership, you get to inform and execute institutional policy.

Plus, it’s an exciting time to work in higher education. As institutions determine how to navigate evolving trends in financial aid, enrollment, certificates and micro degrees, you may be able to help shape the future of an industry.

So how do you get started? Check out our guide to pursuing a career in higher education, as well as a few actionable tips.

(Curious about popular fields within higher education? Check out our master’s programs in postsecondary education and student affairs, educational counseling, and enrollment management.)

Who Should Pursue a Career in Higher Education Administration?

Higher education administration is ideal for anyone who’s passionate about education and the college/university experience.

If you feel compelled to pursue a career in the field, you’ve probably had positive experiences in school, connected with instructors, and enjoyed student life, e.g., campus organizations, Greek life, athletics, etc. In fact, you may feel changed by those experiences.

You may also feel motivated to meaningfully influence students at a pivotal time in their lives. (Remember, even if you don’t directly work with students, your job in higher ed will likely affect them in some capacity.)

What Are Examples of Higher Education Administration Jobs?

Higher education administration jobs vary by department—and by institution.

For example, one school may have a robust admissions team, complete with full recruitment and marketing support. Meanwhile, another school may consolidate those roles into just a few positions.

As an overview, here are some general areas in which you may find a job in higher education administration:

  • Academic advising
  • Admissions
  • Residential life
  • Outreach programs
  • Volunteer centers
  • Financial aid
  • Student activities

And here are some examples of jobs held by USC Rossier alumni working in higher ed:

  • Assistant Director of Executive Education
  • Program Director
  • Academic Advisor
  • Assistant Director of Student-Athlete Enhancement
  • Career Development Specialist
  • Senior Associate Director of Financial Aid

(For more real-world examples of higher education administration jobs, check out the Career Opportunities page for our PASA program.)

If you aspire to senior leadership positions at a university, here are some common roles (note that they may require a doctoral degree):

  • Vice President of Student Affairs
  • Vice President of Academic Affairs
  • Provost
  • Director of Athletics
  • Chief Communications Officer
  • Dean

How Much Money Do you Make in Higher Education Administration?

According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median pay for postsecondary education administrators is $94,340 (but this depends on your position).

Additionally, employment is expected to grow seven percent through 2028, which is faster than the average for all other occupations. 192,600 people reportedly work in the field.

The takeaway? Higher education administration is a growing industry, and will likely need to expand its workforce to keep up with growth.

Ready to take the next step in your career? Learn more about our master’s programs in higher education administration.

 

Future higher education administrators meet for their graduate program's Preview Day at USC Rossier

New students get acquainted at Preview Day for USC Rossier’s PASA and EC programs. Photo by Charlie L. Morales.

Higher Education Administration Career Tips

Determine Why You’re Passionate About Higher Ed

What motivates you to pursue a career in higher education administration? Do you want to advise students? Impact enrollment policies? Connect students to financial aid opportunities?

Not exactly sure which area is a good fit? Think about your personal experiences.

If you’re a first-generation student and feel driven to support other first-generation students, you may want to work in a university resource center or admissions.

If you received advising while in school that was particularly helpful, consider academic advising or educational counseling.

The best way to choose a career focus within higher ed is to find a personal connection to it.

Complete Your Undergraduate Degree

The first step to pursuing your career in higher education is to complete your bachelor’s degree. Typically, schools require it as part of the job description.

If you’re not currently majoring in education or didn’t earn your bachelor’s degree in the subject, don’t worry. Professionals in the field have varied backgrounds and somewhat diverse majors while in college.

Gain Relevant Experience (Undergrad Students)

To help you decide if a career in higher education is right for you, look for relevant work experience while in college.

You may be able to apply for a job through your school’s work study program that pertains to education administration, perhaps in university offices for admissions, financial aid, etc. And talk to some of the professionals where you work. If it’s appropriate, ask them about their experiences working in higher education.

You should also get involved in campus life. Join student organizations and clubs, or consider participating in Greek life.

It’s important to integrate yourself into your school’s cultural fabric. You’ll get to know different types of students and enrich yourself. Plus, you’ll better understand the different ways that universities serve their students.

Connect With an Administrator on Campus

Perhaps the best way to learn about a higher education administration career is to talk to an administrator while you’re a student. Ask them how they entered the profession, and if they have any tips for you. (And let them know the conversation will be brief and informal; they’ll be more likely to make time for you.)

If you don’t have access to administrators on campus, speak to a professor who you know, or an academic advisor. See if they can connect you to the right person.

Consider Taking an Entry-Level Job  

If you’ve already graduated from college and don’t have prior experience or a master’s degree, you may still be able to get an entry-level position in higher education administration. Check online job postings and, if you’re an alumni, contact your school’s alumni office.

Before you apply, you should research volunteer opportunities relevant to what you want to do. This will bolster your application and make you a more competitive candidate.

Enroll in a Higher Education Administration Master’s Program

Most positions in higher education administration prefer a master’s of education or equivalent degree. Senior positions typically prefer a doctorate.

A master’s in education degree prepares you to lead in areas such as student affairs, academic advising, residential life, and more. Programs give you formal training to understand student perspectives, and prepare you to work in two- and four- year institutions, as well as professional schools.

Some schools offer master of education degrees in specific areas such as enrollment or educational counseling. However, if you’re not sure which area of higher education you want to pursue, consider a broader program that will prepare you to work in multiple areas.

Pro tip: Start researching scholarships and financial aid for graduate school as soon as possible. Also check out our guide on how to pay for grad school.

 

A student enrolled in one of USC Rossier's higher education adminisration programs gets answers to her questions at Preview Day

A new student receives guidance at Preview Day. Photo by Charlie L. Morales.

Apply for a Graduate Assistantship (if Available)

Some master of education degree programs offer graduate assistantships. These are part-time jobs for grad students in areas relevant to your study. Often, the assistantships are located on or near your school’s campus, and include an hourly wage or tuition remission.

When reviewing master’s programs, check to see if graduate assistantships are available. They provide relevant training while reducing your financial burden.

Seek Guidance From a Mentor

Mentorships can be an excellent way to build your knowledge and make connections, especially in higher education administration, a relatively small and close-knit industry.

How do you find a mentor? If you’re an undergraduate student, talk to an academic advisor. Explain your career plans and ask if they can connect you with someone in your school.

Also check out the undergraduate fellows program known as NUFP.

Through NUFP, undergraduates pair with mentors on campus, receive guidance, and at some schools, get funding to attend professional development programs.

If you’re a graduate student earning your master’s in education, or already work in the profession, identify someone who has your dream job. Acquaint yourself and build a relationship over time.

Connect With Your Master’s Cohort

It’s important to build relationships with the other students in your master’s program.

One of the major benefits of graduate school for higher education administration is the opportunity to build your professional network. You and your cohort will all be working in the same industry, and it will be helpful to have connections.

Different departments within a university often need to collaborate to ensure success for students. The connections you establish now will help you grow a strong network throughout your school and the industry.

Join Industry Organizations

Joining relevant professional groups and organizations helps you increase connections within your field. When you join, you’ll get notified about opportunities for professional development, and potentially discover career opportunities.

Here are some common organizations for higher education professionals:

  • NASPA (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators)
  • NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling)
  • NAGAP (Association for Graduate Enrollment Management)
  • ACPA (American College Personnel Association)

LinkedIn member? Join relevant higher education groups and connect with other professionals online.

Keep up With Trends in Higher Education

As with any industry, you should stay current with news in higher education administration. Following updates can help you better understand the state of affairs in your field, provide big-picture context, and stay ahead of developments in the future.

News Sources:

Podcasts:

  • Future U (how current trends may affect the future of higher education)
  • Connect EDU Network (a network of podcasts covering a variety of diverse higher education topics)
  • Higher Ed Live (recorded live shows spanning admissions, marketing, advancement and student affairs)

USC Rossier Resources

Interested in a career in higher education administration? Check out our PASA, Educational Counseling, and Enrollment Management programs.

Have questions?

Connect With Admission Staff