School Administrator Career Tips for K-12 and Higher Education [With Infographic]

By Brian Soika

Students walk through a college campus in which school administrators work

As a school administrator, you have an important role to play. Depending on your position, you may provide leadership at an educational institution, impact the experiences of students and employees, or support operations. 

‘Administrator’ is a broad term that covers many positions and responsibilities. Perhaps the most significant differentiator is whether you work in a K-12 or higher education environment. (Higher education professionals typically refer to themselves as college administrators.) 

If you’re wondering how to become a school administrator, or what career options might be available to you, this guide outlines tips for those working in elementary, middle and high school, as well as postsecondary institutions. 

A colorful infographic on how to become a school administrator illustrates the path to your career goal.

Download the How to Become a School Administrator infographic.


K-12 School Administrator Jobs

K-12 administrators serve in supervisory roles at a school site, district office, or educational entity. Here are some typical school administrator jobs:

  • Superintendent
  • School Principal
  • Assistant Principal
  • Athletic Director
  • Chief Business Officer
  • Dean of Students
  • Program Administrator

Keep in mind that there are a variety of other areas in which you may work in a supervisory role (e.g., healthcare services). You can also serve in non-traditional settings. For example, rehabilitation centers for paralyzed children may need qualified administrators to oversee their education program.

Career Goals

If you’re trying to determine the right path for your career as a school administrator, first identify your career goal. For example, if you’re currently a teacher but want to make structural changes at your school, becoming a principal might be a smart choice. 

Once you figure out how you can provide the most value in your field, you’ll need to pursue additional training via an administrative credential or graduate degree program. Increasingly, graduate-level education is required to advance in education administration. 

Graduate Programs

Many master’s or doctoral programs in education are designed to provide you with the knowledge and skills to excel as a school administrator.

Try to align your professional goals with the program to which you want to apply. For example, if you aspire to a senior leadership position, consider a doctoral program such as USC Rossier’s Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership, offered for K-12 leaders online or on campus. 

For other administrative roles, a master’s degree in education administration may be a good fit. Remember to research the particular program to ensure that it will prepare you to succeed in your field. Viewing a list of alumni and their current roles can be an indication if the program is right for you.

School Administrator Credential

In California, K-12 school administrator positions require an administrative credential.

The administrative credential follows a two-tier structure set by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. 

Preliminary Administrative Services Credential

First, you must earn your Preliminary Administrative Services Credential. This prepares you to become a school site or district leader, oversee personnel, manage financial services and instruction. To be eligible, you need to work for five years full time as a credentialed education professional, such as a teacher, counselor, or librarian. 

Expert tip: Earn your Preliminary California Administrative Services Credential through USC Rossier’s School Leadership Academy

Clear Administrative Credential

While the preliminary credential provides you with education and training, the Clear Administrative Credential requires you to apply your knowledge on the job while receiving ongoing guidance. 

This experience is known as induction. Through induction, you enroll in a primarily coaching-based program tailored to your position, which includes additional learning opportunities and continued assessment. 

For more information on preliminary and clear credentials, the CCTC has a complete list of requirements on its website.

K-12 School Administrator Credential Program
vs. Graduate Programs at USC Rossier*

Type of Program Prepares you to Be an Administrator Curriculum Time Commitment Cost Recommended if:
Admin Credential Program Yes Coursework, fieldwork and practical training 15 months $10,000 You already have professional experience

You already have a graduate degree

Graduate Programs Yes Theoretical context

Addressing problems of practice

3 years $1,995 / unit

(41-43 units total)

Starting your career

Degree recommended for position

*Information based on USC Rossier’s Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership and School Leadership Academy programs for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Public vs. Private Schools

K-12 public schools in California all have the same requirements for school administrators. However, some private and privately-run charter schools set their own rules. 

Bottom line? If you have your sights set on a specific job at a private school, check the requirements. But if you’re flexible about where you work, it’s a good idea to earn your administrative credential or graduate degree. Even if you end up applying for a job at a private school, the additional education will make you a more competitive applicant.


School Administrator Jobs (Higher Education)

In higher education, the term ‘school administrator’ applies to most roles outside of direct instruction. From student affairs to financial aid, administrators work in a variety of settings and perform a range of important tasks at different levels of leadership.

Here are just a few examples of higher education administrator positions:

  • Academic Advisor
  • Admission Counselor
  • Financial Aid Officer
  • Career Services Advisor
  • Student Activities Coordinator
  • Dean 
  • Director
  • Enrollment Manager
  • Vice President or Vice Chancellor
  • Provost
  • President, Chancellor

(For more examples of school administrator jobs, check out the blog on Higher Education Administration Career Tips.)

Remember that every university—and every individual school and research center—has different needs. Job titles and responsibilities vary. 

Graduate Degrees for Higher Education

Not every administrator job at a university requires a master’s degree.

However, “to get your foot in the door with this generation of professionals, you need a master’s,” says Tracy Tambascia, EdD, chair of the Higher Education Administration concentration in USC Rossier.

But there is an important caveat.

For roles that require a master’s degree, you may still be considered if you have a master’s in a subject other than higher education. “But then the question becomes whether you have the practice-based knowledge,” notes Tambascia. 

Experience in higher education is crucial, especially for jobs where an absence of graduate-level education could hurt your eligibility. If you want to efficiently prepare for your career, consider a master’s program in postsecondary education that offers both education and experience.  

Education Degrees vs. Business Degrees

Typical degrees for graduate-level programs in education include a Master of Education (MEd), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Education (EdD). These degrees often prepare you for work that impacts students’ academic or campus experiences. 

However, depending on your area of interest, you may still be eligible to work as a school administrator without an education-related degree. For example, if you aspire to work in human resources or auxiliaries, a master’s in business administration (MBA) may be more helpful to you, as your work will affect university infrastructure and operations. 

Graduate Degrees vs. Certificates 

Many universities offer graduate-level certificates and credentials in specialized subjects for school administrators in higher education. These can be valuable if you already have experience and/or a graduate degree, and want to focus on building knowledge in a specific area. And like K-12 administrator credentials, they are less expensive than a degree. 

However, higher education credential programs can’t replace the breadth and depth of education offered by a graduate program. Master’s and doctoral programs provide you with a robust skill set, as well as the opportunity to build a close-knit professional network. 

Administrator Paths 

A common path to becoming an administrator in higher education is to enroll in a master’s program shortly after you earn your bachelor’s degree. Many people identify an interest in working in a university setting in their undergraduate years.

However, some people change their careers, moving to higher education after working for a time. Often, they feel unfulfilled in their industry but want to apply their same skill set at a university, or they decide to shift careers altogether and enroll in a graduate program that will transition them to higher education.

Personal Goals

School administrators in higher education, particularly those at the senior leadership level, are often motivated by a desire to address problems of equity. “They want to advance their careers to do more good,” says Tambascia. 

If you’re planning on pursuing a career as an administrator in a student services role, you’ll likely enjoy it more if you’re passionate about issues such as equity, access and student success in universities.