Online Master’s Programs in Higher Education

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Updated on: 01/29/2019

With so many career paths available to graduates, it’s no wonder that thousands of students enroll in online master’s programs in higher education each year. Whether a student wishes to work in academics, student services or research, roles exist to help master’s students find a perfect fit for their interests, passions and career aspirations. Learn more about what you can expect as you earn your master’s in higher education online, including an outline of coursework, career and salary potential after graduation, and see which colleges are providing the best value for students interested in online higher education master’s programs to help make your college choice.

What Can I Learn in an Online Master's in Higher Education Program?

Students interested in studying higher education in graduate school have some options in terms of degree path. Understanding which online master’s degree fits your professional aspirations is an important part of the college search. Here are the distinctions:

  • Master of Arts, Higher Education (MA) – Often culminating with a thesis, the MA degree path focuses on professional classroom teaching strategies for higher education and academia.
  • Master of Education, Higher Education (MEd) – An MEd focuses less on subject-specific skills, and more on the evaluation of higher education as a practice. Students declare their specialization, in this case higher education, upon application.

Both master’s degree paths in higher education prepare students for roles in postsecondary settings. By equipping them with skills related to programmatic development, budgetary oversight, leadership, student affairs and working with people of varied backgrounds, students typically walk away with the following skills upon graduation:

  • In-depth understanding of the higher education system and postsecondary processes
  • Insight into teaching core concepts at the upper level
  • Data and research-based solutions for helping students learn
  • How to use data to determine the success of higher education programs

What common courses are offered in an MHA program?

Though all online master’s programs in higher education will provide unique coursework and areas of focus, here is a glimpse into the type of coursework and classes you can expect to encounter while pursuing a master’s degree in higher education.

Student Success Best Practices

This course introduces learners to the current student landscape and includes discussions and readings on how to adequately serve an ever-growing population of diverse degree seekers. Other topics explored include the planning, design, and management of student services, legal requirements and how to connect programs to student success.

Financial Management of Resources

Recognizing that many university systems experience budgetary constraints, this class takes a look at how higher educational professionals can expertly manage budgets, make use of incoming funds, oversee the financial and strategic planning processes and encourage innovative ways of conducting fundraising throughout the university community.

The Admissions Process

For students who hope to work in the admissions department upon graduation, this class begins by providing an overview of the current admissions landscape before diving into current issues, questions of access and ensuring equity and how to develop the soundest strategy for deciding which students to admit.

Using Data to Drive Decision-Making

Because many big decisions made within higher education administration rely on the review of data, this course introduces students to questions about how data can be best utilized, how to effectively collect data in their roles and which technologies can best help with this process. Students also learn how to communicate their findings and translate raw data into forms that are digestible by the wider university body.

What exams or projects should I expect?

Before graduation, many online master’s programs in higher education require students to complete a significant thesis comprised of independent research surrounding the higher education landscape or to engage in a comprehensive capstone project. These projects often examine a specific issue or topic within higher education and provide researched solutions. Additionally, schools may require certain teaching licenses or certifications before a degree is awarded.

What specializations are available in a master’s in higher education program?

Educational Leadership

Designed for the student who plans to move into the upper echelons of university administration, this specialization reviews issues surrounding educational policy, ethical practices, leadership skills, and how to encourage and support diversity from the top down.

Student Engagement

For degree seekers planning to work directly with students in either an academic or administrative capacity, this specialization focuses on best practices for engaging students and helping them stay involved throughout their college careers.

Instructional Design & Technology

Many students working towards an online master’s in higher education hope to use their skills in curriculum development and technology to design programs of study that meet the demands of the 21st century. Common classes include principles of design within online education, educational technology issues, and best technology practices.

What Can I do with a Master’s in Higher Education Degree?

Given that the field of higher education covers a significant number of university departments and offices, completing an online master’s in higher education can open the door to many different roles within the higher education system. Check for those that suit your individual personality, offer the work/life balance you require, and have appealing salary and growth potential.

Director of International Student Services

Working with other members of the administrative body, these professionals walk alongside international learners to ensure their needs are met both before and during their time at school. Along with their international student services team, directors oversee the process for securing international student visas, help new learners acclimate to both life and school in a different country, arrange language classes (if needed) and ensure they settle into the campus community. International student services specializations are not common, but students may be able to find individual classes that touch on this topic, or they can focus their internship in this area.

Director of Student Affairs

A perfect role for the professional who enjoys working in many different parts of campus life, the Director of Student Affairs position typically oversees activities ranging from freshman orientation and student clubs and organizations to Greek life. They manage large budgets and often have many people who report to them. They may also be required to carry out some disciplinary actions, depending on the individual school. Students can often find student affairs specializations under the higher education master’s degree umbrella.

Admissions Director

Leading a team of admissions specialists, directors of these departments oversee the admissions process for incoming students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. In addition to monitoring historical admissions data, these professionals also work to ensure the student body continues growing in terms of academic potential, diversity, and all-around preparedness for the rigors of college. They may partner with high schools to identify suitable candidates, or travel to various schools to discuss their college. Many higher education programs offer admissions specializations for learners pursuing this path.

Recruiting Specialist

Working under the admissions department umbrella, recruiting specialists travel around the region – or in some cases the country – finding suitable candidates for the university and encouraging them to apply. Some recruitment is done on a generic basis, while others focus on students with particular skills in areas of academics or sports. When not on the road, recruitment specialists spend their time following up with potential students and their families and overseeing the design of marketing materials to be used at recruitment events.

Research Director

Research directorships often appeal to higher education students who want to work in both academics and administrative affairs. In concert with professors and researchers, these professionals oversee the development of research in each department, create research objectives, oversee the departmental research budget and ensure laboratories and other research areas have the tools and supplies needed. They also collect data about the effectiveness of research conducted at their site as evidence of important work being done.

Professional Organizations

Students and graduates alike can derive benefits from membership in a higher education professional organization. Several options exist often provide opportunities for networking, professional development and other perks. Some of those within the world of higher education include:

American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers

AACRAO maintains a robust membership of more than 11,000 professionals in this line of work and provides services such as events and training, research and publications, advocac, and an active jobs board.

American Association of University Administrators

AAUA has existed since 1970 and continues working to support individuals in higher education administration. The Association does this by providing an annual awards program, journal, regional and national meetings and opportunities for professional development.

National Association of College and University Business Officers

With an active roster of members spanning 1,900 colleges and universities, NACUBO is a leader in the field. The organization provides conferences, workshops, e-learning, podcasts, research, publications and advocacy.

How Much Can I Make with a Career in Higher Education?

While earning your master’s degree in higher education isn’t a direct guarantee for job placement, there are statistics to back up the idea that a degree could boost your career and salary potential. But especially in the higher education industry, jobs may require additional licensing, certification or training beyond your master’s degree. Salary data below is based on a earning a Master’s of Education and averaged, meaning numbers vary by position, experience and location.

Career Entry-Level Salary (0-5 Years) Mid-Career (5-10 Years) Late Career (10-20+ Years) Job Growth 2016-2026
Postsecondary Education Administrator $52,960 $92,360 $182,150 +10%
Instructional Coordinator $35,550 $63,750 $101,500 +11%
Education Professors $32,540 $64,020 $122,340 +15%

According to data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for postsecondary education administrators are set to grow by 10 percent–faster than the national average–between 2016 and 2026. Put into perspective, that’s an increase of approximately 18,200 positions over ten years.

When reviewing pay for common higher education positions, grad students should remember that salaries depend largely the level of degree attained. Unless they have significantly more experience, individuals with bachelor’s degrees in education tend to earn less than their peers with master’s degrees.

Online Master’s in Higher Education Program Accreditation

Discussing accreditation often isn’t as interesting as talking about research areas, available coursework or student services, but it is an important factor in picking a great online master’s program in higher education. Online master’s in higher education degrees that receive programmatic accreditation submit to a rigorous evaluation by an independent accrediting body. This body sets standards related to how the program prepares graduates for higher education roles, how its services set learners up for success, and whether the curriculum adequately covers relevant materials.

Within the world of online master’s programs for higher education, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation serves as the main accrediting agency. Students should pay attention to proper institutional and programmatic accreditation, as attending schools that meet accreditation standards makes it easier for them to transfer credits, compete for jobs and, if necessary, receive licensure.

How to Pay for a Master’s in Higher Education Degree

Even if a student gets into a top online master’s in education program, many still feel concern over cost of the program. Learners can draw from numerous sources to lessen the overall financial burden. Always check with your college learn about available institutional funding, and research scholarship opportunities from outside funding groups such as nonprofits, foundations, and state/local governments.

  • Scholarships

    Some programs, such as Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Higher Education, offer full and partial scholarships to offset costs.

  • Graduate Assistantships

    Other institutions, such as the University of Kansas, provide graduate assistantships to cover costs. Students still lacking the funding needed after exhausting all scholarship, grant, and assistantship options often turn to federal student loans to cover the remaining portion, which starts by filling out a FAFSA form.