Online Ph.D. in Higher Education

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for postsecondary teachers is projected to increase by 15% through 2026, which is more than double the projected rate of growth for all other occupations. The BLS also estimates that the median postsecondary teacher earned $76,000 in 2017, more than twice the median salary for all other jobs in the economy.

To capitalize on these lucrative new opportunities, you almost certainly need to hold a Ph.D. Depending on your desired career path, an online doctorate in higher education can equip you with the skills and knowledge needed to take on leadership roles at a university or train the next generation of college administrators and education researchers.

Reasons to Pursue an Online Ph.D. in Higher Education

If you hope to serve as a postsecondary administrator, such as an admissions officer or assistant dean of student services, a master's degree in higher education may suffice. If you instead want to become a professor or dean, you should consider earning an online Ph.D. in higher education.

Doctoral programs combine skill-based training with an exploration of higher education theory, while master's programs may focus more on developing professional competencies. In a doctoral program, you also need to take more extensive and rigorous coursework in research methods and data analysis to prepare for a dissertation.

While some community colleges and vocational schools may hire postsecondary teachers who only hold a master's, the vast majority of colleges and universities prefer candidates with a doctorate, especially if you hope to earn eventual tenure as a professor.

For some high-level administrative roles, such as executive dean or director of institutional research, earning a Ph.D. in higher education online may improve your job prospects.

What Can I Do With an Online Doctorate in Higher Education?

If you hope to one day receive tenure, you should first apply for jobs as an assistant professor. Assistant professors earn promotion to the rank of associate professor, and associate professors may ultimately a receive promotion to the level of professor. Schools often award tenure at the level of professor, though some may grant tenure to associate professors as well.

If you plan to teach but do not want to pursue tenure, you can search for jobs as an instructor, adjunct faculty member, or lecturer. You may qualify for positions as a professor of practice if you possess significant professional experience in the field of higher education. While they hold the title of professor, professors of practice typically do not receive tenure.

Finally, if you want to take on an administrative position after graduation, you can follow several different career paths. You may find a role specializing in admissions, academic affairs, or alumni relations at a college or university. Other options include working for a government agency overseeing student loan programs and working for yourself as a higher education consultant.

Career Subfields for
Postsecondary Education Administrators

Consulting: External contractor
Government: Specific sector or branch
Academia: Education, Universities, Research
Industry: Within an organization

Source: BLS

Common Career Paths and Salaries

While your career path and earnings potential will depend greatly on your personal and professional goals, the three jobs listed below represent common occupations for individuals who have earned a doctorate in higher education online. The salaries listed reflect the median pay for these roles across the entire country.

Postsecondary Education Administrator

Postsecondary education administrators oversee the operations of colleges and universities, including student services, academic affairs, and fundraising. Administrators typically specialize in a particular area, but school leaders must understand and coordinate the work of multiple departments.

University Professor

University professors instruct students, conduct research, and perform various administrative duties, such as assisting in the hiring and recruitment of new faculty members. They also typically serve as advisers to their students.

College or University President

A college or university president holds broad responsibility for the operations and strategic direction of their institution. In some cases, a president may delegate administrative tasks to an executive dean and focus more exclusively on fundraising and public relations.

Salary Progression

Your salary as a higher education instructor or administrator will depend greatly on the institution at which you work. For example, you can expect to make more at an elite institution located in an urban area than at a community college in a more rural setting.

However, salaries tend to increase with education and experience, and more lucrative and supervisory roles may explicitly require multiple years of relevant professional experience.

Higher Education Ph.D. Program Requirements and Outcomes

Many online doctoral programs in higher education require applicants to hold a master's degree, though some may allow you to earn this degree while you work towards your doctorate. You may also need to maintain a certain GPA or attain a minimum score on the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE.

These programs typically consist of roughly 60-70 credits. Full-time students usually complete the required coursework in about 2-3 years, but they may need an additional 1-4 years to complete their dissertation. Part-time students may require up to eight years to meet all of their graduation requirements.

While many programs allow students to complete all of their coursework at a distance, some do require participation in brief, on-campus residencies. These residencies generally take place in the summer, making it easier for those with full-time jobs to participate. If your program requires a field experience, you can usually complete this at a college or university in your local area.

Common Courses

  • Foundations of Educational Leadership

    This class provides an introduction to leadership theory and practice in educational settings. It covers topics such as vision building and implementation, professional ethics for leaders, group dynamics, and program development, in addition to the political and legal aspects of leadership.

  • Legal Aspects of Educational Administration

    In this course, students more fully explore the legal issues encountered by higher education administrators and faculty. Learners examine the origin and development of education law, as well as more contemporary issues and cases, such as Supreme Court rulings on the matter of affirmative action.

  • Human Relations in Education Administration

    This course examines people's interrelationships in college and university settings. With an emphasis on building productive working groups, and supporting individuals with special needs, in addition to fostering safe and diverse learning environments, this class proves ideal for those hoping to work in human resources or student affairs.

  • Schools and Communities

    Colleges must collaborate with their surrounding communities to best achieve their educational mission. This course helps students learn how to draw upon local human capital, work effectively with community leaders, and resolve disputes that may arise between students and residents living nearby.

  • Advanced Leadership Theory, Governance, and External Relations

    This course explores leadership on and away from campus. It begins with a focus on internal governance, including faculty committee structures and student representation, before pivoting to the role of state and federal governments in setting policy and providing resources to higher education institutions.

  • Inquiry in Higher Education

    Often one of the first courses taken in preparation for the dissertation process, this class offers an overview of research specifically within the field of higher education. Topics include literature reviews, research design, and the analysis and interpretation of data.

  • Statistical Methods

    This course lays the groundwork for the quantitative research students may conduct for their dissertation. It builds on a student's master's-level education in areas such as sampling distributions, linear regression, and hypothesis testing. Students also develop skills with statistical software, such as SAS or SPSS.

  • Statistical Inference

    Rather than focusing on the collection of data, this class helps students draw conclusions from their datasets to inform policy and practice. It covers advanced hypothesis testing procedures, such as the regression and analysis of variance and multiple correlations. Students also examine the ethics of statistical analysis in higher education settings.

Other Requirements

Residency

While some programs offer the option for students to complete their graduation requirements online, others may mandate a brief period of residency on campus. These residencies allow students to meet other members of their cohort, as well as their instructors and dissertation advisers. Residencies may also feature workshops on conducting research or programs meant to convey the expectations of studying at the doctoral level.

Internship or Field Experience

Though not typically required, some online Ph.D. in higher education programs encourage students without substantial professional experience to participate in an internship. These experiences give students real-world context to their learning and can help them grow their professional network. Check to see if your program maintains relationships with potential internship sites in your area.

Dissertation Research

As you near the end of your doctoral coursework, you will choose a dissertation topic in close consultation with your faculty adviser. Next, you must either conduct original research or compile existing research from multiple sources. Your research should direct and inform the argument of your dissertation.

Dissertation Writing and Defense

Once you finish collecting or curating your data, you can begin writing your dissertation. Students typically submit multiple drafts to their adviser and make extensive revisions based on their feedback. When you complete your dissertation, you must successfully defend it before a committee of faculty members in order to graduate.

Skills and Competencies

Students pursuing a Ph.D. in higher education online develop a host of skills to help them succeed in their careers after graduation. We detail six such skills and competencies below.

  • Financial Analysis

    Students in these programs often learn to create and analyze budgets and other financial reports. They may also learn to make financial projections based on revenue and expenses.

  • Legal Interpretation

    Through an examination of case law and regulation, students observe how to operate within the law in their role as higher education professionals.

  • Counseling and Advising

    Doctoral students develop critical skills related to counseling and guidance, which informs their future work as faculty advisers or academic counselors.

  • Assessment

    Whether conducting research for a scholarly article or designing a workshop for students, these programs equip you with highly transferable skills in assessment and evaluation.

  • Communication

    The dissertation process, in particular, helps students learn how to communicate clearly, both through public speaking and the written word.

  • Diversity Awareness

    Exemplary higher education professionals must develop an understanding of the unique needs and abilities of students from diverse racial, ethnic, religious, and developmental backgrounds.

Higher Education Licensure

Unlike teaching at the K-12 level, you do not need a license to serve as a postsecondary teacher. However, if you teach in a program that prepares students for licensure, you may benefit from holding that license yourself. For example, colleges and universities may prefer to hire nursing professors who hold a nursing license in addition to a Ph.D.

You also do not need a license to work as a postsecondary education administrator, though some may voluntarily seek out professional certification in order to demonstrate their expertise in a certain area. For example, admissions or career services administrators may apply for the Certified Higher Education Professional credential within their field. Development officers may instead pursue the Advanced Certified Fundraising Executive credential offered by the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

However, a doctorate in higher education generally serves as enough of a signal to future employers that you possess the ability to take on both administrative and teaching roles. To ensure that hiring institutions recognize your degree, make sure to attend an accredited program. You can determine if your program holds either regional or national accreditation by searching for it in the Council for Higher Education's online directory.

Higher Education Professional Organizations

After earning your online Ph.D. in higher education, you should consider joining a professional organization. These groups can help you take the next step in your career, whether by facilitating networking opportunities at a national conference or through online training programs that help you develop new skills. Many associations also organize mentorships, allowing recent graduates to benefit from the wisdom and connections of more established professionals.

When searching for a professional organization, find one that matches your career interests and background. For example, you may want to join a group made up of other recruiting professionals if you work in an admissions office. Alternatively, you may want to choose an organization that represents women or administrators of color, regardless of their job function.

Once you join an association, try to make the most out of your membership. Volunteer to serve on a board or committee to meet new colleagues and strengthen your resume. After a few years, you may even consider acting as a mentor to younger higher education administrators and instructors.

  • American Association of University Professors

    AAUP serves as a membership association for postsecondary faculty and other academic professionals. It curates research in higher education, advocates on behalf of its members, and offers online and in-person professional development opportunities.

  • Association for the Study of Higher Education

    ASHE represents 2,000 members dedicated to scholarship in higher education. In addition to organizing a national conference and publishing an academic journal, the association hosts job listings exclusively for members.

  • American Association of University Women

    Since 1881, AAUW has worked to advance the interests of women studying and working at postsecondary institutions. The association offers a wealth of resources, such as a salary negotiation workshop to help close the pay gap between men and women.

  • National Association of Student Personnel Administrators

    NASPA specifically serves those administrators working in student affairs, with a primary focus on professional development. It hosts policy and research briefs, organizes regional training events, and maintains an online learning community for its members.

  • National Association of College Admissions Counselors

    Founded in 1937, NACAC now represents 15,000 members working in college admissions advising. Along with professional development programs and a knowledge center, NACAC established a code of ethics and professional practice that serves as the gold standard for the field.