Whether the top job at a particular university or college is called president or chancellor, it’s a position that is a very big deal in higher education.
Like the Chief Executive Officer of any private corporation, a university president is the final stop for tough decisions or the catastrophe of the day. They make the toughest calls about the most controversial issues and keep the budget balanced to keep the lights on from year to year. Increasingly, they are faced with serious social and legal issues that put them center stage in a divided society.
Increasingly, as education itself has become a political lighting rod, being a college president is a role that requires enormous tact and diplomacy.
That falls on the university president because it’s also their job to represent the college to the community. When there are questions over everything from a controversial research study to problems with student behavior, it’s going to be the president on the six o’clock news. And people are going to listen to what they say.
The Responsibilities that Come with a Top University Job Are Heavy and Wide-Ranging
That can be a bigger deal than most people realize.
That’s because the chancellor of a major public college or research institution has enormous presence in community affairs. Their words can move mountains. Colleges aren’t just educational institutions. They are thought leaders and economic powerhouses in their community. In many areas, the university president may effectively be the CEO of the largest single employer for the county. Their vision and guidance create the graduates that will become professionals in that community.
That makes the job one that goes far beyond mere educational concerns. It has a real impact on real lives for people in the community every day. So it’s right and natural that it’s a job that draws a lot of attention—and takes the right qualifications.
And, as it turns out, higher education itself is also the solution to developing the right skillset to handle the hard work of running an American university today.
College Chancellors Face Challenging Decisions in Higher Education Every Day
University presidents do more than just standing around handing out diplomas each spring. As the top job at a major educational institution, chancellors must be familiar with all aspects of school funding and operation. They’re ultimately responsible for everything that happens on campus, from a leaking roof in the library to signing off on significant particle research projects that could create a black hole beneath the physics department.
Of course, even at the smallest school, presidents aren’t out taking care of all these details themselves. Instead, their primary role is that of management. They delegate, organize, communicate, and motivate staff and faculty to fulfill the organization’s mission.
Chancellor Versus President: The Names Don’t Mean Anything Unless They Do
It’s more the norm at American universities to name the top position as president rather than chancellor, although the two can be interchangeable in meaning.
Except when they aren’t.
That’s because it has become common for large university systems with multiple branch campuses to call the very top role, the leader of the entire university, president. The individual campus leaders are then called chancellors… which means each university might have more than one.
But there aren’t any real rules in higher education leadership positions, so you will also sometimes find that branch campuses are run by provosts, or directors, or even deans. Sometimes, the rule even runs in reverse—the head of the City University of New York is named chancellor, while each individual branch has its own president.
Whatever the language used, the demands of the top job at both big colleges and small require strong educational qualifications and a heap of organizational experience.
University presidents don’t run the whole place like it’s a family business, however. They are typically hired and overseen by a board of trustees, just as a CEO reports to a board of directors. They are responsible for executing the broad mission and goals handed down from the trustees and helping them understand the challenges and possibilities open to the organization.
Chancellors are also responsible for having a vision for the future of the institution. They need to be familiar with forces in the education market and overall economic and social trends.
On the other side, chancellors are typically assisted in their work by a number of vice-chancellors or vice-presidents, who take on day-to-day responsibility for functional areas ranging from equity and inclusion to information technology services.
Many universities are also set up with a provost serving in the role of chief academic officer, to focus on the school’s scholastic quality and managing and overseeing the actual learning and research side of the business.
And it is a business; according to NCES (National Center for Education Statistics) data from 2018, America puts almost 2.5 percent of GDP into higher education. That works out to an average of $34,036 per student, almost double the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) average. In total, for the 2019/2020 school year, degree-granting postsecondary institutions spent some $671 billion on activities ranging from instruction to research to hospital services.
There is a lot of money floating around in higher education, and university presidents are ultimately responsible for every penny of it.
Leadership Skills Make All the Difference to University Presidents
You can see quickly from the numbers that a university president needs most of the same skills, and probably more, than a typical CEO or business owner. Their strategic planning and grasp of financial and social realities must be first-rate; so does their vision and creativity in adapting to those realities and finding new and innovative ways to fund the school and attract top talent.
A university president must be a great salesperson for the school, so strategic communication skills must be at the top of the list. That also speaks to all that tact and diplomacy required for both community and student relations.
Plain-old project and people management skills may be next on the list. No school is so small that the president can directly oversee all the many academic and operational details that go on every day. So they have to be excellent coordinators, delegators, and supervisors. They pick the right people to handle the jobs they can’t handle themselves—which is most of them.
Analytical and strategic planning skills must be next. A wealth of information comes at a university president on the average day. They need to be able to process it quickly, apply it to overall trends and existing issues, and incorporate it into their long-term vision for the school.
Finally, excellent fiscal management and fundraising skills are always expected. Balancing the books in an era of shrinking grants and public funding is a critical part of the responsibilities for any college president. Finance in higher education is a hot-button issue, too, as tuition rates have sky-rocketed and student loan debt has become a real point of contention in the field.
While on the face of it these are similar skills to those exercised by all educational administrators, being a university president isn’t just another administration job. These positions go to people with the most polish and professional development as education leaders. Typically, they will spend time as vice-presidents, deans, or provosts to develop the experience needed to play in the big leagues effectively.
But anyone can make that process of skill development a lot easier by getting the right kind of educational leadership degree first.
The Degree it Takes to Be President of a University
In some ways, asking what degree you need to become a university president is a trick question.
You would think that the very top jobs in the top institutions of higher education in the country would demand the very top levels of education. But a glance around at many university presidents will tell you this isn’t necessarily the case. University presidents and chancellors can be drawn from the ranks of businesspeople, government officials, healthcare providers, or even former military officers.
Even those drawn from the ranks of academia usually come from high points in their own careers as professors or deans.
Their path often, but not always, runs through higher education at some point. But it’s not always a direct route. Ultimately, at the top tier of higher education administration, it’s going to be the sum of your experience, demonstrated ability, and life-long learning that makes or breaks your candidacy with a selection committee.
Looking at Degree Programs That Offer the Best Preparation for Becoming a University President
But it’s fair to say that anyone who is aiming at a university president position directly owes it to themselves and to the future students and faculty under them to get the best education possible for the job.
That means earning a doctoral degree in the field of education itself, such as a PhD in Higher Education Administration, or a Doctor of Education in Higher and Postsecondary Education. These may come on top of, or alongside existing doctoral and master’s degree qualifications earned in other fields. But those degrees are usually lacking any kind of direct preparation for the rigors of top university jobs that future presidents and chancellors will face.
Very rarely, a chancellor at a small university may get away with qualifying for the role by way of a master’s in educational leadership with a concentration in higher education instead of a full doctorate.
You’ll also find a wide range of educational specialist (EdS) degrees available in educational leadership, but those aren’t the right choice for anyone involved in administration in post-secondary settings. They are usually designed expressly for educators working at the primary and secondary levels, who may need specific additional coursework for state licensure, but do not need or wish to pursue a full doctorate.
While some programs, like a EdS in Higher Education Administration, are aimed at post-secondary administrators, they aren’t a good fit for someone looking at the highest levels of the profession. To make for a shorter program, they skip the crucial doctoral dissertation and other important research and academic preparation.
As someone who is going to have a lot of doctorate-holders reporting to you, you want the real deal on your wall. However, as some EdS programs can be counted as credit toward a full EdD at the same university, it may still make sense on your own individual path to the top based on costs and timing.
Studying the Coursework That Builds Higher Education Leaders
Leadership training has become a science in higher education. It’s offered in these separate degree programs because researchers have analyzed both effective leaders and organizations and identified how they got where they are. The collection of coursework put together in an educational leadership degree is highly specific to the tasks and demands faced by administrators every day.
Your courses will include those in subjects like:
But one of the great benefits of studying these subjects at the doctoral level is your ability to choose and submerge yourself in a dissertation or capstone project topic of your own choosing.
These final projects (usually, a dissertation for PhD programs, and the capstone project as the primary option in an EdD) serve as a culminating point of your studies. They involve original research in the field and help develop your own ideas about higher education administration.
Then they go through the acid test of a dissertation defense by a committee of faculty and experts. This ensures the greatest polish and ultimate expression of your findings and ideas.
And that’s going to be of great interest to any board that is thinking about hiring you.
The Top Job at Colleges and Universities Comes with Top Payroll Potential
There’s a reason that university chancellor jobs attract candidates from both inside and outside the education administration community: these top spots come with top salaries.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is the agency responsible for keeping track of what different jobs pay across the United States. Frankly, there aren’t enough university presidents to make it worth putting together a separate category for them. But overall, they fall into the group of Postsecondary Education Administrators.
Since they are some of the top jobs in that group, it makes sense you will find most of them in the top ten percent. For 2021, that meant bringing in more than $190,770 per year.
Because they are a matter of public record, however, you can easily find examples of state college presidents who pull in seven-figure salaries. Overseeing vast systems with thousands of employees, they command the kind of compensation that would otherwise normally be reserved for corporate CEOs.
Of course, not all colleges have massive endowments or the deep pockets of the state behind them. There are plenty of small community colleges and liberal arts schools that don’t need to be big to meet their goal of reaching the right students with the right education.
Whether you are chasing the prestige and financial reward of a presidency or chancellorship at a major university, or are more drawn to the collegial, personal role of running a small community college, going into your search with the right degree helps. But it will also take a lot of luck and the right experience.
A degree in educational leadership doesn’t take luck, but it does take hard work. But it’s work that will pay dividends in the later stages of your career as you climb toward the very top jobs in the field.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Postsecondary Education Administrators reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2023.