For most people, the idea of educational leadership begins and ends at the primary and secondary levels. School principals and school district superintendents are what immediately spring to mind when the term is used. After a few moments consideration, people might also think about teacher leaders, instructional coordinators, or even online learning administrators as other roles that involve educational leadership skills.
And a review of the most common kinds of degrees in the field, the Master of Education in Educational Leadership, or Master of Arts in Education Administration, reveals that most of them are aimed at the same subset of public primary and secondary school educational leadership roles.
Unless it’s long been a dream of yours to specialize in higher education administration, if you’ve been working in the sphere of K-12 education for a long time you could almost forget that colleges and universities are also in need of highly-trained, thoughtful, experienced educational leaders.
Colleges and Universities Present Unique Challenges in Educational Leadership
A quick look at the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) and Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that there is a lot of demand for education leadership at the collegiate level.
Undergraduate enrollment for degree-granting, post-secondary schools in the United States for 2020 was nearly 16 million, with another 3 million students matriculating at the graduate level.
While that’s a small slice in comparison to the nearly 50 million students NCES showed enrolled in elementary and secondary schools in the same year, it takes a lot more funding and services to fuel their education. While public primary and secondary schools in the U.S. spend $13,701 for every student, postsecondary four-year institutions averaged $50,460 per pupil at public universities and $65,190 at private nonprofit colleges.
And just as secondary administration is more complex and demanding than what you’d find in elementary school, post-secondary leadership presents challenges you won’t encounter anywhere in the K-12 world.
Also, the average college is a much larger operation than even the biggest high schools in the secondary system. Many universities are effectively small towns, with their own police force, healthcare, and infrastructure services.
In turn, they are commonly much more entwined with the communities they are embedded in—they are often the single largest employer. In fact, university systems in ten different states are the largest employers by headcount in their entire state.
College students are young adults on the cusp of entering careers and making decisions that will shape the rest of their lives—they need and deserve the best educational leadership you can offer them.
So there is a well-developed and much-needed array of educational leadership roles at the post-secondary level.
Exploring the Leadership Roles Available in Higher Education
Because colleges are not as uniform or standardized as lower-level educational systems, the positions for educational administrators are not always identical between them. Operating with hundreds of years of tradition behind them, you’ll find a lot of American colleges with unique roles, titles, and functions in administration.
But there are generally three categories of top-level leadership positions for education professionals within most university systems; here’s an overview of each, under their most common name, together with a link to more details on the duties and qualifications needed.
Any administrator charged with overseeing the lives and academic aspirations of so many impressionable young adults needs the best education they can get in the field of education itself.
College Deans Act as Direct Managers in Academic Units
College deans serve in a wide range of mid-level management and supervisory roles.
Head of School
Dean is a title that is commonly used to describe the administrative and academic leader of a school unit within a larger university, such as the law school or medical school. In this position, they are frequently professors and experts in the field who have also advanced to take on more supervisory and leadership functions like:
- Overseeing student admissions for their programs
- Research program oversight
- Ensuring academic integrity and ethical standards
- Developing budgets and training plans
- Coordinates activities with other departments
Head of Development
Other deans may head up departments that provide services across the university, such as:
- Student Affairs
- Faculty Services
In all cases, they deal mostly with the academic and scholarly aspects of the job. You won’t usually find a dean in charge of steam plant operations—if the job doesn’t involve direct dealings with student or research issues, it’s probably not a job for a dean.
Because of their portfolio in a particular discipline, deans often hold advanced degrees in the field of their specialty. But developing leadership and management skills is something that can also benefit from a formal degree—and no one recognizes that more than a college dean does.
So pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree in educational leadership is always on the table for a professor aiming at becoming a dean… or advancing further to one of the high-level college leadership jobs below.
College Provosts Head up Academic Programs at Universities
A provost is the chief academic officer for a college or university. They are the number two position, right behind the university president. Unlike the top job, the provost’s primary concern is entirely around matters of academia: research, enrollment, program management, instructional support, and matters of coordination between departments or even with other institutions.
Provosts aren’t always called provost; at some universities, they may hold the title of vice president, vice chancellor, or academic director.
Like many such senior positions in any organization, provosts are there largely to field difficult issues that can’t be resolved by subordinates. They intercept a wide range of problems and keep them off the president’s desk, dealing with matters of faculty and student discipline, allocation of school resources, and signing off on tenure decisions.
They have a large staff of their own, including vice provosts who may specialize in areas of concern like enrollment or curriculum development.
Refereeing among free-thinking academics requires a real command of conflict resolution and negotiation skills. And provosts are expected to be up-to-date and on top of the latest academic developments, from instructional technologies to DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) concerns, to general education requirements alignment with shifting community and workforce demands.
It’s unusual to find a provost without a doctoral degree, and those who have specifically studied educational leadership and administration have the best tools for taking care of a challenging position in college leadership.
College Presidents and Chancellors Run the Whole Show on Campus
A university president can be fairly said to sit at the top of the academic world. They are responsible for every aspect of education and operations at their school, from making sure the lights stay on to producing graduates that come out on top in the job market of tomorrow.
Some universities label the top job as chancellor; in others, chancellors may be positions that oversee a branch campus or other school division.
The prestige that comes with the job is accompanied by enormous pressure. Colleges can be a lightning rod in their communities. As one of the largest employers in their areas, the university president may effectively be the boss of the larger part of workers in a town. Their decisions have significant economic repercussions not just over the workforce of tomorrow, but people showing up for jobs today.
The operation of even a small college is far too much for a single person to juggle all the supervision, so university presidents are primarily supervisors of supervisors. They have a number of vice presidents and deans who oversee various departments. And they oversee the provost, who handles the academic operations of the university.
But that doesn’t mean the president’s job is easy—they field the toughest problems, dealing with local, state, and regional authorities, placating sports fans unhappy after a losing season, and handling the fallout after a controversial speaker appears at a lecture. They typically report to a board of trustees, who will issue goals and restrictions just like a local school board.
This can make the college president a very political position, and it may be no surprise that many presidents are plucked from roles in business, government, or the military as well as traditional academic positions.
The Registrar is the Keeper of Records and Master of Schedules
The registrar’s office is one of the central points of the college experience for students and faculty alike.
As the official keeper of records for the university, the registrar is the one agent of a student’s alma mater that they are likely to continue interacting with in one way or another long after graduation.
Students rely on the registrar for enrollment decisions, major declarations, and credit and grade tracking. They count on the class schedule published by the registrar’s office, and eagerly consult their grade slips after professors submit them.
For faculty, the registrar is the arbiter of class schedules and lecture hall assignments. The office coordinates between every department and instructor to ensure that every course gets space for the students it can accommodate and with the specialized equipment it requires.
And to connect the two, the registrar maintains class lists, registration, and records of grades.
It’s fair to say that no school would stay open long without an expert educational leader at the helm of the registrar’s office.
For smaller colleges, it’s possible to land these jobs with a bachelor’s degree and strong organizational and administrative skills. At the university level, a master’s degree or higher is always required. With a large staff to manage and strong attention to detail required, a master’s degree in educational leadership is a solid way to prepare for these jobs.
The Job of a University Department Chair Connects Faculty with Administration
A university department chair serves as a halfway point between a full-time, dedicated leadership position and the ranks of faculty directly engaged in teaching and research each day.
The chair serves as representative and administrator for their academic department, working with the dean of the school to present the needs and concerns of the department to a level where action can be taken.
The department head isn’t hired in the conventional sense. They are typically elected by other faculty in the department or appointed through other university bylaws. While they receive only minimal compensation, if any, for taking on the extra leadership work, they do get additional influence in matter such as:
It’s an important role that conveys the interests of both students and staff within the department to senior university leadership.
It’s also an unusual job in that your primary qualifications will be as a faculty member in your specialty. But that doesn’t mean that a certificate program or other training in educational leadership isn’t also a good idea!