How to Jumpstart Your Career in Higher Education Administration

Industry Advice Education

Jermaine Williams once worked as a career advisor at a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that helped individuals transition out of public assistance.

“The individuals I was working with were passed over by a system that ignored them,” Williams says. “I knew that education could really help them, and that if I wanted to make an impact, I needed to work on helping people get access to higher education.”

Williams transitioned into an academic advisor role at Temple University, and never looked back. For more than a decade, he’s been working in higher education administration, now as the vice president of student affairs at North Shore Community College and as a lecturer for Northeastern’s Master of Education in Higher Education Administration program.

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“Working in higher education provides an opportunity to impact society,” Williams says. “You’re helping individuals access education and achieve their educational goals. You’re also opening up opportunities for a student that will impact those around that student—and our society.”

Reports show that education plays a pivotal role in economic development. As technology evolves and global competition grows, education enables students to develop the skills they need to maintain a competitive advantage—one that, over time, translates to economic gain.

If you want to make an impact and transition like Williams did, here’s how you can start a career in higher education administration.

A Postsecondary Institution’s Many Different Departments

“Higher education administration” is a term that spans various functional areas within a college or university.

“Higher education is multi-faceted,” Williams says. “It’s not just faculty who teach. There are a bunch of people who help to keep the organization running. You can do almost anything in a higher education setting.”

Among just some of the departments within higher education administration are:

  • Admissions: Admissions professionals develop and oversee their institution’s recruitment efforts, including prospective student communication and outreach. They determine the number of students to admit, evaluate applications, and decide which students to accept.
  • Financial Services: Individuals working in financial services help students cover the cost of their education by identifying financial aid options, as well as scholarship, grant, and work study opportunities. The department fields all payment and billing questions, and often offers resources in financial planning and literacy.
  • Academic Advising: Academic advisors support students throughout their degree program, helping them keep pace with their educational goals. They offer guidance on course selections and curriculum requirements, as well as connect students with other academic support services on campus, such as counseling and mental health.
  • Alumni Relations: Alumni relations professionals engage with former students and reconnect them with the institution, often through events, programming, outreach, and volunteer opportunities. They might also assist with fundraising for the college or university.
  • Registrar: Those who work in the registrar’s office typically manage tasks like scheduling space and time for classes, helping students register for courses, preparing students’ transcripts and ensuring they meet graduation requirements, as well as maintaining the school’s academic records.
  • Student Affairs: Student affairs typically spans a variety of departments, such as athletics, residence life, service learning, and diversity and inclusion. Student affairs professionals help create and evaluate nonacademic programs aimed at improving campus life and enriching the student experience.

Before making a change, Williams encourages individuals to consider all the career paths available in higher education to determine the right fit. Beyond the different departments, professionals also need to choose the type of institution they want to work for—whether private or public, nonprofit or for-profit, or two-year or four-year.

“I think the exploration piece is important,” Williams says. “Do you know that the professional options within higher education are robust, or that so many skill sets fit within the field?”

Skills Needed for Success in Higher Education Administration

Although those skill sets vary by role, there are a few key competencies, Williams says, that can help you make a more seamless career transition, including:

Developing a Growth Mindset

Higher education laws and policies are constantly evolving, as are the needs of today’s learners. Higher education administration professionals need to stay up-to-date on changing rules and regulations to better support their students and institution.

Those who will be most successful have a “growth mindset,” according to Williams, and a desire to learn about and pursue new challenges and opportunities facing higher education.

“If you want to be in an engaging setting where you have the ability to always learn something new, this might be for you,” Williams says. “Working in a dynamic environment fuels your mind and always keeps you going.”

Cultural Awareness and Diversity

Part of what makes that environment so dynamic is the diversity among students, faculty, and staff.

“Higher education offers an intellectually stimulating environment that respects intellectual curiosity and cultivates conversation,” Williams says.

Individuals working in higher education administration need to show the same respect and take the time to understand where their colleagues and students are coming from. To be culturally aware means observing your own behaviors, challenging all pre-conceived assumptions, and understanding others’ boundaries, cultural norms, and views.

Social Justice and Inclusion Work

American colleges and universities are educating more international students than ever before, according to the Institute of International Education. Approximately 1.08 million international students studied in the United States during the 2016-2017 academic year, and that number continues to grow.

For higher education administration professionals, whose goal is to support every student and improve their access to education, having experience in, and strong knowledge around, diversity, inclusion, and social justice is essential.

How Pursuing a Master’s Degree Can Help

If you are interested in breaking into higher education, a master’s degree in higher education administration could be the next best step.

At Northeastern, students explore topics such as student development theory; how equity and culture have an impact on higher education; the needs of underserved populations; and the changing demographics of today’s student population.

What’s more, the typical entry-level education for a postsecondary administrator is a master’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Pursuing a graduate education can then help advance your career, while equipping you with the skills and knowledge you need to transform the student experience.

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