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Online Degrees in Higher Education


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Careers in higher education include both academic and administrative positions. Most academic teaching jobs require at least a master's degree to teach at community colleges and a doctoral degree is usually needed for positions at four-year colleges and universities. Higher education administrative positions require at least a master's degree and, at the highest levels, a doctoral degree. Campus and online education degrees in higher education at lower levels can provide the groundwork to continue to a master's or doctoral degree, either in education or a specific teaching discipline.

Students interested in higher education administration often pursue Master of Education (Ed.M.) degrees while students interested in research or who have ambitions to earn a doctorate in higher education often pursue Master of Science degrees. Doctoral degrees generally focus on higher education administration, policy or executive leadership. The Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) degree can further professional training or scholarly study in higher education, while the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) has a research focus. The educational path to become college professor varies by discipline, but usually follows a pattern of bachelor's to master's to doctorate in the specific discipline.

According to a University of Iowa survey, higher education administration professionals need a strong commitment to excellence in education and an understanding of best teaching practices. In answer to the question, "What's the most important trait for a college instructor/professor?" an informal online student poll at Columbus State reported that 43.44 percent of the students who answered favored teaching/people skills and 30.33 percent said that a passion for the subject was most important.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that job growth of 15 percent is expected for higher education teachers between 2008 and 2018; job prospects for higher education administrators are not as bright with only 2 percent growth expected. However, a May 2011 news release from HigherEdJobs reports that "Advertisements for job openings in higher education rose 40.2 percent in the first quarter of 2011 from a year earlier and even exceeded pre-recession levels."

Salaries for both higher education administrators and faculty vary based on type of institution, geographical area and, for faculty, academic discipline. The BLS reported that post-secondary administrators earned mean annual wages of $96,680 in 2010.

No Refuge: The annual report on the economic status of the profession 2009-10, conducted by the American Association of University Professors, provides more detailed faculty salary information. Information is based on 2009-10 average salaries at both public and private post-secondary institutions:

  • Professors with doctoral degrees earned an average salary of $125,300
  • Assistant professors with doctoral degrees earned an average of $71,485
  • Professors with master's degrees had an average salary of $91,508
  • Assistant professors with master's degrees earned $60,381
  • Private schools paid their professors about 24 percent more than public institutions

It's clear from these salary statistics that more education is likely to qualify individuals for significantly more money. Higher education careers demand higher education degrees to be competitive.

To get more information, browse through our network of schools and find a program most appropriate for you.
  • Education: A master's degree or doctorate is required for most positions within higher education.
  • Salaries: In 2009-10, professors (with doctorates) earned salary plus compensation of $157,702; professors with master's degrees earned 36 percent less.
  • Gender: Male professors earned approximately 10 percent more than their female counterparts in public institutions and 8 percent more in private institutions.

Higher education administrators are key players in the business of education. They are in a powerful position to influence education policy and chart a path toward a sustainable future. However, rising to the task often requires an advanced degree. In many cases, top administrators at colleges and universities hold a doctoral degree in higher education.

You can chose from two doctoral degrees in higher education: the Doctor of Education, or Ed.D., and the Doctor of Philosophy, or Ph.D. Most schools offer one or the other, although a few offer both.

Historically, the Ed.D. has been considered a practitioner's degree, using existing knowledge to solve higher education problems. The Ph.D. in higher education is considered to be a research degree that combines theoretical knowledge with individualized research. The distinctions between the two degrees have become less defined over time, and the National Science Foundation considers both to provide an education of the same rigor but with a different focus. Determining which degree is the best one for you depends on your career and education goals as well as the programs offered by the schools you're considering.

Advanced degrees in higher education are available in a range of formats, including fully online programs and programs that require brief, on-campus residency periods. On-campus visits typically occur early in the program to help orient students and again during the dissertation phase when students can benefit from face-to-face meetings with advisors. Some online doctorate programs stipulate residencies regularly throughout the degree.

Earning a traditional or online doctoral degree in higher education

Admission to a higher education doctoral degree program generally requires a master's degree in education or a related field. Some programs also require previous experience in higher education or give preference to applicants currently working in the field.

Both traditional and online doctoral degree programs, which can take from three to five years to complete, generally require both core and elective coursework, a qualifying exam to determine competencies, and a doctoral dissertation.

  • Core courses can include history of higher education, theories of learning, distance education, leadership, law and ethics, assessment and evaluation, and research method design.
  • Concentration and elective coursework can include administration, student affairs leadership, organizational behavior and management, finance and business management, institutional planning, higher education public policy, strategic enrollment, and current trends in higher education.
  • Cognate coursework is related to, but outside, the higher education field of study. For example, students may take relevant classes in statistics, sociology or management.

After completing coursework, students typically sit for comprehensive examinations, which can be either written, oral, or both. Once the exams are passed, students move on to the dissertation phase. Ph.D. programs typically require a traditional, academic dissertation, but some Ed.D. programs allow students to complete a doctoral project, which may be shorter and based on applied research.

Returning to school to earn a Ph.D. can be a life-changing decision. For specific program details, request more information from any of the online schools below.

I needed a program that worked into my life and not a program that required making adjustments to my existing travel schedule for work. Although I was living approximately 30 minutes from campus, I often needed to do my schoolwork from other cities due to the travel demands of my job. The beauty of online learning is that you can be anywhere at any time and still have the experience of community. - Amanda Haddaway
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