How to Develop Leadership Skills for Careers in Higher Education

Industry Advice Education

Several years ago, Mounira Morris and Joan Giblin were designing the Master of Education in Higher Education Administration program for the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University. They interviewed mid-level administrators at various institutions and reviewed more than 200 job postings for entry-level and mid-range positions in higher education leadership. They found that colleges and universities are looking to hire administrators and other leaders who can wear many hats. 

“They want employees to be problem solvers, to make decisions based on data, to be skilled in verbal and written communication, to be experts at collaboration and time management, and to have some level of cultural competence,” Morris says. “As we created our program for leadership development in higher education, we were thinking about those skills.”

Read on to learn why it’s important for leaders in higher education to develop such a wide range of competencies, how these skills translate to day-to-day decision-making and long-term planning for college administrators, and how an experiential learning environment helps prepare graduate and doctoral students for success in a professional setting.

The Importance of Leadership Development in Higher Education

Leadership roles in higher education encompass a wide range of responsibilities. For example, individuals in academic administration may focus on curriculum development. Still, these roles also require a range of business skills, including budgeting and fundraising, hiring and supervising staff, resolving conflicts, and even managing building space.

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Not surprisingly, administrators who take the time to develop business management and leadership skills are more satisfied in their roles, experience less stress, and are less likely to leave. In addition, leadership coach Tim Ressmeyer says confident administrators are better equipped to build relationships throughout an institution—with their team, peers, and executive leadership—and manage day-to-day tasks and long-term challenges.

“A lot of leadership roles require a degree, but there are also skills and knowledge that go with it,” adds Alex Fronduto, assistant professor in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University. “Most people who are supervisors haven’t necessarily been trained in it.”

4 Focal Points for Effective Leadership Development in Higher Education

The Society for College and University Planning suggests that leadership development in higher education should focus on four pillars for success.

1. Historical Context

Understanding how higher education has evolved over the centuries, both at an individual institution and as an overall discipline, gives leaders the historical context to address contemporary issues. 

For example, it’s important to know that historical funding and admission structures for higher education contributed to a lack of access for non-White, female, and lower-income students. Discussions about college preparatory coursework at the high-school level, tuition discounts, and public funding for higher education must keep this historical context in mind.

“We push students in the higher education leadership program to reflect on their own identities, especially as it comes to privilege,” Morris says. “Students may realize that they’ve been living in a bubble for all those years and that not everyone has access to education—and now that they know, they want to be a change agent and help to level the playing field.”

2. Resource Management

Even administrators working at a departmental level can benefit from a broader understanding of budgeting and resource management across an institution. It’s important to know where revenue is coming from, whether those funding sources are limited, and what challenges may arise from accepting certain types of funding, such as private donations from a controversial source. 

This knowledge helps leaders develop a long-term strategic plan for raising and managing funds, identify inequities in resource allocation, and minimize the impact of budget shortfalls. In addition, it enables leaders to connect resource management to other institutional needs such as accreditation, expansion, and accountability to current and prospective students.

Budgeting and resource management are critical topics for leadership development programs in higher education, Fronduto says. “Unless you have been taught it, you may not know anything about it.”

3. Student-Centered Institutions

Students go to college to learn, and they can quickly tell when spaces have not been designed to help them learn. These could include classrooms with outdated furnishings, libraries lacking small rooms for group projects, or dormitories with limited quiet space. Limited investment in technology in classroom and living spaces can also hinder learning.

Institutions face several challenges in improving these types of spaces, from the cost of renovation to the disruption of student life associated with construction. First and foremost, though, is prioritizing which spaces should be addressed first. Which changes will have the most significant impact with a minimal effect on the budget?

4. Integrated Planning

Each decision that a leader in higher education makes should align with the institution’s overall mission. This means considering the university’s history and tradition, its long-term strategic plan, and the state of its financial resources. Administrators who can assess how a single decision will have a downstream impact throughout the institution can take a more holistic approach to leadership in higher education.

“Leaders should be able to look at historical context as well as current data in order to make recommendations for addressing an issue,” Morris says. 

8 Valuable Skills for Higher Education Leaders

Effective leadership in higher education requires the ongoing development of eight critical skills.

  • Financial acumen is often associated with fundraising and donor relations, but budgeting and financial planning are also vital skills for leaders in higher education.
  • Collaboration with internal stakeholders (including those with competing priorities) and off-campus institutions helps leaders bridge gaps and improve relationships.
  • Communication with a wide range of audiences occurs daily. The most effective communicators set expectations about what they need, provide clear feedback, and address concerns immediately. 
  • Leadership development ensures that middle-tier professionals with the potential and desire to advance their careers have the resources and support to do so.
  • Strategic planning, whether for an entire university or a single business unit, enables higher education leaders to balance short-term needs with long-term plans. 
  • Change management skills help leaders assess the potential impact of change, both to individual stakeholders and the institution as a whole. Communication, collaboration, and active listening are critical elements of change management.
  • Commitment to diversity ensures that universities represent the communities they serve – through hiring, curriculum development, and support for underrepresented populations. 
  • Intellectual curiosity helps leaders master new disciplines, respond to a diverse set of challenges, and build a better environment for learning and growth.  

The Importance of Experiential Learning

The magazine Diverse: Issues In Higher Education notes that experiential learning is a valuable tool for leadership development in higher education. Reading about budgeting, management strategy, and equity in textbooks and research articles is certainly important, but working alongside current administrators brings firsthand knowledge. 

In addition, experiential learning can provide access to parts of campus that students may not know well. Those with a more academic background, for example, will benefit from hands-on exposure to non-academic departments such as facilities, dining services, or residential life.

Northeastern’s Master of Education in Higher Education Administration and Doctor of Education programs embrace the experiential learning approach. Students are required to work in groups on a capstone project that examines an issue in higher education in the context of an individual institution. Sample topics could include creating more welcoming spaces for transgender or veteran students, developing a strategic plan to increase enrollment, or addressing a funding shortfall at a community college that primarily serves students who speak English as a second language (ESL).

Beyond writing a paper, groups are expected to present their findings to a panel of representatives that reflects who they would speak to in a professional setting. For the community college funding example, this could include a university chief financial officer, professors and others who work with the ESL population, and a group of international students, Morris notes.

“We want students to come up with a recommendation—something that someone could pick up, tweak, and execute for their own institution,” she says. “It’s challenging, but it’s also powerful and necessary. In higher education, you have to be able to present and think on your toes.”

Explore Northeastern’s Options for Leadership Development in Higher Education

Northeastern University’s Master of Education and Doctor of Education programs foster leadership development in higher education by empowering students to develop solutions to real-world problems and encourage innovation and change in the field. Download our guide below to learn more about how a degree can help you advance your career in higher ed. 


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