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Working in Higher Education: Careers, Trends, and Must-Have Skills

Industry Advice Education

Higher education is undergoing considerable change. The “traditional,” on-campus college student, newly out of high school, is no longer the norm. Thirty-four percent of postsecondary learners are over the age of 25, and more than six million students are enrolled in at least one online course.

As student demographics shift, so do the needs and priorities of colleges and universities. What hasn’t changed, however, is the difference you can make working in higher education.

“Even if you don’t see it, you make an impact,” says  Joan Giblin, an assistant teaching professor for Northeastern’s Master of Education in Higher Education Administration program. “You help students decide who they’re going to be as a member of our state, country, and the world.”

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Learn more about how you can change the course of higher education—from the skills you need to the different roles available.


Every department influences a student’s trajectory—whether you work in advising and help students keep pace with their academic goals, or oversee institutional advancement and collaborate with donors to develop scholarships and programming that support prospective, current, and former students.

“You co-create knowledge with students and get to challenge their beliefs,” Giblin adds. “That’s a unique position for someone to be working in.”

What Job Opportunities Are There in Higher Education?

Jobs in higher education extend far beyond teaching. There are a variety of different departments that comprise a college or university, including:

  • Admissions and Enrollment: Individuals who work in admissions and enrollment establish and implement strategies to attract the right students to their institution. They communicate with prospective students, evaluate applications, determine who to admit, and often assist in the planning and creation of marketing materials for their college or university.
  • Academic Advising: Academic advisors support students throughout their degree program. They assist students in establishing educational and professional goals, and help them choose courses, majors, and minors that will enable them to achieve those goals, all while ensuring they stay on track to graduate.
  • Diversity: Diversity officers strive to create an open and inclusive environment for students, faculty, and staff. They seek input from campus constituents and develop policies, plans, and practices that promote social justice, equity, community, and the open exchange of ideas.
  • Student Affairs: Student affairs typically oversees a variety of departments, such as residence life, athletics, student activities, fraternities and sororities, and community service. Student affairs professionals create and evaluate nonacademic programs aimed at improving campus life and enriching the student experience.
  • 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. They also answer all payment and billing questions, and often offer financial literacy and planning support.
  • Alumni Relations: Alumni relations professionals work to engage and reconnect former students with the institution, often through networking events, workshops, outreach, and volunteer opportunities. The department might also manage the institution’s fundraising efforts, including fostering and maintaining donor relationships.
  • Human Relations: Human resources (HR) professionals focus on attracting and retaining new employees to their college or university. They also handle employee relations, oversee payroll and benefits, and offer training and other professional development opportunities.

Given the variety of departments and opportunities within higher education, the number of jobs is on the rise. Employment is expected to increase 10 percent by 2026—faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That growth will result in approximately 18,200 new higher education administration jobs, offering an average annual salary of $92,360.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the typical entry-level education for postsecondary administration professionals is a master’s degree. Giblin has experienced that trend firsthand, calling a master’s degree a prerequisite for almost any mid- to senior-level role in higher education, including dean of admissions, director of academic advising, and vice president of enrollment management.

“A master’s degree in higher education administration really opens the door for you in almost any area,” Giblin says.

Skills Needed for Success in Higher Education 

If you are interested in advancing your career in higher education or breaking into the field, there are certain skills Giblin says are important to have no matter the department or role you’re in. Those skills include:

1. Ability to Communicate with Empathy

No two students are the same. Each individual has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, and higher education administrators need to adapt, engage in creative problem-solving with students, and know how to communicate clearly and empathetically.

“Part of the learning process is helping students hold themselves accountable so they succeed post-college,” Giblin says. “Administrators need clear, consistent communication and empathy but, at the same time, need to challenge students and recognize that’s a vital part of the learning process.”

By showing empathy and taking the time to understand students’ perspectives, you can know when is the right time to push students and when they might need extra support.

2. Teamwork and Relationship-Building Skills

With so many different departments and stakeholders within higher education, you need to know how to build relationships and work collaboratively.

“A true collaboration is starting at the beginning and making sure your goals are aligned,” Giblin says. “You listen to feedback, and not just to check off the box that you listened to feedback; you actually incorporate it.”

Before reaching any conclusions, Giblin encourages teams to take inventory of all those who will be effected by their decisions. Too often, groups move initiatives forward without realizing how the work might impact other departments, stakeholders, or projects. The more effective you are at relationship-building, the easier you can avoid miscommunication or misaligned priorities.

3. Intrinsic Desire to be Mission-Driven 

Each institution has its own mission and, to truly find success, you need to learn and embody the college’s values.

“You represent the institution at all times,” Giblin says. “Advancing your career requires understanding your institution and what your department and institution are trying to achieve, and then taking calculated, creative risks within those boundaries and living that mission.”

Your role has the ability to impact students’ academic and professional journey. Having that intrinsic desire to help and support others is crucial to career success.  

4. Networking Know-How

Giblin encourages higher education administrators to join professional associations to further their network and stay ahead of industry trends. Among those organizations are:

Trends in Higher Education

The changing education landscape has led many prospective students to ask, “Is a bachelor’s or master’s degree worth it? Why even go to college?”

“There’s this trend of innovation that’s sweeping our society and universities are trying to capture that and move it forward,” Giblin says. “How do we quantify and teach innovation to students? How do we become more experiential and innovative?”

Administrators today are being tasked with rethinking their institution’s mission and more effectively communicating that value proposition to prospective students. Attracting those students, though, is only half the battle. Retaining students, and ensuring they have the support and access they need to graduate, is just as critical.

Emerging fields like learning analytics can help with this. Universities can now leverage data to detect patterns in enrollment or gaps within a student’s background. If a student drops out of a course, analytics can help assess when it occurred and why. Perhaps the student was missing a level of preparation he or she needed to succeed.

The scenario raises an issue Giblin hears administrators discuss often. “How do we make sure students are ready for college so they stay in college?” she asks.

But the issue of preparedness extends to a student’s life post-graduation, as well. As Giblin notes, “There’s this bigger, broader question of: Are we training people to be good citizens or are we preparing them for the workforce?”

These topics will continue to shape the future of higher education and present new challenges and opportunities for administrators to pursue.

Working in Higher Education

For those who might be new to the field, Giblin recommends reaching out to higher education professionals at nearby institutions and asking to conduct an informational interview so you can learn more about their roles and responsibilities.

Whether you’re transitioning into higher education or trying to advance in the field, it’s also recommended to read publications such as the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and EdSurge to better understand the news and trends affecting colleges and universities.

As the industry continues to evolve, higher education will need more leaders who are equipped with the skills and enthusiasm necessary to effectively capitalize on change and enhance the student experience.

“If you want to get up and do work that makes a difference in a student’s life every single day,” Giblin says, “this is the field for you.”

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