Online Master's Programs in Higher Education

College and university programs look to hire professors with a graduate degree. Earning an online master's in higher education prepares graduates for teaching and leadership positions within the postsecondary school system. A student who completes an online higher education master's degree program can pursue a career as a college professor or administrator, instructional coordinator, or dean of students.

The following sections provide more details on this education master's program.

Overview of an Online Master's Program in Higher Education

Coursework for those pursuing an online master's in higher education places the college educator in the context of historical and prospective higher education, emphasizing relevant topics like diversity, for-profit versus nonprofit sectors, educational technology, and institutional advancement. Though programs vary, the following list includes some of the most common courses in an online master's in higher education.

Common Classes and Coursework


History of American Higher Education

This course examines the history, perception, and purposes of the higher education institution in the United States. Students can discuss the implications of society on the American higher education system over time, and vice versa. By studying higher education problems and practices of the past, enrollees can explore new ways to address issues in this capacity.

Data for Decision-Making and Improvement in Higher Education

In this course, students can explore how data and technology can inform best decision-making practices in higher education. Topics explore data collection tools, such as student surveys, social media, and campus communication systems, to consider the application of data theories and instructional design.

Diversity in Special Education

Learners can examine various methods of inclusion, plus teaching methods for special education teachers in postsecondary classrooms. Coursework emphasizes a three-step approach to special education for higher learning professionals: introducing the concept of special education, equipping educators with special teaching tools, and promoting acceptance and inclusion in the classroom.

Nonprofits in the Education Sector

Coursework in this topic explores the unique requirements of a nonprofit institution. Students also research the distinctive elements of nonprofits in government, community, and arts sectors to gain a thorough understanding of relevant best practices. The course emphasizes operation methods and financial management specific to a nonprofit college or university.

Institutional Advancement in Higher Education

Students in this course can learn to develop strategies for comprehensive advancement within higher education institutions. Coursework also explores the implications of advancement beyond the institution itself, in terms of recruitment, revenue and operating costs, and continued pursuit of tradition, values, and program objectives.

Skills You Will Gain

Online higher education master's degree programs train teachers to develop the specific skills required for higher education settings. Beyond the general coursework in classroom management and curriculum development at the core of any education master's program, higher education degrees emphasize soft skills like critical thinking, resourcefulness, and communication for the college learning environment.

higher education degrees emphasize soft skills like critical thinking, resourcefulness, and communication for the college learning environment

Most educator training programs draw on a student's natural critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. A successful teacher can adapt to a fluid learning environment and resolve unexpected issues as they arise. Online higher education master's degree programs cultivate advanced critical thinking skills through case research, evidence-based learning, and field experience.

Professionals working in the higher learning sector must also possess acute critical thinking skills. Like all teachers, postsecondary educators must master the ability to apply creative techniques to curriculum development, specific to their respective student groups. By exploring the history and diversity of higher learning institutions in the U.S., aspiring higher learning teachers can compare the successes and failures of previous learning techniques to influence the future of the field.

Excellent communication skills are another universal field requirement. Specifically, postsecondary teachers must tune into the social and emotional needs of their students, typically in a major transitional stage of life, and learn to develop corresponding learning materials. College professors should be able to command their classroom through authoritative and assertive writing and speaking skills.

Average Degree Length

Many schools offer online higher education master's degree programs with shorter completion times than traditional degrees. Typically, a master's degree in education takes two years to complete, including any required field experiences or practicums. However, schools may offer an online master's in higher education with an accelerated option for full-time students, enabling them to graduate in under 24 months. Most programs require students to complete 45-50 course credits to earn their degree.

Typically, a master's degree in education takes two years to complete, including any required field experiences or practicums

In addition to considering traditional and accelerated schedules, whether a student enrolls in part-time or full-time classes can affect their completion time. Additionally, learners with prior education, training, or life experience can apply transferable credits toward their degree to potentially shorten the time to graduation and, thus, lower their overall tuition costs.

How to Find a Top Program

For some students, narrowing the search for the top online higher education master's degree programs can feel overwhelming. Many schools routinely appear on national rankings for their reputation alone, while others boast impressive statistics for lesser-known criteria. In many cases, schools with the best accredited education master's programs rank high in some or all of the categories listed below.

  • Retention Rate

    Retention rate plays a major role in determining the quality of programming and commitment to students at a particular institution. This figure represents the percentage of first-year students that return to continue their second year of an academic program. Colleges and universities with higher retention rates often attract new students and keep them long term.

  • Graduation Rate

    The graduation rate represents the percentage of a school's first-time students who graduate within the suggested time frame of their respective program. Like the retention rate, top quality offerings help drive a better-than-average graduation rate.

  • Student-to-Faculty Ratio

    Generally, college students seek a personalized higher education experience that includes one-on-one attention from faculty and staff. Many schools offering programs on campus and online now emphasize small class sizes and low student-to-faculty ratios to accommodate students seeking a more customizable learning environment.

  • Average GRE Score

    Schools often publish a high average institutional GRE score, though the average GRE scores of applicants to a particular program may appear less frequently. Students interested in a specific graduate degree should research GRE scores of applicants for that program at their school of choice. Some view the GRE requirement as a status symbol among colleges since a growing number of online programs and non-Ivy League institutions now waive this requirement for new graduate students.

  • Research Activity

    While research activity may seem irrelevant to students choosing a college or university, this criteria provides additional insight into a school's standards and values. Many top schools in the U.S. earn R1-level doctoral research status through the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, as providers of high-quality research programs that meet national standards for excellence.

Higher Education Careers After Earning Your Master's

While postsecondary teachers most commonly take this path toward beginning their careers, graduates of online higher education master's degree programs can also become higher education administrators, deans of students, alumni directors, or instructional coordinators.

College professors do not require the same state-issued licensure or certification as elementary, middle school, and high school teachers. However, some may choose to pursue optional professional certification in their areas of expertise.

A postsecondary teacher can specialize in a particular field of study, such as business, science, or mathematics. While degree and experience requirements vary by institution, postsecondary teachers typically must possess a master's degree to qualify for community college positions or a Ph.D. to teach at a four-year university. Some colleges and universities hire graduates of master's programs who are also doctoral degree candidates.

The field of higher education offers stable and lucrative employment options for students with a graduate degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects job growth of 15% through 2026 for postsecondary teachers, much faster than the average for all occupations, and postsecondary education administrators earn an annual salary well above the national average at $94,340, as shown below.

Postsecondary Teacher

Postsecondary teachers instruct students at colleges and universities, typically in one particular area of expertise. Most postsecondary teachers hold a graduate degree in the subjects they plan to teach. Community colleges may accept a postsecondary teaching candidate with a master's degree, while many four-year universities require a terminal degree.

Average Annual Salary: $78,470

Postsecondary Education Administrator

Administrators of postsecondary institutions oversee all operations involving faculty, students, and academic programs within a college or university. Professionals may work in a particular division, such as admissions, housing, or student affairs. Most postsecondary administrators need a master's degree and experience in education administration.

Average Annual Salary: $94,340

Instructional Coordinator

Instructional coordinators develop, implement, and evaluate educational curriculum and learning materials. These professionals may specialize in any educational age group, though roughly 18% work in colleges, universities, and professional schools. Employers prefer instructional coordinators with a master's degree and related work experience. Additionally, public school coordinators may require state-issued licensure.

Average Annual Salary: $64,450

Dean of Students

The dean oversees all programs, activities, and services for student enrichment within a college or university. Specific duties may include observing teachers, performing evaluations of academic programs, and applying disciplinary action. A student dean typically must possess at least a master's degree and relevant experience in the field.

Average Annual Salary: $62,586

Director of Alumni Relations

The alumni relations director acts as the liaison between a college or university and its graduates. Regular duties may include event planning, fundraising, and donor development. While some employers accept candidates with a bachelor's degree for alumni director positions, schools prefer applicants with a master's degree and at least three years of work experience in fundraising or nonprofit management.

Average Annual Salary: $62,725

Source: BLS and Payscale

Additional Certifications for Higher Education

Unlike elementary and high school teachers, higher education teachers do not require state-issued teaching licensure or certification. Generally, a college or university requires each instructor to hold a graduate degree in their respective teaching subject or area of expertise. In some cases, schools require a teacher to maintain professional certification in their teaching subject. Students may pursue optional professional certification through organizations like Career Education Colleges and Universities (CECU), listed below.

Certified Higher Education Professional

CECU issues CHEP certification to professionals specializing in various aspects of higher education leadership and administration. Students may pursue certification specific to teaching, online teaching, admissions, career services, campus operations, or leadership. While degree and experience requirements vary, each area of specialization requires an applicant to meet 5-11 corresponding competency standards in that area to earn CHEP certification.

Professional Organizations and Resources for Higher Education Students

The most successful higher education professionals subscribe to the same lifelong learning pursuits that they promote among their students. The list below represents a sampling of the many professional organizations and resources tailored to scholars, teachers, researchers, and administrators practicing in U.S. higher education.

  • American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers This organization hosts an annual conference for strategic enrollment management, offering online and in-person webinars and training around trending topics affecting college populations like DACA, veterans, and gender identity.
  • American Association of Community Colleges As the nation's premier member organization for community colleges, AACC serves more than 1,200 two-year-degree-granting institutions across the U.S. through an annual conference, a leadership suite of continuing education opportunities, and the Pathways Project, designed to help fund higher education for low-income students.
  • American Association of University Administrators With a focus on professional networking opportunities, AAUA publishes an ethics manual, hosts a leadership seminar, and offers professional development events.
  • American Council on Education ACE serves a membership of more than 1,700 college executives and administrators. Members enjoy access to the ACE Fellows Program, regional summits of leaders in higher education, and exclusive webinars and events.
  • Association of American Colleges and Universities Tailored to contemporary higher education providers and a liberal student enrollment, this association emphasizes seminars and symposia in digital learning, STEM leadership, and the LEAP program.
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education As an internationally recognized and highly respected industry publication, The Chronicle disseminates the latest information on trending topics at the intersection of education and culture in the United States.
  • Council for Higher Education Accreditation With the largest membership of higher education professionals in the U.S., CHEA serves 3,000 member institutions and encompasses 60 institutional and programmatic accrediting organizations. Web visitors can access education databases and the online newsroom for field research.
  • EduCause A unique online consortium with individual and institutional members, EduCause highlights advocacy initiatives, cutting-edge research, and continuing education opportunities from an IT/higher education perspective.
  • National Education Association The largest organization of its kind in the U.S., NEA's membership of three million professionals work in all sectors of education. NEA members discuss relevant policy, programming, and practice issues affecting students and educators in the field.
  • Teaching in Higher Ed The web component of a podcast created by educator Bonni Stachowiak, Teaching in Higher Ed features Bonni's blog, her speaking engagements, and workshops for higher education professionals interested in continuing education.
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