Why you should study higher education

Few people grow up saying that they want to work in higher education. Most people don’t even know a career in a college or university exists. Higher education is also one of those few fields that don’t have an undergraduate major with everyone entering the field at the graduate level. I often get asked about the advantages of a the academic study of higher education so in this post I want to discuss why you should study higher education.

Photo credit: Lisa Campeau

A graduate program in higher education will prepare you with a foundation necessary to understand how colleges and universities work.

I often compare a master’s in higher education to an M.B.A. in that a higher education master’s helps you develop skills and analytic ability to give strategic direction to colleges and universities.

In most higher education programs, you will learn the core aspects of university administration including governance, student development, finance, policy, and the history of higher education.

There are many career opportunities inside even a single institution and a strong higher education graduate program can prepare you for many of these. In fact, I would shy away from programs that do not provide a strong background across multiple aspects of the institution (why I don’t typically recommend student affairs programs).

One of the challenges of working inside a large and decentralized institution such as a college or university is understanding how decisions in one part of the organization impact other parts. This is the single greatest advantage of someone who has formally studied higher education. By understanding the core elements of higher education, you are better prepared to anticipate problems and opportunities for your office or department.

Higher education institutions operate differently than almost any other organizations in our society. To lead and manage these organizations, you need to fundamentally understand the culture, governance, and design of higher education.

With this understanding, you can identify partners, funding opportunities, and how to help make a difference. Many positions in a university can be done with a degree and background from a variety of careers and industries. Yet, I firmly believe that the experience that comes from formally studying colleges and universities helps you understand not just your role but your role inside the larger institution.

When hiring someone for nearly any administrative job in a university, I would always prefer a higher education background because of the strategic strengths they can bring to the table.

Along those lines, if you are interested in pursuing a master’s degree in a higher education program, I encourage you to consider SMU’s higher education master’s. While I am admittedly biased, I believe our program offers the critical foundational knowledge as well as graduate assistantship opportunities to build practical experience. Our program director or I would be happy to talk with you about our program and to see if it is a fit for you.

No matter what your role within higher education, I believe you can benefit from the formal study of colleges and universities.