Earning a Master's in Higher Education Online

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment for postsecondary education administrators to grow by about 10% through 2026, significantly faster than the national average for all occupations. Professionals in the field also earn higher-than-average salaries, with the median higher education professional earning more than $92,000 in 2017.

Candidates typically need an advanced degree to qualify for these positions. This page provides an overview of master's in higher education online programs, including information about admission requirements, curricula, and possible career paths for graduates. The page also details scholarships available to higher education students.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master's Degree in Higher Education?

Many students pursue an online master's degree in higher education administration directly after earning their bachelor's. After earning their master's, these students can often qualify for entry-level roles in student affairs, admissions, and financial aid with no professional experience beyond an internship.

Other students pursue a graduate degree after several years of full-time work. They may earn a master's to qualify for a promotion at their current organization or to change careers.

Why Get a Master's Degree in Higher Education?

Pursuing Specialization

Graduate education can prepare learners for specialized roles. For example, earning a master's degree in higher education and student affairs online can qualify candidates for positions such as director of international student engagement, senior diversity and inclusion officer, and assistant dean of students. Whether through formal concentrations or elective classes, many higher education master's programs allow students to specialize in areas such as academic affairs, finance, admissions, or communications.

Career Advancement Opportunities

While a bachelor's degree may qualify graduates for entry-level positions at small colleges and universities, large institutions often prefer candidates with at least a master's degree. An advanced degree may also help professionals earn a promotion, negotiate a higher salary, or secure a job at another school. The most senior-level positions in academia, such as executive dean, often require a master's and a doctoral degree.

Online Learning Technology

In their daily work, higher education professionals use many of the same technologies as online students. For example, the head of a college's academic support department may use distance collaboration tools to provide tutoring services to students. A financial aid officer may need to create a webinar to help applicants learn about scholarship and grant opportunities. Familiarity with online learning technologies and practices can give you a competitive edge over candidates without similar expertise.

Prerequisites for Online Higher Education Programs

Prerequisites vary by program, so students should contact each school's admissions office for more information. Below are common requirements for higher education master's programs.

  • Work Experience: Since most master's programs in higher education are designed for students who have recently earned their bachelor's, most do not require professional experience. However, prior experience at a college or university may improve an applicant's chances of acceptance.
  • Exams and Test Scores: Most programs require applicants to submit Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. While schools rarely set a minimum required GRE score, candidates who score below 150 on either the quantitative or verbal section may want to consider retaking the exam. GRE scores are valid for five years.
  • Coursework: Higher education programs do not typically require applicants to hold a bachelor's degree in a specific major. However, coursework in education, sociology, and business administration can help demonstrate readiness to study at the graduate level. Most programs require an undergraduate GPA of at least 2.5.
  • Recommendations: Schools may require up to three letters of recommendation from former professors, employers, or community leaders who can speak to the applicant's qualifications and passion for higher education. Students should avoid asking family members or friends and should give recommenders at least two months to write and submit letters.
  • Essays: Some schools require applicants to write a brief essay, usually no more than 1,000 words, outlining their academic and professional goals. Essays provide opportunities for applicants to highlight their strengths and to provide context for any weaknesses in their application materials.
  • Interviews: Many online programs do not require interviews. Online programs that do require interviews typically allow candidates to participate online or over the phone. Students should consider asking a friend or colleague to help them prepare and should brainstorm answers to common interview question topics, such as why they would be a good fit for the program.
  • International Students: International students must meet the same admission requirements as domestic applicants. In addition, they may need to demonstrate English proficiency by submitting Test of English as a Foreign Language scores. International students should contact an admissions officer to confirm the school recognizes the accreditation of their undergraduate institution.

How Much Can I Make With a Master's Degree in Higher Education?

According to the BLS, postsecondary education administrators earned a median salary of $92,360 in 2017. The lowest 10% of earners made just less than $53,000 that year, while the highest 10% earned more than $182,150. Generally, higher education professionals with more experience and education earn higher salaries.

Learners can apply the administrative skills they develop during a master's program in higher education to positions in other fields. For example, administrative services managers working in government earned a median salary of $95,610 in 2017, according to the BLS.

Traditional Careers for Master's in Higher Education Graduates

Career Stats Description

Postsecondary Education Administrators

Median Pay: $92,360

Job Growth: 10%

Postsecondary education administrators oversee a variety of functions at colleges and universities. These professionals provide student services, coordinate academic affairs, and make admissions decisions. Most hold at least a master's degree in a related field.

Ideal for: Those with a passion for education and a desire to work with young adults.

College or University President

Median Pay: $104,700

Job Growth: 8%

College and university presidents serve as the chief executive officers of their institutions. They set strategies, hire faculty, and coordinate the work of department heads. Presidents at larger schools may focus on fundraising and public relations, leaving day-to-day operations to an executive or administrative dean.

Ideal for: Individuals with exceptional leadership and communication skills.

College or University Professor

Median Pay: $76,000

Job Growth: 15%

College and university professors teach students at the postsecondary level. They often conduct research and publish their findings in books or scholarly publications. Professors typically advise students and perform administrative functions; they may chair a department or sit on an admissions committee.

Ideal for: Those who prefer to work directly with students in classroom settings.

Academic Dean

Median Pay: $90,571

Job Growth: N/A

Academic deans are responsible for a college or university's academic affairs. They hire faculty, create onboarding and professional development programs, support curriculum design, and approve budgets for academic departments. Academic deans typically hold a doctorate.

Ideal for: Aspiring educational leaders who want to focus on instruction and pedagogy.

Nontraditional Careers for Master's in Higher Education Graduates

Career Stats Description

Education Consultant

Median Pay: $62,487

Job Growth: N/A

Education consultants may provide a variety of services, such as offering advice to high school students and parents on applying to college. These professionals may work with a university to help increase the number of applicants of a specific demographic, or they may help a government agency improve the efficiency of a student loan program.

Ideal for: Adaptable individuals with strong problem-solving and analytical skills.

Curriculum Director

Median Pay: $73,344

Job Growth: 11%

Curriculum directors shape the delivery of classroom instruction by creating course materials such as lesson plans and assignments. They generally have several years of professional experience and a master's degree with a specialization in an area, such as curriculum design or instructional approaches.

Ideal for: Those with expertise in pedagogy and an organizational mindset.

Entrepreneur / Small Business Owner

Median Pay: Varies

Job Growth: N/A

Entrepreneurs start, manage, and grow their own businesses. Entrepreneurs in higher education may start a digital textbook company that provides a less expensive alternative for students. They may also create a tutoring service that works with colleges and universities.

Ideal for: Self-starters and innovators who can weather uncertainty.

Academic Adviser (College / University)

Median Pay: $42,427

Job Growth: 10%

Academic advisers support students in various ways, such as by helping them choose classes or connecting them with mental health services. Some academic advisers provide specialized tutoring services to help learners hone skills in areas such as academic writing.

Ideal for: Educators who enjoy working with students individually.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics/PayScale, 2017-2018/Projections Central

Paying for an Online Master's in Higher Education

The cost of earning a master's degree in higher education online depends on several factors. For example, private institutions typically cost more than public universities, and students who pursue an accelerated course of study generally pay less than part-time learners. While schools usually charge similar tuition rates for on-campus and online programs, distance learners often save money on expenses such as transportation and housing.

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants, and Scholarships

In addition to applying for state and federal financial aid, students should research scholarships from private organizations. Below are five scholarships available to higher education students.

What to Expect from a Master's Level Online Higher Education Program

The nature of a higher education master's program depends on the school. For example, one program may offer formal concentrations in areas such as student affairs and admissions, while another program may provide diverse electives but no specialization options. Some programs allow learners to study at their own pace, while others require students to work with a cohort of peers. Programs may require an internship or field experience. Students should choose a program that matches their interests and professional goals.

Major Milestones

  1. Enrollment

    After enrolling in a program, students should contact the school's financial aid office to discuss funding opportunities. Learners can also contact their academic adviser to begin designing a personalized course of study.

  2. Foundational Coursework

    During the first year of master's studies, learners generally take courses in subjects including organizational behavior, management of financial resources in higher education contexts, and the foundations of research.

  3. Internship

    Though not always required, most programs encourage higher education students to complete an internship at a college or university. Students can work with their program coordinator to identify internship opportunities in their area of professional interest, such as student affairs or academic support services.

  4. Elective Coursework

    Students in the second year of their program can begin customizing their education through electives. For example, students aspiring to a career in admissions may take electives in areas including enrollment marketing and higher education law.

  5. Capstone Project

    A capstone project allows students to apply graduate-level learning to a real-world issue in higher education. For example, students may partner with a local high school to design a college preparation program.

  6. Final Graduation Requirements

    Before graduation, students should contact the school's registrar to ensure they have settled any outstanding bills, completed all necessary paperwork, and met all program requirements.


The coursework required for higher education master's students depends on their area of concentration. Below are five common foundational classes for students earning a master's in higher education online.

Understanding Higher Education

This course provides an introduction to many topics students encounter during higher education master's programs. Learners explore the history and philosophy of higher education in the United States, as well as the modern sociological, political, and economic contexts of higher education.

Best Practices for Student Success

This course explores strategies for effectively supporting students. The course emphasizes the transition from high school to college and the unique needs of first-generation and diverse student populations.

Managing Financial Resources

Students learn the basics of higher education financial management. Coursework covers state appropriations, fundraising, asset and endowment management, and short-term and long-term financial planning.

Managing Human Resources

Students examine subjects including recruitment and staffing, performance evaluation, and professional development. Students also learn about personnel management topics specific to faculty members, such as tenure and collective bargaining with unionized adjunct faculty.

Program Planning and Assessment

Whether serving students, faculty, or staff, higher education professionals must know how to design and evaluate programs. This course prepares learners to establish goals, create strategies for continuous improvement, and effectively use data.

Licenses and Certifications

Higher education professionals do not typically need a license to practice; however, they may voluntarily pursue professional certifications to demonstrate expertise in a particular area. For example, a credential in international admissions management may help job seekers stand out in the field. Certification can also help professionals negotiate a higher salary at their current place of employment. Below are four common certifications and training programs for professionals in higher education.

  • Certified Higher Education Professional: Professionals can earn the CHEP certification in areas including online teaching, admissions, career services, campus operations, and leadership. Candidates for this certification must complete 48 hours of approved training. The certification does not require an exam.
  • Harvard Institutes for Higher Education: Harvard offers comprehensive leadership development programs for senior-level higher education executives, such as directors, department heads, and deans. Candidates can participate in these two-week workshops online or on campus. Programs cost $2,000-$10,000 per person.
  • Certified Fundraising Executive: This credential demonstrates commitment to professional ethics in nonprofit fundraising. Candidates for certification must submit a written application detailing their education and professional experience. Candidates must then pass an exam covering topics including prospect research and volunteer management. The exam costs $875.
  • NASPA Professional Development: The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators provides a variety of professional development resources for members, including online courses and in-person workshops. In-depth webinars on topics such as student government and drug abuse prevention cost about $100 per session.

Professional Organizations and Resources

After earning a master's degree, professionals can join a professional organization to advance their career. These associations offer a variety of services, including networking events, professional development programs, and industry-specific job listings. Some organizations even match recent graduates with mentors, allowing members to learn from established professionals. Other associations cater to underrepresented groups in higher education.

  • National Association of Student Personnel Administrators: NASPA serves more than 15,000 student affairs professionals around the world. Members can access online continuing education resources, review the latest developments in research and policy, and attend regional and national networking events.
  • American Association of Blacks in Higher Education: AABHE represents African-Americans working at colleges and universities in the United States. The association hosts an annual conference, maintains a job board and career resource center, and publishes a quarterly newsletter.
  • National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals: Admissions officers working at graduate and professionals schools can join NAGAP to receive access to research, networking opportunities, and professional development resources. The organization provides in-person training programs and maintains a library of webinars on topics such as financial aid and digital marketing.
  • National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators: NASFAA helps members stay updated on changes in the field. Members can review policy briefs and research digests to learn how federal legislation will impact student access to grants and loans.
  • American College Personnel Association: ACPA represents both higher education professionals and institutional members. The organization offers a career center, a collective insurance program, and an emerging scholars award program for members with an advanced degree.
  • Usable Knowledge: The Harvard Graduate School of Education hosts the Usable Knowledge portal, which offers brief, research-based overviews of topics in higher education, such as retaining faculty of color and promoting free speech.
  • Chronicle of Higher Education: The Chronicle is the leading news outlet for higher education students and professionals. The Chronicle features an advice section, which offers guidance on topics such as supporting students experiencing mental health crises.
  • HigherEdJobs: HigherEdJobs posts thousands of jobs at colleges and universities around the world. Users can search by location, type of school, or field and can review average salary data to prepare for negotiations.
  • Purdue Online Writing Lab: Whether writing an academic paper or drafting a grant proposal for a new project, writing skills are crucial to success in academia. The Purdue OWL offers comprehensive guidance on writing dissertations, cover letters, policy memos, and correspondence.