Earning an Online Doctorate in Education Leadership

Professionals benefit from enrolling in online doctoral programs in higher education leadership. An education leadership doctoral degree provides a path to career advancement and increased salary opportunities. Many programs offer the flexibility for educators to earn a degree while working. With a doctorate, educators qualify for leadership roles in most educational organizations. This article explores the salary potential for doctoral degree holders, common career paths, and how to gain admission to a doctoral program. It also covers scholarship opportunities and professional resources for education leadership doctoral students.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Ph.D. in Education Leadership?

Prospective students consider online doctoral programs in higher education leadership for a variety of reasons. Educators with a bachelor's or master's degree may enroll in a doctoral program to become college or university professors. Working professionals may pursue doctorates to qualify for advanced positions in education administration and leadership. A doctorate expands job prospects and earnings potential.

Why Get a Doctorate in Education Leadership?

Pursuing Specialization

During an online Ph.D. in higher education leadership program, students become experts in their subfield, qualifying them for positions as university professors, academic deans, or other administrative positions in higher education. The degree also prepares graduates for careers in K-12 education and administration.

Career Advancement Opportunities

A doctorate is the terminal education degree, qualifying graduates for the most advanced positions in the field, including superintendent and higher education administrator. Most university professor positions require a doctorate. Many of these higher-level positions come with high salaries.

Online Learning Technology

Online students gain skills in online learning technologies that they can apply to their careers. For example, higher ed administrators may oversee distance education programs, while superintendents may use online communication technology to meet with principals and other administrators.

Prerequisites for Online Education Leadership Programs

Before applying to online doctoral programs in higher education leadership, prospective students should research each program's prerequisites. Below, are common prerequisites for education leadership doctoral programs.

  • Work Experience: Some programs prefer candidates with work experience, particularly as classroom teachers. Many education leadership roles, including principal and superintendent, require teaching experience. Programs may set a minimum or recommended number of years of experience for applicants.
  • Exams and Test Scores: Doctoral programs in education leadership may require test scores to evaluate an applicant's readiness for the program. Most commonly, programs request GRE scores. Applicants may be able to waive the requirement if they hold a master's degree in education or if they meet a GPA minimum. GRE scores remain valid for five years.
  • Coursework: Most programs do not set specific prerequisite courses, though some prefer candidates with a master's degree. Programs may set a minimum GPA for full admission while allowing provisional admission for candidates who do not meet the requirement. Applicants can ask an admission adviser for the average GPA of admitted students.
  • Recommendations: Doctoral programs typically require two or three letters of recommendation from academic or professional references. These letters should explain the applicant's educational and professional history and their likelihood to succeed at the doctoral level. Applicants should give their letter writers at least three weeks' notice to complete the letters.
  • Essays: Applicants may need to write an essay explaining why they want to pursue a doctoral degree, their research plans, and their career goals after completing the degree. Programs may also request a writing sample to assess analytical and writing abilities.
  • Interviews: Applicants may participate in interviews during the application process. During an interview, the online program assesses the candidate's qualifications and fit with the program. Some programs may assign an admission adviser to assist the applicant during the process.
  • International Students: International students often need to submit TOEFL scores or other proof of English language proficiency, such as a writing sample or virtual interview. Other English language tests may also meet the requirement. In addition, programs may request translations of foreign transcripts.

How Much Can I Make with a Doctorate in Education Leadership?

Earning an online Ph.D. in higher education leadership prepares graduates for careers in growing fields, including as principals, deans, provosts, and college professors. While education professionals earn a median annual salary of just under $49,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, professionals with a doctorate often earn much higher salaries. In addition to traditional careers, several nontraditional career paths can provide fulfilling, lucrative opportunities for education leadership doctorates.

Traditional Careers for Education Leadership Doctoral Degree Graduates

Career Stats Description

Postsecondary Education Leadership Administrators

Median Pay: $92,360

Job Growth: 10.1%

Postsecondary education leadership administrators, also known as deans and directors, work for colleges and universities, overseeing admissions, student affairs, faculty, and the registrar's office. They often coordinate with other administrators and faculty members to improve the institution.

Ideal for: Educators with strong leadership, organizational, and interpersonal skills.

Elementary, Middle, or High School Principal

Median Pay: $94,390

Job Growth: 8%

Principals at elementary, middle, and high schools oversee school operations. They create and implement educational policies, manage teachers and staff members, and coordinate with district administrators to ensure the school runs smoothly.

Ideal for: Organized educators with strong critical-thinking, decision-making, and leadership skills.

College or University Professor

Median Pay: $76,000

Job Growth: 15%

College and university professors teach classes in their specialization, design assignments to measure student learning, and provide student advising services. They also conduct research and publish scholarly articles and books. Professors often hold a doctorate.

Ideal for: Educators with strong critical-thinking, public-speaking, and writing skills interested in higher education.

Academic Dean

Median Pay: $90,315

Job Growth: 10.1%

Academic deans manage academic departments at colleges and universities. They set academic goals for the department, assess the department's progress in meeting goals, and oversee the department's budget. Academic deans also play a role in faculty hiring, tenure, and promotion.

Ideal for: Organized professionals with strong leadership and analytical abilities, particularly those with higher education experience.

Nontraditional Careers for Education Leadership Doctoral Degree Graduates

Career Stats Description

Educational Consultant

Median Pay: $62,460

Job Growth: N/A

Educational consultants provide advice on college admissions and career planning for high school students and their parents. They help students prepare college essays, apply for financial aid, and determine career goals. Educational consultants may work independently or for educational institutions.

Ideal for: Professionals with strong interpersonal and communication skills.

Curriculum Director

Median Pay: $72,931

Job Growth: N/A

Curriculum directors create educational guidelines for a school or district. They design guidelines that meet state regulations and student learning objectives. Curriculum directors may also design long-term strategic goals for the district, train teachers, and measure the success of a curriculum.

Ideal for: Educators with decision-making and analytical skills, particularly those with a background in teaching.

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

Paying for a Doctorate in Education Leadership Online

Before applying to online doctoral programs in education leadership, prospective students should research the cost of potential programs. The total cost of a doctoral degree varies by program, enrollment status, and required credits. Scholarships, grants, and fellowships can help doctoral students fund their degree.

Tuition Timelines

Students earning a doctorate in education leadership online should choose the enrollment option that best fits their circumstances. Enrollment status impacts the cost of a degree.

Part-Time Path

Part-time students take longer to graduate than full-time students, often more than five years, but they enjoy the schedule flexibility to work while earning their degree.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Arizona State University
Total Credits Required: 90
Online Tuition Cost: $780 per credit
Pace: 6 Credits / 2 Classes per Semester
Total Semesters: 10
Summary: Students at Arizona State can take as little as one class per 7.5-week term.

Full-Time Path

Full-time doctoral students may take 2-4 classes each semester, typically finishing their degree in 3-5 years.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: City University of Seattle
Total Credits Required: 90 credits
Online Tuition Cost: $742 per credit
Pace: 12 Credits / 4 Classes per Semester
Total Semesters: 7-8
Summary: City U charges $2,000 to take comprehensive exams and $1,000 for doctoral dissertation courses in addition to the per-credit fee.

Accelerated Path

Accelerated options allow doctoral students to complete their degree faster than students on traditional degree paths.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Gwynedd Mercy University
Total Credits Required: 27
Online Tuition Cost: $965 per credit
Pace: 18 Credits / 6 Classes per Semester
Total Semesters: 5
Summary: At GMercy U, students in the accelerated doctorate in education leadership program can complete the degree in 18 months.

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants & Scholarships

Doctoral students in education leadership qualify for several scholarships, grants, and other financial aid opportunities. These awards may provide thousands of dollars toward a degree.

What to Expect from an Online Doctorate in Education Leadership Program

Students earning a Ph.D. in higher education leadership online must meet curriculum requirements. Most programs incorporate two years of coursework, including specialized electives. The virtual classroom experience may incorporate lectures, discussion sessions, and forums for students to interact. After completing the coursework requirements, doctoral students research and write a dissertation to demonstrate their skills and knowledge. The degree typically takes 3-5 years to complete.

Major Milestones

  1. Orientation

    After gaining admission to the program, online doctoral students may attend an in-person or virtual orientation to meet their faculty adviser and begin their degree.

  2. Coursework

    Doctoral students typically complete two years of coursework, depending on their program. The curriculum covers education leadership theory, research methods, and administrative practices.

  3. Comprehensive Examinations

    Once doctoral students complete their coursework, they take comprehensive or qualifying exams to measure their knowledge. If they pass, they move on to the dissertation stage.

  4. Dissertation Proposal

    Before writing a dissertation, doctoral candidates must successfully propose a topic, methodology, and research question to their committee. With the committee's approval, doctoral candidates begin the dissertation.

  5. Dissertation Defense

    After completing the research and writing for the dissertation, doctoral candidates must defend it before a faculty committee. The defense may involve a public presentation of the research.

  6. Graduation

    Doctoral candidates typically file an intent to graduate form along with paperwork showing they passed their defense.


Online doctoral programs in higher education leadership design curricula to provide theoretical and practical training. The following list includes common courses offered in doctoral programs in education leadership.

Educational Policy

Doctoral students learn how to create, adopt, and implement education policy. They also examine methods to measure the effectiveness of education policies and the relationship between policies and the political process.

Quantitative Research

Many doctoral programs incorporate courses on quantitative research, where students study research design, the methodology behind quantitative research studies, and how to interpret quantitative results. The course prepares graduate students to write a dissertation.

Education Leadership Theory

Theory courses cover theoretical approaches to leadership in education, including theories for K-12 systems versus higher education. Doctoral students also study research on leadership and educational outcomes.

Ethical Leadership

Doctoral students examine issues on ethical leadership within educational systems. The course may cover academic integrity, student assessments, and ethical curriculum design. Students may also explore the consequences of unethical leadership.

Technology and Education Leadership

The course emphasizes the relationship between technology and education, exploring the role technology plays in modern educational systems. Students study research on technology's role in student learning, technology for educational management, and strategic planning around technology use.

Requirements to Practice

Prospective doctoral students considering an education leadership career must meet different requirements depending on their career path. For example, educators considering a career in K-12 administration may need an administrator license, while positions in higher education, such as dean and provost, often require professional experience. Because expectations vary by profession, prospective students should research the requirements in their field. Below, are common practice requirements for education leadership professionals.

  • Teaching License: Certain careers may require a teaching license. Issued by the states, teaching licenses often require an accredited educator preparation degree, qualifying scores on teaching and content area examinations, and a background check.
  • Administrator License: Some administrative jobs require an administrator license, often granted through a state's department of education. Typically, K-12 administrators hold a license, including a principal license, which they earn with an accredited graduate degree, teaching license, and passing score on an examination.
  • Work Experience: Administrative and leadership roles in education often carry work experience requirements. Most principals work as teachers before moving into administration, and most academic deans hold work experience as professors. This requirement varies by position.
  • Accredited Doctorate: Earning a teaching license or administrator license may require an accredited degree. Many employers also seek candidates with an accredited doctorate. An accredited online Ph.D. in higher education leadership meets the requirement.

Professional Organizations & Resources

Professional organizations help students and educators stay current in their field, offer networking opportunities, and provide professional development resources. Many organizations offer continuing education programs to maintain a teaching or administrator license. Additionally, organizations may offer scholarship opportunities, career services, and job boards. By joining professional organizations, doctoral students can ease the transition from graduate school to the workforce.

  • National Education Association: Founded in 1857, the NEA represents more than 3 million educators, working with students from preschool through higher education. The association publishes research, offers networking opportunities, and provides professional development resources.
  • American Association of School Administrators: School administrators benefit from joining AASA, which provides professional development tools and research. The association also offers certifications and continuing education classes.
  • National Association of Elementary School Principals: Professionals with a doctorate in education leadership may work as elementary or middle school principals. The NAESP offers professional resources, member benefits, and awards for principals.
  • National Association of Secondary School Principals: The NASSP represents high school principals. The association offers professional learning resources, hosts events with networking opportunities, and grants awards.
  • American Association of University Professors: The association promotes academic freedom, provides professional standards, and offers publications for professors. The AAUP also confers awards.
  • National Council for Higher Education: The NCHE advocates for higher education and educators. The council, run through the NEA, promotes programs and policies designed to improve higher education.
  • Educational Leadership: A journal published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Educational Leadership offers current research on education. With themed issues on technology, administration, and professional development, the journal helps doctoral students stay up-to-date in the field.
  • Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation: The CAEP accredits educator preparation programs, including online doctoral programs in higher education leadership. Prospective students can check a program's accreditation status on the site.
  • Phi Delta Kappa: An international organization, PDK offers research and publications, scholarships for doctoral students, and professional learning opportunities for educators.
  • U.S. Department of Education State Contacts: The site lists higher education agencies by state, state departments of education, and resources on teacher licensing and job openings.