Earning an Online Doctorate in Higher Education

An online doctorate in higher education can lead to careers as a university professor, dean or provost, or college administrator. Many of these career paths prefer or require a doctorate from job applicants. With a growing number of programs offering online doctorates in education, prospective students benefit from a variety of flexible, accessible options. This article introduces the job growth potential for doctoral degree holders, explains the process of earning a doctorate in higher education, and provides salary ranges for common career paths. It also introduces scholarship opportunities and professional resources for doctoral students and graduates.

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

Students enroll in online doctorate in higher education programs for a variety of reasons. Professionals with a bachelor’s or master’s degree may pursue a doctorate to advance their career. A specialized degree like a doctorate in higher education can prepare graduates for careers in higher education administration. Working professionals may earn a doctorate to expand their career opportunities. A doctorate in higher education can help graduates obtain higher salaries and more job opportunities.

Why Get a Doctorate in Higher Education?

Pursuing Specialization

An online doctorate in higher education provides advanced training in a specific area of education while building research and analytical abilities. Professionals with a doctorate become experts in their subfield, providing job opportunities in a variety of educational institutions. Specialists in education research, for example, may work for a think tank, while others may become college or university professors.

Career Advancement Opportunities

As the highest degree in education, a doctorate expands career opportunities for professionals with a background in education. For example, many college professors must hold a doctorate, and higher education administrative positions may prefer candidates with a doctorate. The degree also allows professionals to publish their research in scholarly venues, providing opportunities to advance professionally. With a doctorate, graduates pursue higher-level positions with increased responsibility, while benefiting from higher salaries.

Online Learning Technology

Students who attend online Ph.D. in higher education programs benefit from the latest in online learning technology. Many of these technologies are seen in the professional environment. Building experience with the latest online learning technologies prepares graduates to work in distance education programs or to oversee departments that offer online courses.

Prerequisites for Online Higher Education Programs

Prospective students considering online doctoral programs in higher education should research each program's prerequisites to find the best fit. This list contains common prerequisites found in these higher education doctoral programs.

  • Work Experience: Doctoral programs may prefer candidates with work experience. For higher education programs, experience working in a college or university setting may benefit applicants. Classroom experience can also help applicants. Programs may recommend a certain number of years of professional experience before enrolling.
  • Exams and Test Scores: Applicants may need to take a standardized test before applying. The GRE remains the most common test requested by doctoral programs in higher education. Some programs may also accept the Miller Analogies Test. Programs may waive the test score requirement for candidates with a master's degree or those who meet a minimum GPA.
  • Coursework: Most doctoral programs in higher education do not set specific prerequisite courses. They may offer transfer credits to applicants with a relevant master's degree. Many programs set a minimum GPA for full admission, while some provisionally admit candidates with a lower GPA.
  • Recommendations: Prospective students often submit two or three letters of recommendation as part of the application process. These letters should come from academic and professional references and explain the candidate's educational and professional preparation for a doctoral program. Applicants should give their letter writers at least three weeks' notice to complete the letters.
  • Essays: Doctoral programs may require an essay explaining the applicant's qualifications for doctoral study and their goals for a doctoral program. The essay, or statement of purpose, may also explain the applicant's research interests and their career goals. Programs may request a writing sample to assess applicants' analytical and writing abilities.
  • Interviews: Prospective students may participate in interviews with faculty members or admission advisers as part of the application process. During the interview, the committee assesses the applicant's fit with the program and qualifications.
  • International Students: Many programs request TOEFL scores or other proof of English language proficiency from international applicants. Some schools allow applicants to demonstrate English proficiency through interviews. Applicants may also need to provide an English translation for transcripts from international institutions.

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

While the median annual wage for education professionals remains just under $49,000, candidates with a doctorate often earn much higher salaries thanks to their specialized training. In addition to traditional career opportunities in growing fields, a doctorate in higher education online prepares graduates for nontraditional careers.

Traditional Careers for Higher Education Doctoral Degree Graduates

Career Stats Description

Postsecondary Education Administrators

Median Pay: $92,360

Job Growth: 10.1%

Postsecondary education administrators, also known as deans or directors, oversee student services and academic operations at a college or university. They may manage the admissions department, the registrar's office, or student affairs. Holding a doctorate benefits postsecondary education administrators.

Ideal for: Analytical thinkers with strong organizational, interpersonal, and problem-solving skills.

College or University President

Median Pay: $104,700

Job Growth: 8%

The president of a college or university oversees the institution, managing administrators, faculty, and staff. They create policies and long-term strategic goals for the institution and direct operational activities. Many college and university presidents hold prior higher education experience.

Ideal for: Professionals with strong interpersonal, organizational, and analytical skills who thrive in a leadership environment.

College or University Professor

Median Pay: $76,000

Job Growth: 15%

College and university professors give lectures, design syllabi, and assess student learning. They also conduct research, publishing the results in academic journals or books. Professors typically hold a doctorate in their field.

Ideal for: Critical thinkers with strong public-speaking, writing, and interpersonal skills.

Academic Dean

Median Pay: $90,315

Job Growth: 10.1%

Academic deans help colleges and universities run smoothly. They create academic goals, measure department success, manage staff, and oversee budgets. Academic deans also help to hire new faculty members and play a role in promotions.

Ideal for: Analytical thinkers with strong communication and strategic-thinking skills.

Nontraditional Careers for Higher Education Doctoral Degree Graduates

Career Stats Description

Educational Consultant

Median Pay: $62,460

Job Growth: N/A

Educational consultants help high school students and their parents with the college admission process. They offer advice on college applications, financial aid opportunities, and potential career paths. Educational consultants may also work for K-12 or higher education institutions, providing insights into their operations.

Ideal for: Professionals with strong communication and interpersonal skills, particularly those with a background in education.

Curriculum Director

Median Pay: $72,931

Job Growth: N/A

Curriculum directors design educational guidelines for teachers to meet state regulations and student learning goals. They also create strategic goals for schools, train teachers, and measure the effectiveness of educational guidelines.

Ideal for: Analytical and organized thinkers, particularly those with a background in teaching.

Academic Adviser (College/University)

Median Pay: $42,340

Job Growth: N/A

Academic advisers at colleges and universities offer support services to students, including academic advising and career counseling. They may help recruit new students, run orientation meetings, or meet with students to discuss issues. Academic advisers may work in student services or for a particular department.

Ideal for: Professionals with strong interpersonal and communication skills.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, PayScale, 2017-2018

Paying for a Doctorate in Higher Education Online

The cost of an online doctorate in higher education varies by university, enrollment status, and the number of required credits. Researching tuition rates and program lengths helps doctoral students save money. Grants, scholarships, and fellowships can also support doctoral students in financing their degree. This section introduces tuition timelines and scholarship opportunities for higher education doctoral students.

Tuition Timelines

Many doctoral programs in higher education let students enroll part time, full time, or in an accelerated option. The pace of the program can affect the overall cost.

Part-Time Path

Many doctoral programs offer flexible schedules, allowing students to take as little as one course per semester. These programs may require over five years to earn the degree.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: City University of Seattle
Total Credits Required: 90
Online Tuition Cost: $742 per credit
Pace: 6 Credits / 2 Classes per Semester
Total Semesters: 10+ semesters
Summary: The higher education concentration includes a $2,000 fee for comprehensive exams and a $1,000 fee for each doctoral dissertation course.

Full-Time Path

Many full-time doctoral programs require 2-4 classes each term, depending on the program. Students typically complete their degree in 3-5 years.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Colorado State University
Total Credits Required: 60 credits
Online Tuition Cost: $926 per credit
Pace: 12 Credits / 4 Classes per Semester
Total Semesters: 7-8
Summary: The higher education leadership degree may include additional fees, and tuition costs may increase during the course of the program.

Accelerated Path

Accelerated paths may require fewer credits, for example, some programs waive credits for candidates with a master's degree, or they may require a higher course load each semester.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Arizona State University
Total Credits Required: 90
Online Tuition Cost: $780 per credit
Pace: 18 Credits / 6 Classes per Semester
Total Semesters: 5
Summary: The higher education specialization requires 60 credits for candidates with a master's degree, making the total cost of the degree $46,800.

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants & Scholarships

Grants, scholarships, and other financial aid opportunities support doctoral students earning a degree in higher education. Below, are several scholarships for higher education doctoral students.

What to Expect from an Online Doctorate in Higher Education Program

Students earning a Ph.D. in higher education online complete coursework requirements, take comprehensive exams, and write a dissertation as part of their degree. Doctoral students begin the program by completing the curriculum. The virtual classroom experience may incorporate lectures, assigned readings, and discussion forums where students interact. Students then research and write a dissertation, which they defend before a faculty committee. Earning a doctorate in higher education typically takes 3-5 years.

Major Milestones

  1. Orientation

    After applying to the program and gaining admission, doctoral students may attend an in-person or online orientation. During the orientation, they may meet with faculty advisers and declare their focus area.

  2. Coursework

    Most doctoral programs include two or three years of coursework. Doctoral students complete the program's curriculum, including any electives to specialize their degree.

  3. Comprehensive Examinations

    Once doctoral students meet the coursework requirements, they often take comprehensive exams, also known as qualifying exams. The exam ensures that doctoral students possess the required skills and knowledge to write a dissertation.

  4. Dissertation Proposal

    Doctoral candidates submit a dissertation proposal laying out their topic, research questions, methodology, and sources. Their faculty committee must approve the proposal before the student can begin the dissertation.

  5. Dissertation Defense

    After writing the dissertation, doctoral candidates defend their research before a faculty committee. The defense may also involve a public presentation.

  6. Graduation

    Doctoral candidates submit an intent to graduate form and provide evidence of a successful dissertation defense to graduate.


Each program that offers a Ph.D. in higher education online designs its own curriculum. The following list includes common course offerings in a higher education doctoral program.

Higher Education Leadership

Courses about higher education leadership introduce doctoral students to the theories and philosophies behind leadership roles in higher ed. It may cover strategic planning, decision-making models, and leadership tools for different types of higher education institutions.

Quantitative Research

Higher ed doctoral students build quantitative research skills during their degree, including the design and methodology behind quantitative research projects. The course prepares graduate students to write a dissertation.

Data Analysis

In data analysis courses, doctoral students learn how to interpret data from quantitative and qualitative sources. The course may also cover how to use data analysis in academic scholarship.

Online Higher Education

Doctoral students learn about the challenges and potential of online learning in higher education, including how to apply learning theories to the design of online courses. The class may also cover how to implement distance education policies as higher education administrators.

Higher Education Policy

The course explores how to create and implement education policies in higher ed. Doctoral students learn about strategic planning, innovations in higher education, and new policy management.

Requirements to Practice

Online doctoral programs in higher education prepare graduates for careers as higher education administrators, including deans, provosts, and presidents. Graduates may also work in K-12 education as a principal, administrator, or superintendent. Each of these positions comes with requirements, such as an administrator license for certain K-12 roles and work experience requirements for higher education jobs. Because the requirements vary, prospective doctoral students should research their desired career path. The following list represents examples of requirements for the field.

  • Administrator License: Some administrative positions, including principal and superintendent, may require a state administrator license. The requirements for the license may include an accredited master's degree, teaching license, and passing scores on an administrator examination. Most higher education educators do not need a license.
  • Work Experience: Many higher education administrative jobs require work experience, often as a professor, before becoming an administrator. For example, most academic deans hold several years of experience as a professor. The requirements vary by position.
  • Publications: Some academic positions prefer candidates with a publication history. In higher education, many professors publish research in scholarly journals or with university presses to earn tenure, which may be a requirement before taking certain administrative positions.
  • Accredited Doctorate: Many higher education positions require a doctorate from an accredited institution. As the terminal degree in the field, a doctorate demonstrates advanced knowledge. Accredited Ph.D. higher education online programs meet the requirement.

Professional Organizations & Resources

Professional organizations help educators connect with colleagues. They also offer continuing education resources to maintain an administrator license, host annual conferences, and offer professional development resources. Doctoral students benefit from joining professional organizations, many of which offer student discounts. Graduate students can access current research, apply for scholarship opportunities, and connect with potential employers through professional organizations. These organizations may also offer career services, including job boards for higher education positions.

  • American Association of University Professors: The AAUP advocates for professors by creating professional standards and promoting academic freedom. The association also offers publications and reports on higher education.
  • National Education Association: With over 3 million members, the NEA advocates for educators. The association also hosts conferences and events with networking opportunities, offers research on education, and provides professional development resources.
  • American Association of University Women: Dating back to 1881, the AAUW represents women in higher education. The AAUW offers professional development resources, published reports, and research. It also offers a discounted student membership.
  • American Association of Community Colleges: An association representing community colleges, the AACC offers current news and research, an annual convention, and other professional development opportunities.
  • Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: The ASCD offers professional learning resources, including books, webinars, and online courses. The association also hosts events, offers research-based training support, and publishes Educational Leadership.
  • Chronicle of Higher Education: The Chronicle publishes articles on higher education, data on faculty salaries, and opinion pieces. The site also hosts a job board for educators seeking positions in higher education.
  • Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation: The CAEP accredits educator preparation programs, including online doctorate in higher education programs. Prospective students can look up a program's accreditation status on the site.
  • National Council for Higher Education: Run by the NEA, the NCHE promotes policies and programs that improve higher education. The council also advocates for higher education educators.
  • Phi Delta Kappa: PDK represents educators worldwide. The organization publishes research, offers professional learning opportunities, and grants scholarships to graduate students.
  • Inside Higher Ed: The site publishes news and articles on higher education, provides reports and data, and hosts events and webcasts. The site also offers a careers page with faculty jobs, administrator jobs, and jobs outside of higher education.