The Other Career in Education

By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 20, 2006

Jeffrey Finlay enjoys campus life at Montgomery College, including student theatrical performances, lunchtime faculty discussions, musical events and talks given by novelists.

"It's a rockin' place," he said. "On any given day, there is something happening."

But Finlay is neither a student nor a professor at the community college. Rather, he is a grants manager at the school's Rockville campus. His duties include identifying grants to apply for, matching them with college needs and monitoring the winners for compliance.

There are 4,236 higher education institutions in the United States, according to data for 2003-04 from the Chronicle of Higher Education, a District-based trade publication. These institutions include public and private, two- and four-year colleges and universities, both for-profit and nonprofit.

College administrative jobs are plentiful and include counselors, academic advisers, fundraisers and student activities directors. Many positions are also available in the registrar's, admissions and financial aid offices. "Campuses are mini-cities with all kinds of jobs," said Kevin Kruger, associate executive director for the District-based National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Higher education institutions tend to have a nonprofit as opposed to a corporate working environment, with business casual the typical attire, experts said. A key difference from other workplaces? The students. Where else would you look out your office window and watch kids playing Frisbee on the lawn?

Higher-paying jobs tend to be at the level of vice president and above, said Stan Clark, president of the Association of College Administration Professionals, based in Staunton, Va. He added that large public schools, big research universities and high-prestige institutions tend to pay more than smaller or less prestigious schools.

The job outlook for college administrators is positive, Clark said, especially at community colleges, many of which are expanding and opening new branches. Median salaries overall increased by 3.5 percent in 2005, according to an annual survey by the Tennessee-based College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.

Also, large-scale layoffs of the type seen in some corporate sectors are rare in higher education, Kruger said. "Occasionally a state budget is cut back," which affects funding for public institutions, "but generally higher education is a stable sector," he said.

Jobs in higher education can be especially good for those who enjoy working with students. Finlay does, which led him to move to Montgomery College last year. "I like to see my work help students get on with their lives, get an education their parents never had, or get a degree that can help them move from a night janitor or other menial job to a better-paying position," he said.

Business skills can be important, as Christina Murray found out in her position as assistant director for graduate admissions at Lesley University in Massachusetts. While an MBA was not required, "I definitely use the marketing skills that I learned from my MBA program" in the student recruitment component of the job, she said.

For some administrative jobs, it's important to supplement business skills with an understanding of how a university functions, namely the school's relationship with alumni, its budget and sources of funding, financial aid programs, and student and faculty affairs.

Having that kind of knowledge helped John Fitzgerald Gates, the associate dean for administration and finance at Harvard College, beat out other job candidates who had "straight business backgrounds," he said. Gates has a master's degree in higher education and work experience at New York University and the University of Vermont.

When thinking about pursuing a career in higher education administration, ask yourself whether a college or university setting is where you would like to spend your workday, Kruger suggested. Focus on what, if any, advanced degree you will need to find a permanent job on a campus. A master's or doctorate is required for some jobs, while a bachelor's degree will suffice for others. Many graduate programs offer specific training for this kind of work, including the University of Maryland's College of Education, a top-ranked local program.

Look for jobs across a wide geographic area. "Mobility is critically important," Gates said. For higher-level positions such as his, a recruiter can be helpful. Gates, Finlay and Murray all found their jobs through the Web site "I found online resources to be immensely useful," Gates said.

Sometimes the search for a higher education administration job can be lengthy. Finlay looked for a year. But many find the effort is worthwhile.

Gates said, "I work as hard as I would if I were in private industry, but [in a corporate job] the pleasure wouldn't be nearly as great."

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