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How to Become a President of a University

A man smiling and shaking hand with a student, who's dressed for a graduation ceremony

No individual at a college or university is more influential than the president. The president sets the tone for the entire institution, typically answering only to the school’s board of trustees. A strong university president must be competent in areas beyond pure academics; athletics and finances, among other departments, also fall under the scope of the university president’s responsibilities. While becoming a university president is often the capstone to a long career in academia, those interested in such a position would be smart to start off with a Doctorate in Education (EdD), which remains the most common path to postsecondary educational leadership.

What Does a University President Do?

Though the specific job duties will vary from school to school, the university president is a big-picture executive who is responsible for guiding an institution down a path of growth and prosperity. Depending on the institution, a university president might oversee tuition rates, cost savings, community relations, outreach, research funding, and more. At smaller institutions, the university president will have a direct say in all of these areas; in bigger state universities, they delegate much of it to other executives and deans.

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes the key recommendations of a panel of thirty-five college and university presidents for those new to the job, which gives an idea of the various roles university presidents will fill during their tenure and some of their job duties. Included among those recommendations:

  • Get to know students and faculty. Maintaining a presence at sporting events, dining halls, classrooms, dormitories, and various other places where people gather allows university presidents to learn about the particular dynamics of their institution.This allows them to exercise the best possible judgment when it comes to creating budgets, directing development of programming, and establishing advisory committees. Staying in touch with the needs and desires of the school’s constituents helps those in this role make the right choices for the organization as a whole.
  • Meet with community members. Colleges and universities are part of the communities where they reside and are often major contributors to the culture of those cities and towns. University presidents should be sure to have a feel for the pulse of the surrounding community so they can figure out how to best integrate their institution for the benefit of both school and city. A positive relationship with people well beyond the campus helps to bolster fund-raising efforts, increase attendance at cultural and sporting events, and create a positive reputation for the university.
  • Learn the decision-making process. University presidents set the big-picture goals, but they need to understand the implementation and impact of their decisions at a smaller level, within departments or individual classrooms. Student and faculty government meetings, including those of their committees, provide insight into the minds of all involved. At these meetings, university presidents can present decisive, thoughtful policies, orient new students and faculty meaningfully, better lead and encourage department chairs, and collaborate more effectively with curriculum committees.

Those investigating how to become a university president will find it is the path to the top level of leadership and the visionary of the university. The president’s impact is far reaching and influences the overall culture of the school.

Go Through the Steps to Become a University President

There’s no short route to becoming a university president; getting to the highest levels of postsecondary education takes ample work and hands-on experience within the field of education. A 2012 study by the American Council on Education (ACE) found that the age of the average university president was sixty-one, up from fifty-two two decades before. More than half (58 percent) of presidents were over the age of sixty, up from 13 percent in 1986. And though it was a male-dominated field through the twentieth century, that’s somewhat changed; ACE reports that women held 30 percent of top jobs as of 2016, though that number raised by only 4 percent between 2011 and 2016.

For those ready to pursue this career, there are two primary options.

Follow the Postsecondary Education Path

For those interested in how to become a university president, it’s important to recognize that the main route to achieving that goal is the same as it has been for decades. According to that 2012 ACE study, more than one-third of university presidents had previously held the position of chief academic officer (CAO), working in the higher levels of postsecondary education; more than half of university presidents had “never worked outside of higher education.” The most common thread among university presidents’ past experience was that 70 percent had served as full-time faculty at some point, a drop of 5 percent since 1986.

The route to becoming a university president begins with an advanced degree in the field, like an EdD. After that comes a job in postsecondary education, perhaps as a full-time professor or as a dean overseeing a particular academic unit, such as student affairs. From there, an aspiring university president might spend years as a professor, aiming to become the head of his or her department or perhaps working in another leadership role before applying for the institution’s top position as president.

Try an Alternate Route

The ACE survey found that 20 percent of top university officials had been in a position outside higher education immediately prior to their hiring, a 7 percent jump from ten years prior. A sample survey by Forbes found that 10 percent of college presidents had a PhD in economics and that university professors at top-tier schools with such degrees lasted longer in their positions than those without.

Discover the Salary of a University President

According to PayScale, the average salary for a college/university president is $151,710, with an annual bonus of up to $100,000. Those earning salaries in the bottom 10 percent earn around or under $82,000 per year, while those in the top 10 percent bring in over $450,000. Jobs that skew toward the higher end of the salary range will be at larger institutions, especially at major state research universities, as well as top-notch private institutions. U.S. News and World Report has the top public school officials making north of $1.5 million per year in base pay. When factoring in non-salary income, the top presidents make multiple millions per year.

Explore the Future Growth of University President Jobs

Postsecondary education continues to be an important part of the American education system, and the university presidency remains a crucial linchpin in the entire chain. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the job market for postsecondary education administrators will grow 10 percent between 2016 and 2026, with an additional 18,200 jobs. That’s a growth rate 3 percent higher than the national average for all occupations.

The number of colleges has slowly been rising in the twenty-first century as well. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were a total of 4,583 two- and four-year colleges in the 2015-16 school year in the United States—over five hundred more schools than in the 1999-2000 year, a growth rate of about 12 percent.

Learn More about Becoming a University President

A Doctorate in Education provides an advanced understanding of leadership within the field of education. Explore how to become a university president through American University’s award-winning EdD program, which will equip you with the tools and know-how to shape the next generation of college students.

Sources

American Council on Education, “The American College President Study: Key Findings and Takeaways”

Chronicle of Higher Education, “Executive Compensation at Private and Public Colleges”

Chronicle of Higher Education, “What Should a College President Do in Year One?”

The Conversation, “Do College Presidents Still Matter?”

Forbes, “Training to Be a College President”

Inside Higher Ed, “For College Presidents, Is 70 the New 50?”

PayScale, Average President, College/University Salary

USA Today, “3 Things College Presidents Spend All Their Time Doing”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Postsecondary Education Administrators

US News & World Report, “10 Public Universities Run by Highest-Paid Presidents”

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