Challenges and Issues in Leadership in Higher Education

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A college administrator meets with a student.

Undergraduate enrollment has slumped since peaking in 2010 and is expected to remain flat between  , according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This slowdown points to the need for professionals who are ready to help lead colleges and universities through challenges and take advantage of opportunities.

A strong team of leaders in administrative roles can help organizations in higher education meet their goals. To prepare for career success in this vital field, advanced study in organizational leadership or a related subject is a good place to start.

What Is a Higher Education Leadership Career?

Those who hold positions of leadership in higher education can have a significant impact on the student experience as well as the organization’s overall health. Higher education leaders may take one of several different career paths and, depending on the route they choose, may exert tremendous impact on student admissions and enrollment, cost of attendance, student retention, financial aid, new programs and services, and more. The strategic decisions higher education leaders make can significantly impact their organization’s trajectory.

Leadership in Higher Education: Essential Roles

The leadership roles available in higher education include the following:

  • Chief admissions officers develop strategies to increase enrollment and ensure that current students remain engaged and positioned for success.
  • Registrars manage information related to student enrollment, finances, academic performance and scheduling. Their leadership enables organizations to evaluate their performance and plan new initiatives.
  • Academic advisers help students select courses that will contribute to their major fields of study and career goals. Their work influences student retention efforts.
  • Financial aid advisers help students navigate their financial options, providing clear and customized information as needed. The importance of this role increases in an environment where many families are forced to carefully weigh the costs of various college options.
  • Program directors may have leadership responsibility over athletics, extracurricular activities, career services and beyond. Professionals in this area enjoy diverse opportunities to guide organizations.

Challenges in Higher Education Leadership

Colleges and universities need leaders not only to help facilitate smooth day-to-day operations but also to help navigate major challenges. Indeed, a number of obstacles beset organizations in higher education today, including disagreements over institutional purpose, upward pressure on costs and the challenges of student retention.

Clarity of Purpose

As an Academic Briefing article notes, a long-running debate about the true purpose of education has begun bubbling over: On one side are those who believe colleges and universities should provide well-balanced liberal arts education; on the other are those who think education should strictly be about preparation for the workforce. This deeply entrenched debate impacts students’ decisions to choose colleges over vocational programs (or vice versa) and also has major implications for educational funding.

Cost of College

Another significant challenge is that getting a degree has grown more expensive, to the point that most students can’t afford to go to college without taking on debt. Repaying student loans can be burdensome, leading many students to wonder if the investment is even worth it.

Poor Retention

Still another challenge is that retention rates are falling. About 30% of students who enroll for a degree wind up leaving school before completing their programs, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Those who work in positions of leadership in higher education face an urgent need to determine the cause of this problem and to find ways to keep students engaged and moving forward toward completing their degrees.

Solving Problems in Higher Education

These problems are real, and leaders are responsible for offering solutions to their organizations, as well as to students. Consider some of the ways in which higher education leaders can address these problems and concerns:

  • Aligning programs with real-world needs. For students who question a college degree’s value, colleges and universities can work to align their programs with the needs of different industries, helping prepare students for the workforce. Institutions can benefit from increased engagement with alumni working in high-demand fields.
  • Lowering costs. Different schools have taken different avenues to mediating the cost of enrollment, such as scaling back research activity and diverting athletic funding to create better academic spaces. Leaders can propose inventive solutions that are appropriate for their organizations.
  • Offering flexibility. Finally, one way in which schools have had some success improving retention is by offering hybrid online/classroom programs, giving students more flexibility and convenience. This flexibility has become all the more important in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bringing Leadership to Higher Education

Those in leadership roles have ample opportunity to apply creative problem-solving to these and other problems. An important first step is developing the right set of skills and competencies through a program such as Rider University’s online Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership degree and specifically the higher education leadership concentration. Find out how this program can help prepare you for career success offering leadership in higher education.

Recommended Readings

Cultural Diversity in Organizations and the Role of Leadership

Employee Engagement Best Practices for Leading Remote Teams

5 Leadership Strengths That Help Inspire Your Team and Organization


Academic Briefing, “Current Challenges in Higher Education Leadership”

Digital Marketing Institute, “5 Key Challenges Facing U.S. Higher Education”

National Center for Education Statistics, Undergraduate Enrollment

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Completing College – National – 2018”

The Balance Careers, “Best Jobs in Higher Education Administration”

University World News, “A Problem in Higher Education Masquerading as a Solution”