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A Day in the Life of a College Administrator

College administrators make recommendations about admissions; oversee the disbursement of university materials; plan curricula; oversee all budgets from payroll to maintenance of the physical plant; supervise personnel; keep track of university records (everything from student transcripts to library archives); and help students navigate the university bureaucracy for financial aid, housing, job placement, alumni development, and all the other services a college provides. Many administrators eventually specialize in one field, such as financial aid, in which responsibilities include the preparation and maintenance of financial records and student counseling about financial aid. Specialists in information management are responsible for coordinating and producing the majority of university publications. Administrators who specialize in student affairs (sometimes referred to as student services) deal with residence life, student activities, career services, athletic administration, service learning, health education, and counseling. Competition begins with the onset of a specialization. At upper levels, a graduate degree in education, business, student personnel administration, counseling, or information management is required. The hours increase, and administrators spend even more time away from the office at university events or other schools.

Paying Your Dues

There are stringent academic requirements for positions as college administrators. While entry-level positions in financial aid offices, registrar’s offices, and admissions and academic offices often require only a bachelor’s degree, a PhD or an EdD is standard among those who hold influential positions in college administrations. Candidates for administrative positions should have good managerial instincts, strong interpersonal skills, and the ability to work effectively with faculty and students. People involved in the financial aspects of administration, including administering financial aid, should have significant statistics backgrounds and mathematical skills. Computer proficiency is necessary at all levels. Universities are just that: miniature universes. Most of their administrations involve all functions of a big corporation, even a small city, within the larger community in which they are located. A person can work for the same university for 20 years and have 20 different jobs during that time!

Present and Future

In 1865, the average-sized university in the United States employed approximately four administrators for all its students. By 1965, the average administrative staff at a United States university averaged more than 225 people. Today the number is closer to 500 employees. The number of administrators at a university depends on funding, except for admissions offices, which exist nearly independently of funding decisions. As state education budgets wax and wane, the number of jobs available at publicly funded schools (roughly 25 percent of all institutions of higher education in the United States) varies.

Quality of Life


These first two years are the most hectic and difficult years for college administrators. Most administrators train on the job and are assigned responsibilities immediately upon hire. Duties include tracking students’ financial aid obligations, counseling students on course of study, and assisting in the resolution of student bureaucratic difficulties. Responsibility levels are high, and the pay is average. The hours can be long as most inherit student caseloads from previous employees, and files must be reviewed. Entry-level professionals spend a considerable part of their day writing reports, reviewing documentation, and doing research; more time is spent on the road, promoting the school and educating potential students about the benefits of attending. Despite all the time spent embroiled in desk work or on the road, contact with students is highest during the first two years in the profession.


University administrators break into two tracks at the five-year point. People who are happy with their positions frequently begin taking classes at the university that employs them. Administrators who enjoy the profession but dislike their positions aggressively pursue other university administration positions. The majority of position switching among university administrators happens in years three to seven. Geographical mobility is frequently a factor in obtaining the best opportunities.


Ten-year veterans have supervisory authority and administrative responsibility. Many administrators have complete responsibility for the administration of substantial budgets and become more personnel managers than student advocates, a trend that may explain the sag that occurs between years 7 and 11 in terms of satisfaction. Pay increases; the hours remain stable.