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Explore PhD Programs in Higher Education Online: 2024’s Best

Dive into the future of educational leadership with an online PhD program. Keep reading to find top schools, common courses, and more.

Search hundreds of top schools for the doctorate YOU want.

Written By

Ivy Locke

Last updated

Feb 19, 2024

Earning a PhD can be a profitable career move for enthusiastic education professionals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, doctorate degree-holders are statistically more likely to be employed than those with a bachelor’s degrees or less. Specific to the educational sector, earning a PhD establishes you as an esteemed expert, making it easier to get higher-paying positions or even start your own business.

Increasingly, professionals are recognizing the value of earning a PhD. According to the Education Data Initiative, 1.39% more doctorate or professional degrees were conferred in 2020 compared to 2019. While earning a PhD can also be instrumental in allowing you to remain a viable candidate as you work your way up in the educational field, it is also highly time-consuming and demanding, which is why you may prefer to pursue your PhD in higher education online.

With that in mind, this guide offers a closer look at some of the top online PhD in higher education programs. Keep reading to find top-rated programs, sample course offerings, and insights into expectations. Ready to explore your future PhD program? Let’s begin with some school spotlights. 

School Spotlights: Top Higher Education PhDs Online

When pursuing a PhD in higher education online, you have a wide array of universities to choose from. This is because attending school online enables you to choose from online institutions all over the country. Rather than being limited to schools near your home, you are free to base your decision on factors such as cost, curriculum, specialties, student support resources, and more. 

Colorado State University

Colorado State University’s online PhD in Higher Education program is a 60-credit hybrid program designed to enable graduates to ethically lead various types of educational institutions. It takes at least five years to complete. Many students choose Colorado State because of its 95% student retention rate, its high level of individual faculty engagement, and its cohort model — which enables groups of students to pursue their degrees as a unit.

At a cost of $945 per credit hour, this program is considered a relatively cost-effective PhD program. The curriculum requires students to complete a minimum of 30 credits of higher education administrative curriculum, a minimum of 30 credits of research, multiple comprehensive exams (written and oral), a juried publication submission or presentation, as well as a dissertation. First-year courses include Higher Education Administration, Foundations of Educational Research, and Leadership Development, among others.

Purdue University

Purdue University’s PhD in Higher Education online is a 42-credit program. This program is designed to empower educators to take on service and leadership roles in colleges and universities. Successful graduates leave with a healthy understanding of the administrative, political, financial, legal, and socio-cultural aspects of the higher education realm.

Students are required to participate in real-time classes from 6-9 p.m. EST two nights per week, making it a synchronous program. The hybrid model requires students to travel to campus at least once a semester. Students therefore can take advantage of networking opportunities and the ability to publish with internationally recognized faculty. 

As a PhD student, you’ll enroll in seven credit hours per semester — two three-credit courses and one credit of research writing. Notable courses include Organization & Administration of Higher Education, Qualitative Research Methods, and Economics and Finance of Higher Education.

Tennessee Tech

Tennessee Tech’s online Higher Education PhD program was created for those interested in using data science to best prepare students and overcome challenges affecting higher education. If you’re searching for a high-quality online PhD in higher education, this 67-credit program has a curriculum that includes a series of strategically sequenced courses and takes at least four years to complete. Classes are all online and include both synchronous and asynchronous offerings.

Notable courses include Seminar in Higher Education, Trends & Issues in Higher Education, and Ethical Aspects of Higher Education. This program has been designed to impart the technical skills required to be more effective in the evolving educational realm. It’s heavily data-driven, enabling students to apply actionable methods of overcoming common challenges affecting the educational sector. Graduates are able to use their new skills to help lead colleges, universities, foundations, state higher education institutions, and non-profit agencies. 

EdD vs. PhD: Which Degree Is Right for You?

Although a PhD in higher education online offers plenty of benefits, this degree isn’t right for everyone. In fact, some education professionals make the mistake of pursuing a PhD, when instead they may benefit more from an EdD. While these two terminal education degrees are very similar, they have a few key differences. 

According to the University of Arizona Global Campus, for instance, the EdD is designed for those who are passionate about gaining hands-on experience working in the field, while those who choose PhDs have an affinity for research and typically work behind the scenes.

If you are trying to decide whether to pursue an EdD or an online PhD in higher education, here are some comparisons that will help you decide:

  • Time to Complete: EdD, 3-4 years; PhD, 5-7 years.
  • Concentrations: EdD focuses on practical applications of research; PhD focuses on original research and academic scholarship.
  • Potential Careers: Potential careers for EdD-holders are academic leadership, administration, higher education, or policymaking. Potential careers for PhD holders fall under the headings of educational research, consulting, or working for governmental agencies. This is also a common degree for college professors.

Common Courses of Higher Education PhD Programs 

Although every university offers its own unique version of the PhD in higher education online program, some courses are almost universally required. These are pivotal classes that commonly speak to the challenges facing those in pursuit of high-level higher education careers. Below, you’ll find some of the most common courses of online PhD in higher education programs, as well as the expectations for learning outcomes for each course. 

Advanced Statistical Analysis for Education Research

Completion of some variety of advanced statistics and research methods course is almost a universal requirement for earning an online PhD in higher education. Students use statistical data-analytic tools while broadening and elaborating on methodological issues in research in health sciences. Most classes focus on themes including qualitative research, measurement quality, research planning, and critical reading.

Capstone Seminar

A capstone seminar is designed to teach students how to demonstrate expertise in their chosen field of study effectively and is often mandatory for graduation. These courses normally last at least a semester and often include volunteering or completing an internship. In the case of a PhD in higher education online, students may be expected to volunteer or intern at local schools or other educational institutions. Course curricula often require students to submit a portfolio, presentation, investigation, final paper, and more.

Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education

A diversity and inclusion course is geared toward raising student knowledge, awareness, and understanding of concepts such as class, race, intersectionality, gender, identity, and other differences. It delves into how privilege and power factor into how institutions and society at large oppress, marginalize, and alienate certain demographics. It also allows students to examine strategies that can be used to boost diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice within the educational sector.

Higher Education Finance and Budgeting

Finance and budgeting courses teach students about the financial aspect of higher education. This course is designed to help students systematically manage the budget process in colleges and universities. Students are also taught about the effect budgeting activities have on all areas of planning and operations within an institution. Overall, the goal of the course is to provide students with a logical and practical overview of all aspects of budgeting and finance in the higher education sector.

Higher Education Law and Policy

Students in this course learn legal and policy issues that are common within the higher education realm. They’ll analyze common challenges concerning free speech and academic freedom, labor law, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws, sanctioning and due process, internal institutional governance policies, and more. The course enables students to closely examine how certain legal and policy issues affect higher education. Armed with tools from this class, graduates can make informed decisions to ethically improve academic environments. 

Student Development Theory

A class in student development theory teaches about the role development plays in educational settings and the methods of applying these theories to services, programs, and behavioral interventions. This course allows students to explore development while also focusing on practical applications in the realm of higher education. You’ll learn about four primary theoretical areas in student development: psychosocial and identity development theories, environmental theories, cognitive-structural theories, and typological theories.

Components of an Online PhD in Higher Education

Earning a PhD in higher education online is a comprehensive process that often includes many components. Much like other advanced degrees, pursuing a PhD in higher education online requires a mixture of the proper prerequisites, course completion, hands-on experience, testing, research projects, and more. 

If you’re interested in earning an online PhD in higher education, here is a list of common requirements. 

Capstone Project or Dissertation

A dissertation is an extensive literary work that includes an original thesis and research on a topic of the student’s choosing. Dissertations are commonly completed as a requirement of a PhD or other doctoral program. It is often the most extensive project a student will complete throughout their college career.

To prepare for a dissertation or capstone project, students must first choose a topic that will allow them to conduct comprehensive research that relates to their major and/or future career. From there, they will take time to conduct their research and then organize, write, and revise the paper before submission. Often, students will have to defend their dissertation — a process by which they present high-level findings to a faculty committee and entertain intense questioning about the topic and their analysis.

Comprehensive Examinations

Comprehensive examinations are tests that cover a wide range of materials. These tests are created to evaluate the knowledge and expertise of students before giving them a graduate degree. The exam includes a wide array of topics and subject matter designed to determine whether students have honed the proper skills required to graduate and succeed in the field. These exams come in various formats and may include multiple choice, short answers, essays, or any combination of these. Moreover, students may have to take multiple comprehensive examinations to graduate.

To prepare for comprehensive examinations, students must complete all required material and take the time to study regularly over the course of their college careers as well as prior to the examinations. 


When working toward an online PhD in higher education, completing coursework is essential. While the type varies from course to course, common course practices include reading books, watching videos and documentaries, completing homework, writing essays, participating in class discussion, and more. 

Coursework tends to be time-intensive, especially in a PhD program. This may mean you’ll need to schedule blocks of time to ensure you have complete readings and perform other work. You may also want to join a study group or identify an accountability buddy who can help keep you on track. 

Internships & Fieldwork

Internships and fieldwork are very similar in nature. Internships can be paid or unpaid positions that enable students to gain hands-on experience by working in the types of environments they will be working in upon graduation. They also often provide students with college credit. Similarly, fieldwork involves hands-on work observing and collecting data about cultures or people in their natural environments. In the case of internships and fieldwork, they are typically completed in educational or professional environments.


A prerequisite is a course that you must pass before you are eligible to take other courses or complete other tasks required for your major. Typically, these are classes that establish a foundational knowledge that must be learned before you’re able to master concepts in future, related courses. However, you may also have testing prerequisites, such as taking the GRE before being admitted into a particular program. You may also have prerequisites related to the number of hours of field experience or lab hours you complete before you’re able to begin your dissertation or capstone course.

The most common prerequisites for earning a PhD in higher education online are a master’s degree and a certain level of experience in the higher education sector. In order to ensure that you have completed the prerequisites, you should take the time to research which prerequisites are required for your chosen program and ensure that you have taken the steps to complete them or are nearly finished completing them before applying.