• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Ask the Administrator: No Exit?

An off-the-beaten-path correspondent writes:

February 11, 2010

An off-the-beaten-path correspondent writes:

I graduated from Public U. back in 2008 and since then I have been a yellowpages salesman and then moved onto a scam sales company which I had presumed was a legitimate business model when starting. My question to you: I love sales but I want a more secure position and I applied for a position with a local community college as an educational planner and retention specialist. This position offers a fairly low base salary but I could see myself staying there for a long while. At the community college level is there a lot of chance for promotion? I would love to take this position but I don't want to put myself in another dead end job situation.

I won't go into the path that took you here, since it is what it is. But the question raises a wonderful point about career paths.

Many staff positions at community (and other) colleges don't lend themselves to obvious career ladders. That's not to say people can't move up; it's just to say that the paths often aren't immediately apparent. Educational planners, academic advisors, and other support staff in student service areas often hit the ceiling of their role very early on. When that happens, there's a choice to be made. (The same is true of faculty, in many ways. Once they hit "full professor" status, the only place left to go is administration, which is a fundamentally different job.)

As you correctly point out, some trades are clearer than others. Depending on the local situation, it wouldn't be unusual to see a de facto trade of higher job security for lower pay. If you don't care about the money, for whatever reason, then that's fine. But if money is an issue, a low ceiling can be a real demotivator.

On the campuses I've seen, the ed planners or academic advisors typically report to some sort of director, who, in turn, reports to a dean of something much larger -- usually 'student affairs' or something like that. The turnover rate among directors seems to be pretty low -- admittedly, that's anecdotal, and I'm open to correction on that -- but the skill set required to be taken seriously at the dean level is much broader. A dean of students or something similar requires a graduate degree and at least passing familiarity with areas like counseling, admissions, residency laws (a very big deal in some systems, not so much in others), transfer requirements, discipline, and the like. It also requires a pretty good sense of the academic side of the house, ideally through personal teaching experience. Being a good educational planner isn't nearly enough.

Over time, a work area with high security, low pay, and little or no prospect for advancement can get pretty stale, if not toxic.

If your ambition is to move up quickly, I wouldn't advise going this route. But if the job sounds appealing enough that you'd be willing to stick with it a while at its current pay level, go for it. At least here you'll be selling something worth selling.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen an issue with low career ceilings on your campus? Is there a graceful way around that?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


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