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As of Fall 2024, the PhD in Higher Education is no longer offered at Penn State.  The information below is only relevant to the cohorts admitted Fall 2023 and prior.  You may still apply for the DEd program.

The doctoral programs in Higher Education at Penn State are rated among the best in the country every year.  Not only is this the result of compelling and diverse coursework, but due to the exceptional caliber of the program’s faculty; they are leading scholars in the field (please refer to faculty pages for additional information).  In addition, exemplary doctoral programs have exemplary alumni, and the graduates of Penn State’s doctoral programs are second to none.  Positions of graduates range, for example, from Director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education to a faculty member in the University of Michigan’s Higher Education Program, to Chair of the Educational Leadership Department at Florida State University.  Our graduates are college presidents, top administrators in state-wide coordinating agencies, and vice presidents and deans of colleges and universities.  Others are involved in national foundations and associations.  Additionally, the publication activity of our graduates is noteworthy and extensive, and more than a few are leading scholars in areas of higher education.

Current students are encouraged to pursue academic work through core and specialized higher education courses, as well as via a minor (or cognate) within other academic fields at Penn State, including policy analysis, marketing, organizational behavior, sociology, educational psychology, women’s studies, and the like.  A majority of doctoral students are also involved directly in extant research efforts being conducted by faculty members on a variety of topics.  All of these connections emerge at the intersection of students’ interests and faculty members’ tutelage, and contribute to a robust and engaging educational experience.

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Both Ph.D. and D.Ed. degrees in higher education at Penn State require students to develop strong analytical and critical thinking skills.  Both programs of study engage students in a breadth of relevant theoretical and empirical knowledge, including the contributions of other disciplines/fields to further and more fully understand the complex issues within colleges and universities.  Through coursework, individualized research, collegial networks, and more, Ph.D. and D.Ed. students alike gain a deeper understanding of a particular area of inquiry through thoughtful, rigorous engagement.  In addition, regardless of the doctoral degree that a student pursues, all higher education doctoral students are eligible for university funding.

While the Ph.D. and D.Ed. doctoral programs have much in common, there are differences as well:

  • The Ph.D. degree (in any field) is a competency-based degree, whereas the D.Ed. is a credit-based degree.  That is, the D.Ed. requires students to complete a minimum of 60 credit hours beyond a master’s degree, or a minimum of 90 credit hours if a master’s degree has not already been earned.  This includes a minimum of 15 credit hours of dissertation research.  In contrast, the Ph.D. requires that students fulfill a residency requirement of two consecutive semesters of fully time study, maintain continuous enrollment during the dissertation phase, and successfully demonstrate particular research competencies, most notably in their dissertations.

  • The Ph.D. degree, compared to the D.Ed., includes more research methodology coursework in the interest of developing research competencies in both cases (i.e., a minimum of 6 courses compared to a minimum of 4 courses, respectively)

  • Ph.D. dissertations typically seek to produce generalizable knowledge of a particular aspect of higher education that may have particular relevance and significance for discovery-scholarship audiences, whereas D.Ed. dissertations typically uncover knowledge regarding particular practices of colleges and universities that may have relevance and significance for higher education practitioner audiences.

By identifying such differences between Ph.D. and D.Ed. doctoral programs at Penn State, we do not mean to suggest that Ph.D. recipients cannot be academic or student affairs administrators, or that D.Ed. recipients cannot be faculty members with external funding and robust research agendas.  At the same time, however, our best advice is that candidates most oriented towards higher education practice do well to consider a D.Ed. degree, and that candidates most oriented towards higher education research do well to consider a Ph.D. degree.  Faculty members in the program stand ready to assist students in discerning which doctoral degree may be a better fit.

  1. Distinguish various aspects of higher education--including perspectives on its past, present, and future.

  2. Interpret and communicate knowledge of higher education that informs research, policy, and professional practice.

  3. Demonstrate competence in designing, conducting, and communicating (including written form) research that generates new knowledge.

  4. Identify and address ways in which power operates in higher education, and has been differentially distributed by race and by other marginalized social identities.

  5. Utilize concepts, theories, and frameworks from education and other fields of inquiry in exploring and critically analyzing topics in higher education.

  6. Evaluate required competencies, needed preparation, and potential rewards relative to pursuing a range of career opportunities in all sectors of academia.

The Higher Education doctoral program, whether a Ph.D. or D.Ed. degree, consists of three phases below.

The initial phase stresses the integration of the academic disciplines with the professional study of higher education in the “core” areas of study of the program. The four courses and areas examined are: (1) Foundations of Higher Education; (2) College Students; (3) Administration and Organization in Higher Education; (4) and Equity and Diversity in Higher Education. In most cases this phase culminates with the student sitting for their graduate candidacy (qualifying) examination.  

The second phase involves an increased emphasis upon the more specialized studies and experiences related to the student's identified area of study concentration and professional emphasis. This phase consists of various sequences of advanced courses and seminars, independent study, practicums, internships, and related research activities, which usually include the exploration and identification of probable topics for doctoral research. This phase emphasizes the student's use of appropriate methodologies and the development of a variety of techniques for studying a wide range of problems. These might include comparative studies of institutions, interdisciplinary investigations of programs and instructional procedures, historical case studies, analyses of the dynamics of program and organizational reform and innovation, and the construction and testing of theoretical models. This phase includes a formal program review with several faculty members, and the completion of a dissertation proposal course in which a dissertation proposal is begun.  This phase eventually culminates with the student sitting for the graduate comprehensive examination (i.e., dissertation proposal defense).

In the final phase, the doctoral student concentrates on research and writing of a doctoral dissertation related to the student's area of specialization, theoretical/conceptual focus, and professional interest. The student and his/her doctoral committee determines the subject and focus of this research undertaking, utilizing an appropriate set of theoretical constructs, data-gathering methodologies, and analytical techniques. All students are required to defend their dissertation in order to graduate.

Please note: The length of time to complete a doctoral degree depends on the student’s status (i.e., full-time or part-time), area of study, and other individualized circumstances.