The Higher Education IT Workforce Landscape, 2019

The CIO and Managerial Pipelines

As the higher education IT workforce continues to age, we need to understand where talent comes from, how it moves from staff to managerial to executive roles, how experience is garnered, and how well educated it needs to be. In this section, we consider briefly the higher education IT pipeline with an eye to helping current and potential employees think about how they might navigate through the pipeline of these professions.

Higher Education Grows Its Own

Higher education tends to "grow its own" leaders. Whether colleges and universities are particularly good at attracting IT talent or whether that talent is particularly attracted to those types of institutions, the fact remains that once IT employees begin working for a college or university they tend to stay for a long time, especially as they rise through the ranks. Among these employees, over two-thirds (68%) of staff, over three-quarters (79%) of managers, and four-fifths (81%) of CIOs reported that their job immediately preceding their current one was in higher education. Among those who previously worked in higher education, about three-quarters (76%) of staff respondents and four-fifths (82%) of managers worked at their current institution. For CIOs, however, the story is a bit different. A majority of CIOs (53%) reported that they worked at another higher education institution immediately prior to joining their current one; at the same time, 64% of new CIOs1 came from their current institution. Therefore, a general takeaway is that, compared with managers, CIOs may need to move out if they hope to move up.

Pathways to Leadership

While we can only speculate about what leads individual staff members to initially select certain higher education IT sectors in which to pursue their careers (i.e., particular skill sets, academic or professional interests), we do know that they tend to remain in those sectors over the course of their careers.2 That is, a previous position in an IT sector is the best predictor of the sector in which a staff member is currently employed. In this way, IT staff tend to focus on developing within-sector expertise and domain specialization (e.g., information security staff tend to remain in information security from one job to the next; academic computing staff tend to remain in academic computing). But what about those who want to move into management and leadership positions?

Just five higher education IT sectors account for half of the managers in our sample: academic computing/instructional technology (17%), desktop services and client support (11%), administrative/enterprise IT (8%), IT operations and service delivery (7%), and networks and systems (7%) (see figure 13). Additionally, the overall best predictor of an IT manager's current sector is the previous sector in which she or he worked, not unlike what we observed with staff. To summarize, managers come from every IT sector and are typically hired to manage units within the sectors in which they have developed specialization and competency (e.g., desktop service specialists become desktop service managers; administrative computing specialists become administrative computing managers).

Managers  CIOs  IT executive leadership6%44%  Academic computing/  instructional technology17%9%  Desktop services  or client support11%3%  Administrative/  enterprise IT8%9%  IT operations and service  delivery7%4%  Networks and systems7%2%  Applications development  or operations  4%4%  Data, analytics, and  business intelligence  3%1%  Information security and  services  3%1%  Design, media, and web2%0%  Research computing/  cyberinfrastructure  1%0%  Other circumstances8%4%  Other position outside  higher education21%19%
Figure 13. Manager and CIO origins

CIOs are, however, an entirely different animal. In 2018, the only previous IT position that predicted whether one is currently a CIO is a position in IT executive leadership.3  Indeed, 44% of CIOs told us that they held an IT executive leadership position immediately prior to their current role. How one increases the odds of garnering an IT executive position is, perhaps, even more interesting. According to our 2015 data (which included items about one's previous two positions), we found that the probability of landing an IT executive leadership position was significantly increased by switching sectors at least once;4  that is, an individual who moved from information security to administrative/enterprise IT, for example, was significantly more likely to land an executive position than someone whose career path resided solely in one or the other of those sectors. Although an executive position is the best path to landing a CIO position, it is not the only path available to aspirants. Individuals from administrative/enterprise IT, applications development and operations, and academic computing/instructional technology have marginally better odds of making it to C-level positions than do those from other IT sectors.

Higher Education Experience

If higher education tends to grow its own workforce, we also know that it takes its sweet time in cultivating the professional development and growth of that workforce from staff to managerial to executive positions. The median number of years of higher education employment experience is well over a decade for each of the three organizational levels. But there are significant differences between these levels regarding the number of years spent in higher education (see figure 14): CIOs (19 years) and managers (18 years) have significantly more experience in higher education than do staff (14 years).

Bar graph showing the median number of years of experience in higher education IT. CIO’s: Higher education = 19 years; Current institution = 7 years; Current position = 4 years Managers: Higher education = 18 years; Current institution = 14 years; Current position = 4 years Staff: Higher education = 14 years; Current institution = 10 years; Current position = 4 years
Figure 14. Median number of years of experience in higher education IT

Remaining committed to one's institution appears to be rewarded with managerial responsibilities, but one might find it necessary to leave that institution in order to advance to an executive-level position. When it comes to institutional fidelity, managers are the ones who typically remain at their institution significantly longer than either staff or CIOs. While the typical IT staff member has been working at their current institution for a decade and the typical manager reports a tenure of about 14 years, it appears (unsurprisingly) that the longer a staff member remains at their school the greater the likelihood of becoming a manager. CIOs, however, are a different story. As noted earlier, more than half of CIOs (53%) we surveyed said they were employed at another institution immediately before taking on their current role. Among new CIOs that number is slightly higher (64%). Once at the top, there are few options other than leaving an institution if one seeks new professional challenges and responsibilities.

Education Level

In an era when some of the top computer and information technology companies in the world are no longer requiring college degrees,5  the allure of being the next Jobs or Gates (or Zuckerberg or Musk, for the younger set) leads some to drop out of college, and the "UnCollege" movement is devaluing the importance of a college degree. Higher education IT, however, continues to demonstrate that the degrees colleges and universities confer on their graduates are practically a necessity for employment and advancement (see figure 15). Nearly half (47%) of higher education IT employees have earned a master's degree, a third (34%) have a bachelor's degree, and 12% hold a PhD. A significant and positive association exists between education levels and organizational rank in higher education IT: more CIOs have earned PhDs (20%) and master's (56%) degrees than have managers or staff, and more managers hold a master's (49%) than staff. Staff reported holding master's and bachelor's degrees in roughly equal numbers (41% and 39%, respectively). Only 8% of the workforce holds a degree below a bachelor's (i.e., high school diploma, vocational/occupational degree, associate's degree).

Bar graph showing the highest education level of CIOs, managers, and staff. Overall: Doctoral/other terminal = 12%, Master’s = 50%; Bachelor’s = 30%; Associate’s 2%; High school/other = 6% CIO’s: Doctoral/other terminal = 20%, Master’s = 59%; Bachelor’s = 20%; Associate’s 0%; High school/other = 1% Managers: Doctoral/other terminal = 12%, Master’s = 52%; Bachelor’s = 30%; Associate’s 1%; High school/other = 5% Staff: Doctoral/other terminal = 10%, Master’s = 40%; Bachelor’s = 39%; Associate’s 4%; High school/other = 7%
Figure 15. Highest education level of CIOs, managers, and staff

We should not be surprised that institutions of higher education value and reward those who pursue and earn degrees from colleges and universities. Our evidence suggests that a culture that puts a premium on a well-educated workforce persists in higher education IT organizations. About three-quarters (73%) of higher education IT employees reported that earning a graduate or professional degree would make at least some contribution to their professional growth in their current position regardless of current education level. Thirteen percent of respondents (90% of whom already hold at least a bachelor's degree) told us their manager/supervisor encourages them to earn a graduate or professional degree. And, 13% and 14% of those with master's or doctorate degrees, respectively, have earned those degrees in the past two years, typically while working in their current position at their current institution.6 Higher education IT attracts well-educated talent, grooms that talent with more educational opportunities, and rewards those who better themselves by earning advanced or professional degrees. Bypassing college on the slim chance of striking it rich in the private technology sector may be a sexy path for those who admire and aspire to quick wealth, but a sheepskin continues to prove itself to be one of the most valuable investments an individual can make in their professional development—especially if one wants to work in higher education IT.


  1. "New CIOs" are defined as those who did not previously hold the senior-most information officer position at an institution.

  2. See "Career Paths: Higher Education IT Sectors."

  3. The category of IT executive leadership includes the following positions: senior-most information officer (e.g., CIO, VP); senior-most information officer of a department/division/school; deputy/associate information officer; deputy/associate information officer of a department/division/school; senior-most data/analytics officer; senior-most digital officer; senior-most IT business/finance officer; senior-most online learning or distance education officer (associate provost, vice president, dean); senior-most privacy officer; senior-most security/information security officer (e.g., CISO); and senior-most technology officer (e.g., CTO).

  4. EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, Career Paths: Higher Education CIOs, n.d.

  5. Courtney Connley, "Google, Apple and 13 Other Companies That No Longer Require Employees to Have a College Degree," CNBC, October 8, 2018.

  6. The typical higher education IT employee who reported earning an advanced or professional degree within the past two years has been in their current position for three years and at their current institution for nine years. They have also been working in higher education in some capacity or the other for fourteen years.