What am I qualified to teach?


Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

Few things are as confusing and frustrating as understanding what you are qualified to teach in higher education. I have been teaching for over 25 years and been administrator in five different colleges and universities. For over fifteen years I have been a peer reviewer for two of the major higher ed accreditors, where often I had conversations with schools on this very topic.

Unfortunately, the rules are varied and subject to interpretation. The basic rules of thumb are that you should have either a terminal degree or at least one degree-level above the students that you are teaching. You should also have a graduate degree in the field you are teaching or a graduate degree in another field and 18 graduate credits in the field.

The first area of interpretation is what is a terminal degree. In many areas, the terminal degree is a doctorate, whether that is a PhD, EdD, DBA, MD, or other similar degree. In some fields, though, the terminal degree is not a doctorate and it can be ambiguous what the terminal degree is.

A JD is the terminal degree in law, and is technically a doctorate, but some will argue that it is not doctorate because it generally does not include a dissertation or other research project.

For paramedics, the terminal degree is the associate degree. I have not seen anyone offering a bachelor’s degree for paramedics or EMTs. At the same time, a medical doctor with experience in emergency medicine should be qualified to teach paramedics. Likewise, a nurse with experience in emergency medicine should be qualified to teach some EMT and paramedic courses.

In some areas, colleges and universities have to interpret what is a terminal degree. This can lead to inconsistency from school to school. Whether the school is a community college, a four-year college, or a university can also influence this interpretation even when the degree and field are the same. Universities will tend to emphasize doctorates as terminal degrees and lose the nuance that not all disciplines have a terminal doctorate.

The second area of interpretation is what is a related field. The title of degrees can vary from school to school. Unless a state or a professional association has rules that define what a degree can be called, degrees titles can vary from institution to institution.

The course prefix can also vary. Courses in business management can be “MGT,” “MGMT,” BUS,” or any other abbreviation based on the history of the institution. In my current university, MGMT courses cut across 3 programs in 2 schools. In other words, it does not make sense to base the 18-credits on what courses someone has taken without looking at the courses themselves. Thus, someone makes a judgment call of whether credits and degrees apply to a specific course for teaching.

The Master of Business Administration (MBA) is one of the most popular graduate degrees. From a higher ed teaching perspective, though, its value is tricky. An MBA usually consists of a variety of business courses from different subjects such as finance, information systems, marketing, organizational behavior, accounting, and other subjects. As a result, the MBA does not include 18 credits in any one of these subjects, unless the student has a major in a subject, and even then, it may not include 18-credits. The courses could be listed as “MKT” for marketing or “MBA.”

A college determining faculty qualifications to teach undergraduate business has to determine whether an MBA covers all undergraduate business courses or just those subjects where the degree holder has 18-credits. There is no universal standard for how to make these decisions.

Business programs also have to deal with the different requirements of program accreditors. There are three different organizations that accredit business programs: AACSB, ACBSP, and IACBE. AACSB is the older of the three and tends to focus on research-oriented universities. Each has its own expectations about faculty qualifications. In some universities, preference maybe given to faculty who have a doctoral degree in business from another university with a specific accreditation.

Other program accreditors may have their own requirements for faculty. Nursing faculty usually need a current nursing license.

This is a sensitive subject for me because my PhD was an interdisciplinary program. I did not graduate with 18 credits in any teachable discipline. Technically, I had 18 credits in urban planning, but these were in courses not related to the subject of urban planning, rather my studies were in methods and other non-core topics. Since then I have earned 3 different master’s degrees in psychology, business, and education to diversify the areas I can teach in.

But I have been doing this work professionally for 20 years?

Over 10 years ago, the Higher Learning Commission (one of the major accreditors) issued new standards for faculty credentials. The new philosophy was to recognize that for some institutions and programs it made sense for faculty to have professional experience and/or industry certification instead of degrees. I remember being in the room where they discussed the intent of the policy. Surprisingly, many school administrators were upset because they had been using previous HLC requirements to motivate faculty to doctoral programs. (As I recall, the pre-2000 HLC requirements included a provision that something like 25% of faculty needed to be terminally qualified.)

About ten years later, and under new management, HLC reversed course without acknowledging that it was a reversal and returned to a goal of degrees over professional experience. I remember staff talking to us peer reviewers about how in higher education it was not acceptable in their eyes to not have terminal degrees to teach.

The actual criteria are vague and allow interpretation. Many schools, though, fearing a negative finding error on the side of caution. In one of my previous institutions, we had been cited by HLC for not having proper qualifications. When I was hired to fix the accreditation issues, I agreed. Very few of the faculty teaching at the graduate level had graduate degrees, and there was not a lot of interpretation there.

Some schools want faculty who have real world experience and will take that into account in hiring. For better or worse, though, professional experience must be combined with a graduate degree to teach undergrads and a terminal degree to teach graduate students.

But I have been teaching this in a high school for 20 years?

One of the most common situations I have come across at my own and other institutions is hiring high school teachers to teach college subjects like history, math, and English. Generally, this is not acceptable. Most K12 teachers who have a master’s degree have a degree in education such as curriculum and instruction. They do not have a degree or 18 graduate credits in the subject. This means many great and knowledgeable teachers are excluded from higher education classrooms.

But I have taught this in college for 20 years?

Sometimes someone will teach a course for years only to be informed that they are no longer to qualified to teach this course. This unfortunate and often the result of a school revising its policies and reviewing faculty credentials. Sometimes the school does this on their own, but usually it is the result of or in anticipation of an accreditation visit.

Should I get a degree in education?

Probably not. For some reason many people think that a degree in education is important for a career in higher education. From a teach perspective, most of the teaching jobs are in teacher education. Education schools typically hire people who have experience in K12 teaching or administration. A graduate degree in education is not going to help much unless you are a K12 teacher/administrator already.

To a limited degree, a doctorate in education is a terminal degree that may make your master’s in another field slightly better for higher ed teaching, but you almost always will be better off with a doctorate in a field that you can teach in such as business.

While the scope of this article is about teaching in higher ed, it is worth noting that the career path of academic administrators is not through education degrees. I have been a Dean, Director, Vice President, Provost, and President in my higher ed career. Never once has my master’s in education helped me land any of those jobs. The preferred sequence is to start as faculty, and from faculty move to increasing levels of administrative leadership. It is valuable to have a terminal degree, but this can be anything. The essential experience is in teaching. Increasing your ability to teach is what will create the most opportunity to move into administration.

Should I just get a degree or certificate in the hottest field?

It can be tempting to enroll in a graduate program or certificate to get 18 graduate credits in a field that is high demand. For example, cybersecurity is a hot field right now with a shortage of qualified faculty. The risk is that if you do not have professional experience to go with the degree, it maybe challenging to get hired even with academic credentials. Having an industry certification can help, but you will want to do some research before investing the time and money into something that might not work out for you.

What if I have the right qualifications and still cannot get hired?

The academic job market is brutal. Even with great qualifications, it can be hard to even get an interview. Sometimes the issue is automated applicant screening systems or review by HR professionals that do not understand the nuances of academic degrees and credentials.

In my book How to Become a Professor, I go into more depth about how to pursue higher ed teaching opportunities. If this is something you are interested in as a career, it is an inexpensive resource to consider.