Higher education studies give considerable attention to understanding change. The interest in change reflects the historical conditions in which higher education emerged as a distinct field of study. Around the mid-twentieth century, a pragmatic need for an academic response to managing larger and more complex higher education institutions and systems was taking shape. This need gave rise to a tradition of studying change in higher education, which has continued into the present. To explore how higher education researchers have been grappling with the problem of change, we examine a selection of works published in this and other higher education outlets since the 1970s. We organize our exploration around three distinct yet interrelated lines of research: (a) change within higher education institutions, which in higher education studies are typically conceptualized as organizations; (b) change concerning nation-states, which are usually conceptualized as systems; and (c) transnational change, sometimes referred to also as global. Each line of research features the field’s telltale dual orientation: (i) contributing to abstract knowledge through academic inquiry, on the one hand, and (ii) generating practical and actionable insights for decision makers, on the other. We find that the field’s dual orientation shapes knowledge creation along each line of inquiry, yet with important variations. We propose more generally that higher education studies’ ability to balance the two orientations is an important source of its legitimacy as a field of research.