(Bloomberg News) The November election isn't the only presidential contest prompting career opportunities in Washington.

Princeton University, Dartmouth College and Yale University are all searching for new presidents, fueling speculation that some top Washington officials may seek haven in the Ivy League. Among those mentioned are U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, a Dartmouth graduate, and Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus, who holds a graduate degree from Princeton.

Top Washington officials have often been attractive candidates to lead the Ivy League, and it's understandable why they would want the job, said Raymond D. Cotton, an attorney in Washington who has represented more than 250 university boards of trustees, college presidents and other nonprofit executives during his more than 25 years in practice.

"It would give them a platform to speak and free them to speak their mind about issues of the day that they feel strongly about," Cotton said.

The positions come with salaries that are generous compared with public-sector pay. Yale President Richard Levin, who said in August he is retiring after 20 years, was paid $1.63 million in 2009, the most in the Ivy League. University presidents often live in on-campus mansions and enjoy other perks.

Dartmouth is unlikely to pick another non-traditional president after choosing Jim Yong Kim, a physician and HIV/AIDS specialist who set up clinics in developing countries, Cotton said. Kim left Dartmouth in July after just three years to head the World Bank.

'Got Burned'

"What happened last time is the board took a risk and they got burned," Cotton said. "Dartmouth is probably going to swing back to someone from academia. I don't know what Tim Geithner knows about running a university."

A Treasury spokeswoman declined to comment.

Dartmouth's presidential search is "highly confidential" and the college "will not comment on the identity of any candidates," Justin Anderson, a spokesman, said in an e-mail. The school expects to announce a new president in January.

Friends of Petraeus have been floating the CIA director's name in the running for the top spot at Princeton, according to student newspaper, the Daily Princetonian. Petraeus earned a Ph.D. at Princeton in 1987.

CIA Dream

"I think I've made my respect and admiration for the great faculty and student body of Princeton University very clear, and I will reiterate that now," Petraeus said through a CIA spokesman. "As it currently stands, however, I am living the dream here at CIA."

Petraeus "has been a great leader whenever he has been called upon to lead," said Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence who has taught at Princeton for 27 years. "When you have a person of that stature with strong connections to the university and an interest in the position, it makes a certain amount sense to consider him as a potential candidate."

Princeton won't comment on the presidential search until it announces a successor to Shirley Tilghman, Robert Durkee, vice president and secretary of the university, said in an e-mail. The search committee's first meeting will be on Oct. 20.

The Washington elite haven't always made the best fit for academia. General Dwight Eisenhower's five-year stint as president of Columbia University was notable for his absences as supreme commander of NATO during the Korean War and his campaign for U.S. president. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers caused a stir at Harvard University by saying women lacked an aptitude for science. He stepped down as president in 2006.

Star Power

Yale may look closer to home for a new leader, said Stephen J. Pitti, professor of history and American studies at the New Haven, Connecticut-based university. He cited Provost Peter Salovey as an "obvious candidate for the position."

Yale doesn't need to attract star power for a president, said Chris Getman, a 1964 alumnus.

"Yale needs someone who understands how the academic process works," said Getman, who worked at Yale in the 1970s as an assistant football and baseball coach and an associate director of the Yale Alumni Fund.

The successors to Princeton's Tilghman, Yale's Levin and Dartmouth's Kim face new challenges over the cost of private colleges, surging student-loan debt and technological innovation that is changing the landscape for higher education.

Not everyone can step into a college presidency, which requires the delicate management of faculty, students and alumni, said Hany Farid, a Dartmouth computer science professor.

"You've got to understand university life," Farid said in a phone interview. "A university is not a business. A university is not government agency, and going to a college doesn't mean you understand university life."