The principal of St Helens College in Merseyside has won the election to be the Association of Colleges' second president.
Pat Bacon will take over the role on August 1 when David Collins, principal of South Cheshire College, finishes his term.
In a contest where two-thirds of member colleges cast votes, Ms Bacon won by 122 to 105, beating Nigel Robbins, principal of Cirencester College in Gloucestershire.
"I am delighted and feel honoured to receive that level of support," she said.
Maintaining the association's unified voice to bolster the reputation of colleges and get them the credit she believes they deserve was her top priority.
The president-elect faces a term of upheaval because a new set of institutions will control funding from next year when the Learning and Skills Council is dissolved.
However, she said she intended to build on the success of the association's campaigning over capital funding, which resulted in an extra Pounds 300 million from the Treasury, announced in the Budget statement, with the commitment to more in future years.
After making a career switch from retail, Ms Bacon has built up 30 years of experience in colleges, as a lecturer and in marketing, before becoming a principal six years ago.
The role of association president was created following a review of the work of the AoC, which called for a new public and political voice. It was also meant to shift the balance of power in favour of principals, although there is a separate council of governors to make use of their skills.
Martin Doel, chief executive of the AoC, said: "We have benefited from having two top-class contenders in this election. The role of president is now well established and I very much look forward to working with Pat to the benefit of members and the many people they serve, drawing upon her very wide experience of the work of colleges."