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Master’s Degrees for Teachers: Are They Worth It?

For teachers, earning a master’s degree may seem like a no-brainer, but is it really worth the time and money? This guide breaks down the career benefits and the return on investment of getting your advanced degree.

Author: Emily Kelley

Editor: Staff Editor

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A diverse group of students seated at desks attentively listens to a standing african-american female teacher holding papers in a sunlit classroom.

For many teachers, career and income growth is tough with a bachelor’s degree alone. While certifications, conferences, and workshops can help, they may not be enough to carve a career path toward specialization and leadership.

Another option is earning a master’s degree — both in-person and online master’s degrees have become two of the more popular and effective ways for teachers to build skills and increase salaries. According to Pepperdine University, teachers with master’s degrees can expect a 10-15% average increase in earnings than those with a bachelor’s only. But is earning a master’s degree right for you? What are the pros? Cons? Costs?

The following guide examines the benefits of earning a master’s for teachers, including the salary potential and career opportunities that often follow. It also looks at the cost of a master’s program, how to pay for it, and whether online learning makes sense. See if an advanced degree could be in your future.

Benefits of Earning a Master’s as a Teacher

The benefits of earning a master’s go beyond the opportunity for financial gains. Many teachers choose to further their education out of a love for their craft or to specialize in a particular educational niche. And, fortunately, with the widespread availability of online options, master’s programs are more flexible and convenient than ever. If you’ve been weighing the pros and cons, check out the list below to add some points to your “pros” column.

Potential for Higher Salary

Earning a master’s can pay off — literally! Although specific amounts vary from one school district to the next, many districts offer increased compensation for advanced-degree holders. According to Pepperdine University, teachers with master’s degrees can expect a 10-15% average increase in earnings, although this varies between states. For example, while California teachers can nearly double their earning potential from $54,810 to $91,090, Delaware educators experience a more modest increase from $61,121 to $76,655.

Development of Leadership Skills

Advanced training in a master’s degree program can help you develop key leadership skills needed to take on advanced roles within a school or district. More education means greater expertise, and this gives many educators the confidence they need to move into leadership roles on their teams, on their campuses, and in their districts like school administration or counseling. (For a more extensive list, check out the “Career Options List Below.”)

More Career Opportunities

Teachers who obtain their master’s degrees have access to many advancement opportunities that otherwise would be unavailable. For example, some degree holders pursue roles as principals, counselors, or superintendents. But a master’s is also an asset outside of the classroom, offering versatility for teachers who decide to leave the education field. Possible alternate career paths include career counselor, corporate trainer, or museum education director.

More Ability to Specialize

There are four main master’s degree categories in education؅ — Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.), Master of Arts in Education (M.A. Ed.), Master of Science in Education (M.S. Ed.), and Master of Education (M. Ed.). However, the specific concentrations within these degrees vary widely depending on the college. Possible tracks include subject-specific focuses, education policy, early childhood education, special education, educational technology, and many more.

Manageable Program Lengths

It may seem like earning a master’s requires a huge investment of time, but this isn’t necessarily true. Accelerated programs are on the rise, and in some cases earning a master’s can take as little as one year. For example, Eastern Washington University offers many graduate education programs online, most of which take 12-14 months. That’s a quick turnaround for the possibility of more money and enhanced skill in the classroom.

Flexibility for Working Professionals

Thanks to the widespread availability of online programs, you can work while earning an advanced degree. Choose a program that allows you to complete assignments on your own schedule, so it’s easier to fit coursework in among your many other tasks and responsibilities. Also, working while earning a degree means you don’t have to sacrifice your income to accomplish your educational goals.

Gain a Competitive Edge

With any job, employers seek the most qualified candidates. Having an advanced degree can move you to the top when it comes to job offers. Teachers who complete master’s programs show potential employers that they’re deeply committed to perfecting their craft, and this drive for improvement makes a big impression on employers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 51% of teachers held a master’s degree during the 2020-2021 school year, which means a master’s degree could soon become the norm in education.

Get Hired in States and Districts Where a Master’s is Required

A few states require teachers to obtain a master’s degree as a condition of continued employment, and some districts have this requirement as well. For example, Highland Park ISD in Dallas, Texas, requires teachers to earn a teaching-related master’s within their first seven years of employment.

Is a Master’s Worth the Cost?

While the benefits of a master’s degree are numerous, no doubt you’re wondering about a very important question: Do the benefits outweigh the actual cost of completing a degree? This is a fair question. In short, the combination of a carefully selected graduate program and well-considered career goals can absolutely pay off. Thanks to the affordability of many online schools and the fact that most districts pay master’s-holders more, teachers who are willing to do some research will likely see a handsome return on their investment.

The cost of a master’s degree varies depending on the specific school and program, however many excellent, affordable master’s programs are available online. Consider the online master’s in curriculum and instruction from Texas A&M International University. In-state students pay $367 per credit; earning a master’s in curriculum and instruction costs around $12,111. This is well below the average cost of $19,749 for graduate programs, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. Also, accelerated online programs offer additional savings by allowing you to finish in less time, thereby minimizing student debt.

An affordable program is only part of the equation, though. It’s also essential to consider how much more you’ll earn with a higher degree and weigh that against the cost of the master’s degree and how long it will take you to pay for it. It’s wise to do extensive research to find a program that suits your budget and situation.

How Can a Master’s Enhance My Skills?

The field of teaching is constantly evolving; teachers who don’t continue learning will fall behind. Fortunately, most teachers are passionate, lifelong learners with a sincere desire to help their students succeed. If you consider yourself this kind of educator, pursuing a master’s degree is an excellent way to add knowledge to your toolbox — knowledge that ultimately helps the students in your classroom. Consider the benefits below to discover how a master’s degree can strengthen your skills.

Increased Content Knowledge

A master’s in a specific content area is a great choice for teachers who are passionate about their subject matter. Western Governors University, for example, features master’s programs in English, math, and science education for grades K-6, middle grades, and secondary education. These programs offer you a thorough understanding of your subject matter, enabling you to be more effective in the classroom.

Better Grasp on Educational Pedagogy

Delivering instruction effectively is the main job of all teachers, and a master’s degree can drastically improve your abilities. Students benefit from your in-depth knowledge of teaching approaches, learning styles, assessment development, and reflective practices. Furthermore, pursuing your master’s while you’re teaching allows you to apply new concepts in real-world situations to see what works.

Increased Technological Skills

Technology is an essential component of instruction, and the ability to effectively incorporate technology into your lessons is a common component of teacher assessment. A master’s in educational technology helps you sharpen or develop your tech skills. In addition, the process of completing any master’s online will provide real-life practice with building your technological skills, regardless of your specialization. As a part of your learning, you’ll use various programs and platforms to complete coursework, create projects, and interact with classmates. Some of these approaches are ones you’ll adapt for use in your own classroom as well.

Better Time Management

The demands of life, family, and a teacher’s workload are a lot to manage; adding school to the mix can make life hectic. To complete coursework and meet assignment deadlines, you’ll become an expert at honing your time management skills — a benefit that will carry over long after your master’s program is complete.

Higher Level of Critical Thinking

Every day in the classroom you engage your critical thinking skills, including observation, analysis, and problem-solving. For example, if you observe a negative trend in student performance and analyze it to discover the cause, you’ll be in an excellent position to formulate an effective solution. Because master’s courses are designed to approach content more deeply, they elicit such skills and show educators how to apply them in the classroom.

Evidence-Based Decision Making

Evidence-based decision making is a critical concept taught in master’s programs for teachers. It involves utilizing evidence and data to make decisions about instruction and assessment and is widely observed to improve student outcomes. A master’s program prepares educators to effectively apply these concepts for the benefit of their students.

Career Options in Education with a Master’s

If you love having a hand in educating young minds but find yourself wanting a change of pace, a master’s degree is your ticket to many other jobs within education. Becoming a principal or a counselor is a common move that many teachers make; however, there are many other diverse opportunities available within the field. With a little exploration, you might discover a niche that suits your talents perfectly. The descriptions in this section can help you learn more about what each role entails.

Principal or Vice Principal

As the head of educational institutions, principals oversee the daily operations of their school. They serve as mentors and guides for students and teachers, ensure everyone follows the policies and rules, occasionally discipline students, and perform teacher evaluations throughout the year. A vice principal may handle many of these same duties, but they have less decision-making power. This role varies quite a bit from one campus to the next. If you want to be the one running the show, a master’s in educational leadership can get you there.

District-Level Administration

The superintendent and the assistant superintendent work at the district level, which means they might oversee several schools at once. The superintendent handles district-wide decisions, manages district needs, and oversees principals and district staff. The assistant superintendent supports the superintendent, including developing and adhering to district budgets and pay scales and assisting in developing the curriculum. A degree in educational administration is your ticket to this level.

Instructional Coordinator

An instructional coordinator collaborates with teachers to create, implement, and improve the curriculum across schools in the district. Some schools will have their own instructional coordinator, so there could be several working under the district umbrella. They may assess teacher performance and provide feedback, monitor student assessment data, and guide teachers toward the most effective strategies and resources. A master’s in instructional design can give you the opportunity to shape what students learn on a day-to-day basis.

District Trainer

Even those with high-level degrees and strong responsibilities will benefit from vocational training to keep them up-to-date on best and latest practices. District trainers lead professional development sessions that often cover new concepts, techniques, and technologies. Microsoft, for example, has an educator trainer program available to district trainers and other qualified presenters.

College Instructor

Although many teaching jobs at the college level require a doctorate, some schools are open and welcoming to candidates with a master’s degree. This is especially true with online schools and community colleges. A college instructor does many of the same things a K-12 teacher does, including planning and delivering instruction and assessing student progress.

Since their students are usually adults who have been well-versed in the educational process in lower grades, their job allows for more in-depth teaching and not as much “housekeeping” to ensure students are turning things in on time or following the instructions. A certificate program in teaching adults might be helpful for those who already have the credentials for K-12 teaching and want to expand their horizons.

Education Director for a Museum

Museum educators work closely with museums large and small. They are responsible for developing and implementing public education programs that teach interesting facts and benefit the institution, such as lectures, seminars, gallery talks, and community and school programs. They also develop instructional materials and activities centered around the museum’s current collection.

Preschool or Early Childhood Facility Director

A childcare director, also known as a daycare director, is in charge of a childcare facility. A person in this directorial role hires, trains, and oversees staff, and might also work directly with students. The director manages the facility to ensure a clean, safe environment meeting all state and federal standards. Additionally, they work with teachers to create a curriculum or program that meets state and federal requirements. All of this begins with programs in early childhood education.

School Counselor or Career Counselor

The main role of the school counselor is to improve the classroom and school environment by providing a long list of services to students and teachers. Counselors also provide academic and career guidance to students, particularly at the high school level. Career counselors assist people who are looking for the career that fits them best. They administer tests and provide resources and tips for securing employment. No matter the level you choose to work with in the educational system, a degree in counseling psychology is a great place to begin.

Education Policy Analyst

An education policy analyst identifies key issues affecting school systems and analyzes them through research to formulate possible solutions. In addition, they perform cost-benefit analyses and make recommendations to legislators. This is a person who sees the educational system from a bird’s-eye view and seeks ways to improve it for students, teachers, and all staff who make the school work well.

Paying for Your Advanced Degree

So, getting your master’s sounds great, right? You can enhance your teaching skills, increase your potential income, and open additional career opportunities. But you might be wondering how you’re going to afford it. Never fear — there are resources out there to assist with your financial needs. Read further to learn about programs and scholarships that can help you pay for your degree.

TEACH Grant

The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant is a federal student aid program that provides up to $4,000 per year to students completing coursework toward a career in teaching. Applicants must prove their need for assistance by completing the FAFSA. In addition, the applicant must be enrolled in a program that’s eligible for the TEACH grant. If awarded the grant, the participant must agree to teach for at least four years at a school that serves low-income students. If this requirement is not met, the funding will be converted to loans that must be repaid with interest.

Scholarships

There are numerous teaching-specific scholarships out there designed to help educators obtain an advanced degree. For example, the Barbara A. Cooley Master’s Scholarship awards $1,000 per year to recipients who are enrolled in health education programs. In addition, the Career Development Grants through the American Association of University Women assist women who are studying education, STEM, or social sciences.

Get more details for these scholarships and many more by scrolling through our comprehensive list of scholarships.

Tuition Reimbursement Programs

Some districts and companies have tuition reimbursement programs that pay employees back for a certain amount of their educational costs. Usually, if not always, the education must be related to the applicant’s current job to be eligible for reimbursement. For example, a program might reimburse students for a maximum of six credit hours during a 12-month period.

Financial Aid

Many other loans, fellowships, and subject-specific grants are available for teachers who want to pay less for their master’s degree. For example, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics provides grants, scholarships, and awards to math teachers at various levels. In addition, the National Association for Gifted Children offers the A. Harry Passow Classroom Teacher Scholarship to teachers of gifted students who prove their excellence in the classroom.

Federal loans are also an option, but since these loans must be paid back it’s best to avoid them until you’ve explored all other funding possibilities.

State-Specific Programs

Some state-specific programs seek to help teachers continue their education. One example is the Teach Nevada Scholarship, which provides funding to candidates who seek initial licensure through one of its partner institutions. A similar program is the BHD Endowed Scholarship for Teachers, which is open to Maryland residents who intend to teach in Maryland.

Can You Earn Your Master’s in Education Online?

Not long ago, teachers had only one choice for a master’s program — rigid, inconvenient, in-person classes in a brick-and-mortar institution. But in the blink of an eye, our world has gone digital and so have teacher education programs. Online master’s programs have numerous benefits, including a smaller investment of time, a more reasonable cost, and greater flexibility.

One great perk of online master’s programs is the speed with which some can be completed. For instance, Capella University’s FlexPath program allows students to use their existing knowledge and expertise to advance through the material at a faster pace. In fact, some students finish their degrees in as little as 12 months.

Although the cost per credit of an online education through a public school may be roughly the same as an in-person education, online learners avoid additional expenses associated with attending classes on campus. Furthermore, many online schools such as Western Governors University highlight their flat-rate tuition and students’ ability to accrue less debt by finishing their degrees in less time.

Online programs also offer students greater flexibility in their schedules. Students have the freedom to study independently and complete assignments on their own time instead of being tied to a strict class schedule. This makes earning an advanced degree easier and more convenient than ever before.

Interview with Teacher with a Master’s Degree

Sheila Johnston

We interviewed Sheila Johnston, a teacher, who advocates for pursuing a master’s degree to better support your career goals. Sheila used her challenging upbringing of alcoholism, mental, physical, and emotional abuse to motivate her to get a college education and mentor others. She is now a proud wife, mother, teacher, mentor and motivator.

Q: What challenges did you face while earning your master’s degree, and how did you tackle them?

A: The biggest challenge to obtaining my master’s degree was time management. My time was split between being a mom, wife, and a full-time teacher. To combat this problem, I had to create a time management schedule driven by quality instead of quantity. This schedule helped me to divide quality time among my roles as a wife, mother, student, and educator.

Q: Do you think that earning your master’s while actively teaching benefited you? If you could do it all over and earn your master’s before you were actually teaching in the classroom, would you?

A: I firmly believe that teaching while I obtained my master’s degree was beneficial because it allowed me to use my existing knowledge to better understand the expectations of each course. Also, I was able to adapt the strategies and skills I acquired from my courses to fit the needs of my students. Oftentimes, when we start our education early in life, we choose an ill-fitting major because we’re uncertain of what we really want to be. If I had chosen to pursue this degree earlier in life, I would have been unsuccessful because of that uncertainty.

Q: How did you select your university?

A: Since I was a working adult learner, I had to choose an institution that could meet my need for schedule flexibility. I researched many of my local institutions, but they weren’t a perfect fit. Classes were either hybrid or strictly face-to-face, so I had to broaden my search. I found Grand Canyon University in Arizona, which met my needs. I was able to take all my graduate courses online without physically attending the university. The instructors also understood the demands of adult learners and effectively addressed any problems I encountered in my courses.

Q: Which specific master's degree did you earn? How did you decide on that particular degree?

A: I was motivated to obtain my master’s degree out of a desire to help my students be more successful. I believed if I were better, they could be better. With this thought in mind, I chose the master of arts in English with an emphasis in education. I made this decision during my first year as a seventh-grade ELA teacher. I wanted to ensure that I started out on a solid foundation with a thorough understanding of the ELA content to effectively teach it to my students. My students and their parents were depending on me to offer the best instruction I could, and I viewed this degree as a way to improve my teaching.

Q: How have you been able to apply your degree in the classroom? Which areas of your instruction do you feel have benefited the most?

A: The areas where I have been able to apply my degree the most are in the creation of online instruction for my learners and in differentiating my instruction to meet the needs of various types of learners. COVID presented a major hurdle to my students’ learning processes. Within days, my students and I had to adjust to the expectations of online learning, but my learning management course helped me create engaging and sound activities for my students.

Q: From your perspective, will having a master's degree become more important as education evolves? Why or why not? Which particular challenges in education do you foresee, and how will your education equip you to meet them?

A: As a result of the hardships we faced during COVID, normal school life as we knew it changed—specifically, the delivery of classroom instruction. We’ve entered a new realm of technology that has altered the way we work and learn. The completion of my master’s degree has prepared me to be a competitive addition to this changed landscape because online learning is now the new normal. That is, this degree has prepared me not only for in-class instruction but also online instruction as well, and that is now an extremely valuable asset. As I look back on my journey to obtain this degree, I feel satisfied that it was the right decision.

Q: What advice would you give to other current or prospective educators who are considering earning their master's?

A: For current or prospective educators, or anyone who has a desire to pursue their college degree, I say the sky is the limit for you regardless of the obstacles you face. Mistakes are stepping stones to success because they build a platform to help us reach our goals. Each step you take in faith will get you closer to your destination.