What Is an Education Degree?


Updated October 20, 2023

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Earning an education degree can lead to a career as a teacher, assistant, counselor, or administrator, working with with learners of all ages.

An education degree prepares students for careers in teaching. Pursuing an online education degree offers added flexibility and convenience when compared to a traditional degree, allowing graduates to enter the teaching profession or advance in the field on their own terms.

Education degrees vary in length and emphasis, and many include both coursework and practical components that meet state licensure and certification requirements. Students who want to work with young children can focus their studies on elementary and middle school education, while learners looking to teach adolescent and adult students can pursue comparable options.

What Kinds of Education Degrees Are There?

Associate degrees in education help students establish the fundamental knowledge and skills needed to work as aides and assistants in classrooms. These programs also cover the general education requirements needed to trasnfer into bachelor's degrees.

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Most states require students to have at least a bachelor's degree in education to become a certified or licensed teacher, and some states require a master's degree. With a graduate degree in education, learners can also advance to administrative and counseling roles or develop expertise in reading, special education, and instruction.

Certificate Program in Education

A certificate in education typically takes less than one year to complete. Undergraduate certificate programs prepare students to work as teaching aides and classroom assistants with children and young learners. An undergraduate certificate in education may also accompany a bachelor's degree. For example, students studying mathematics or science may opt to add a teaching certificate to their credentials.

Graduate certificates supplement existing teaching knowledge and skills, often by emphasizing a specialty. Graduate students can earn certificates in areas like administration, online teaching, or curriculum and instruction to expand their professional opportunities.

Associate Degree in Education

An associate degree in education typically spans two years, but students can often complete online degrees in less time. Coursework covers childhood psychology, principles of education, and classroom management. Some associate degrees in education include specialized coursework in early childhood or elementary education.

Individuals who want to become childcare workers, homeschool teachers, or substitute teachers benefit from associate degrees in education. Learners with associate degrees in education can also transfer into bachelor's degrees in the field.

What's the Difference Between an AA and an AS in Education?

Both associate of arts (AA) and associate of science (AS) degrees in education help learners transition into four-year bachelor's programs upon completion. The AA is an ideal path if you're seeking a general introduction to the discipline of education with a traditional liberal arts education, while the AS focuses more on math and science courses, making it an attractive option for those who plan to teach in STEM-related fields.

Bachelor's Degree in Education

Also referred to as a bachelor's degree in teaching, these education programs prepare students for careers as instructors. Bachelor's degrees in education include general education coursework, specialized classes, and practical requirements that train students to work in classrooms at elementary, middle, and high schools. Bachelor-level education degrees may also integrate discipline-specific classes in areas such as mathematics and science.

Most bachelor's degrees in education take just over four years to complete, plus a student teaching requirement. Bachelor's degrees often meet state and national requirements for graduates to pursue certification, though some states require a master's degree.

What's the Difference Between a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science?

Both bachelor of arts (BA) and bachelor of science (BS) degrees in education cover fundamental coursework in principles of education, child psychology, and tools and techniques of instruction. Students enrolled in BA and BS programs also both complete practical requirements and earn their degrees in just over four years.

The distinction between the two comes down to content. A BS in education emphasizes mathematics, science, and research, while a BA in education offers a broader liberal arts curriculum. A BA in education fully qualifies an individual to teach across arts and sciences, while a BS in education is best suited to learners who plan to teach a science-related discipline.

Master's Degree in Education

A master's degree in education includes two years of coursework, but students can often earn education master's degrees on abbreviated timelines through accelerated pathways.

Students pursuing master's degrees in education are usually already practicing teachers and administrators. Education professionals can earn a master's degree to advance their qualifications for administrative roles, shift into counseling careers, or add additional disciplines to their teaching expertise. Master's specializations include adult education and training, leadership in educational organizations, and teaching English as a second language.

A master's degree in education administration can lead to positions as assistant principals or principals, while a curriculum and instruction master's degree in education leads to work as a district curriculum specialist.

What's the Difference Between a Master's in Teaching and a Master of Education?

Most schools offer master's in teaching (MIT) programs as master of arts (MA) degrees with an emphasis in teaching. During an MIT, students build practical skills and gain subject-specific knowledge. Not all MIT programs require applicants to have previous educational experience, though some do.

Current teachers and other education professionals seeking careers outside of classroom instruction should consider pursuing master of education (M.Ed.) programs. By exploring the practice of education itself, M.Ed. enrollees gain insight into and expertise in the theories, techniques, and policies that underlie teaching pedagogy, leading to careers in administration or consultation.

Doctoral Degree in Education

A doctoral education program typically spans at least three years. Students complete core coursework, participate in practical requirements, and carry out research as part of either a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) or a doctor of education (Ed.D.).

With a doctorate in education, individuals can work as school administrators, school district superintendents, and executives within education-based organizations. A doctoral program in education also prepares students to teach at colleges and universities, work as education researchers in government or organization settings, and take on leadership roles at educational institutions.

What's the Difference Between an Ed.D. and Ph.D. in Education?

An Ed.D. is more policy-oriented, while a Ph.D. focuses more on research. Both degrees can lead to to administrative positions in schools, school districts, or higher learning institutions.

As part of an Ed.D., students may have opportunities to specialize in educational technology, reading and literacy, and special education. Ph.D. programs in education are more likely to offer concentrations in higher education, international education, and educational psychology.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Education?

A college degree in education opens many career paths. Individuals can enter the teaching profession, advance to managerial and administrative roles, or branch off to explore other education-related fields.

Individuals with degrees in education most commonly work inside the classroom — both in person and online. With a degree in education, individuals can work with young learners or adult students, depending on their preferences and credentials.

Elementary Education

A career in elementary education involves teaching students in grades 1-8. With an education degree, individuals gain the knowledge and skills needed to create and edit lesson plans, manage classrooms, and enforce school rules and regulations. Elementary school teachers also observe and assess student performance, working alongside administrators and parents to provide effective instruction.

In some instances, elementary-level teachers teach specific topics, like language arts, mathematics, and other general disciplines. They may also specialize in reading, science, or physical education. However, most elementary teachers work in a variety of topics.

State and national requirements for teachers vary by location and grade level, but primary education licensure typically requires at least a bachelor's-level education as well as subject matter certification.

School Counseling

School counselors work with individual students or groups to help them cope with personal, academic, emotional, and social issues. They assess students, perform tests, and analyze data to determine learners' strengths and weaknesses and design education plans to help them.

School counselors may implement school guidance programs, offer lessons and instruction within the classroom, and collaborate with teachers and administrators about the needs of learners. In high school and postsecondary settings, school counselors may also provide career guidance.

To become a school counselor, candidates need a master's degree in school counseling. Master's programs train students in areas such as communication and interpersonal skills, crisis counseling, and assessment.

School Administration

School administrators oversee daily operations at learning institutions. They work with teachers, staff, and other education professionals to enforce policies and regulations, implement effective instruction practices, and ensure student safety.

Principals, assistant principals, superintendents, and administrators are experts in educational theory and policy, often communicating with parents and members of the community and serving as educational leaders.

A school administrator needs at least a master's degree in education. Many specialized master's degrees focus specifically on administrative and managerial aspects of education, as do doctoral programs in education.

What Kind of Salary Can I Earn With an Education Degree?

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projections, education employment should continue to grow from 2019-2029. Salaries for individuals with education degrees vary by qualifications and field.

Individuals with certificates or associate degrees in education who work as teaching assistants earn less than teachers and other professionals who hold bachelor's degrees in education. Teachers in elementary, middle, and high schools all earn comparable salaries, while school administrators reported significantly higher wages in 2019.

Education Career Outlooks
Career Median Annual Salary (2019) Projected Job Growth (2019-2029)
School and Career Counselors $57,040 8%
Career and Technical Education Teachers $58,110 2%
Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers $59,420 4%
Middle School Teachers $59,660 4%
High School Teachers $61,660 4%
Instructional Coordinators $66,290 6%
Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals $96,400 4%
Source: BLS

Professional Organizations

With three million members, NEA has affiliate organizations throughout the United States, all working to enhance education and educational justice. NEA unites classroom teachers, higher education faculty, and education support professionals through events, publications, and online networks. Members also receive access to legal guidance, a research library, policy updates, and discount programs. Established in 1994, AAE advances professionalism and excellence in the classroom. This organization offers benefits and services for educators, advocates on their behalf, and promotes teaching as a profession so that educators can focus on students. Members have access to insurance and legal protection, newsletters, professional resources, and scholarship and classroom grants. Each state has its own affiliate teaching association that is both affiliated with NEA and still acts independently on behalf of its state's teachers. Active membership in a state teacher's association offers benefits such as networking opportunities, access to resources, discounts on convention admission, and participation in professional development workshops.

Accreditation for Education Programs

When choosing a college or university, students need to determine the accreditation status of prospective institutions. Schools can hold either national or regional accreditation — a distinction that can influence financial aid, transfer options, and overall educational standards. For education degrees, regional accreditation is preferred.

Individual departments and programs also receive programmatic accreditation. Accrediting bodies for education programs include the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. Specialized graduate programs in school counseling may hold accreditation through accrediting bodies like the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Become a Teacher With an Online Degree?

You can become a teacher with an online degree. However, students must still complete in-person practicum work.

How Can I Get My Teaching Degree Fast?

Online degrees in teaching are a good option for individuals who want to become teachers quickly and can afford accelerated enrollment. An accelerated online bachelor's degree in teaching spans fewer than four years and prepares learners to obtain licensure and certification.

What Types of Education Degrees Are There?

Undergraduate and graduate degrees prepare graduates for positions in education. Associate degrees lead to entry-level roles, like teaching aide, while bachelor's and master's degrees pave the way to teaching and administrative positions. Graduate degrees in education also allow learners to further specialize and can lead to careers like school counselor.

Portrait of Melissa Sartore

Melissa Sartore

Melissa Sartore holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her BA and MA in history are from Western Illinois University. A medievalist by training, she has published on outlawry in medieval England with additional publications on outlaws in popular culture and across geographic and historical boundaries.

Header Image Credit: Maskot | Getty Images

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