What Is an Education Degree?

Melissa Sartore, Ph.D.Holland Webb
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Updated June 14, 2024
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Shape the future by becoming a teacher. Learn more about education degrees, getting certified, and what it takes to advance in the field of education.

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

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

Education degree programs 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.

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What Types of Education Degrees Are There?

Certificate Program in Education

A certificate in education typically takes less than one year to earn. 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 program 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 degree programs 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, this education program prepares 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 more quickly 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 prepare you for positions like assistant principal or principal, while a curriculum and instruction master’s degree in education can lead 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 program, 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 a Ph.D. in Education?

An Ed.D. is more policy-oriented, while a Ph.D. focuses more on research. Both degrees can lead 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.


Did You Know…

Education jobs employed 9.6 million people, or 6% of the U.S. workforce, in 2021, according to a Georgetown study.

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. Depending on their preferences and credentials, individuals with degrees in education can work with young learners or adult students.

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 instructors teach 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. They often communicate with parents and members of the community and serve 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.

Instructional Coordinators

As a member of their school’s leadership team, an instructional coordinator oversees the academic curriculum and standards that drive learning. These professionals work with teachers to select, implement, and assess curricular and instructional choices.

An instructional coordinator may observe teachers and provide feedback for improving classroom instruction. They may also review student test data and offer their assessments to faculty, school leadership, and district staff.

To become an instructional coordinator, you must have a teaching license, several years of classroom teaching experience, and a master’s degree in education or curriculum and instruction. With experience and education, instructional coordinators may become principals or superintendents.

Special Education Teachers

Special education teachers instruct students with physical, emotional, mental, or learning disabilities. They assess learners, develop appropriate individualized education programs (IEPs), teach and mentor students, and evaluate learning performance against the IEPs.

As a special education teacher, you can work at virtually any academic level from kindergarten through grade 12. Depending on the school, district, and students you teach, you could have your own self-contained classroom, or you could work with students in an integrated class.

To become a special education teacher, you must have a bachelor’s degree that leads to initial licensure in the field. Advancement to a leadership role may require a master’s degree or doctorate.

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

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projections, education employment should continue to grow from 2022-2023. 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 2023.

Education Career Outlooks
CareerMedian Annual Salary (2023)Projected Job Growth (2022-2032)
School and Career Counselors$61,7105%
Career and Technical Education Teachers$63,5800%
Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers$63,6701%
Middle School Teachers$64,2901%
High School Teachers$65,2201%
Instructional Coordinators$74,6202%
Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals$103,4601%
Source: BLS

Professional Organizations for Educators

National Education Association

With 3 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.

Association of American Educations

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.

State Teachers’ Associations

Each state has its own NEA affiliate teaching association that 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 institutional accreditation, a distinction that can influence financial aid, transfer options, and overall educational standards. Accreditation is preferred for education degrees.

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 About Education Degrees

What is the best degree in education?

A bachelor’s degree in education or an MA in teaching can prepare you for initial licensure as a teacher. Teachers with STEM or special education qualifications may be in particularly high demand.

If you are already a licensed teacher, then a master’s degree or doctorate in education can qualify you for a salary increase.

What is the highest degree for teaching?

You can earn your doctorate or master’s degree in an education-related field. A Ph.D. in education focuses on educational theory and research, while an Ed.D. emphasizes project development and applied research.

To become a teacher, however, you only need a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree leading to initial licensure.

What is the fastest way to become a teacher?

If you already hold a bachelor’s degree in a non-teaching field, then a graduate certificate or master’s degree may be your shortest degree-focused path to teacher certification.

Your state may offer a non-degree track to help college graduates earn a teaching license while serving in the classroom and receiving a teacher’s salary.

Can you become a teacher with an online degree?

Yes, you can become a teacher with an online degree, but you have to complete your student teaching at an approved, in-person site, likely near your home.

However, most online teaching degrees do not lead to initial licensure, so you want to be sure that your degree will help advance your professional goals before you enroll.

Which type of teacher makes the most money?

Advanced degrees and years of experience can increase your pay, no matter what level you teach. However, according to the BLS, high school teachers earn a higher average salary than elementary or middle school teachers.

School principals and college professors also typically earn higher salaries than public school teachers. However, these professions require a master’s degree or doctorate.

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