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Education Degrees: An Overview

The first step to becoming a teacher is earning a degree—but it’s not as clear-cut as it sounds. The degree you need will vary based on your previous education, experience, and career goals. Whether you are a high school grad eyeing a teaching career, a current teacher interested in changing to a new subject, or someone who wants to switch from an unrelated field to education, there is a path for you.

Below, you can find descriptions of different education degrees and the careers they may lead to.

Associate Degree in Education

Associate degrees in education are for those who want to work in areas such as early childhood education, career and technical education (CTE), or as a paraprofessional or aide. It’s also a good degree option for those who are considering a career in education but don’t want to spend time and money on a bachelor’s degree until they’re sure it’s the right fit for them. You might also be able to save money by getting an associate degree before entering a four-year program. Credits earned in associate programs can often be transferred to four-year programs, and associate courses are typically less expensive than bachelor’s classes.

Associate degree types include Associate in Arts (A.A.), Associate in Science (A.S.), and Associate in Applied Science (A.A.S.). All can lead to careers, but A.A.S. focuses on immediately entering the workforce, while the others better prepare you for future education.

Bachelor’s Degree in Education

Bachelor’s degrees in education are for people who want to become teachers or begin a path toward educational leadership. These degrees often have a general education focus—elementary, middle school, or high school education, for instance—though you can find some in narrower fields. They prepare you for becoming a full-time classroom teacher. Coursework includes theoretical and practical training and licensure exam preparation. You will also participate in student teaching.

Bachelor’s degree types include, but aren’t limited to, Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Bachelor of Science (B.S.), and Bachelor of Arts or Science in Education (B.A.Ed. and B.A.Ed.), among others. These degrees can lead directly to the classroom or prepare you for further education.

Master’s Degree in Education

Master’s degrees in education can serve different purposes. At their core, they allow teachers to further specialize or increase their knowledge and abilities. However, they can also allow teachers to switch areas of instruction or prepare those with bachelor’s in other subjects for careers in education. With this degree, you can frequently qualify for leadership roles in school administration, including principals, work in school psychology or counseling, or focus on areas like special education. Additionally, some colleges and universities, especially community colleges, hire people with master’s degrees to serve as adjunct professors.

If you’re going for licensure in a specific topic as part of your master’s program, your school can help you prepare for relevant tests. If your undergraduate degree was in a field other than education, programs usually include student teaching.

Having a master’s degree often results in higher pay than having a bachelor’s degree alone.

Master’s degree types can include Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.), Master in Education (M.Ed.), Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.), and several others. There are also highly specialized master’s degrees, like Master of Music Education.

Doctoral Degree in Education

Doctorates in education are highly specialized degrees that can lead to positions as university professors or administrators, as high-level K–12 administrators like superintendents, or in educational policy. Typical degrees are Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) and Doctor of Education (Ed.D.). Ph.D. students generally plan to work in academia (research, professorship, etc.), while Ed.D. students are interested in more hands-on professions (policy, administration, etc.).

Graduate Teaching Certificate

If you’re a current teacher and want to teach a new area without earning a master’s—such as a current elementary education teacher who would like to be licensed in art education—obtaining a graduate certificate can be a good option. Certificate programs train you in new areas and help you gain endorsements in these areas.

Educational Specialist Degree

As the name suggests, an educational specialist degree (Ed.S.) provides training in a specialized area. You typically need a master’s degree to enroll in an Ed.S. program, as these programs fall between master’s and doctoral levels. However, you don’t need an Ed.S.  to enroll in a doctoral program. Many people with these degrees work with specific populations, such as special education or English as a second language students, or in administration. This degree is also ideal if you want to work in a non-administration educational leadership position, such as functioning as a department head.

Alternative Teaching Certification

Alternative teaching programs are for people who have earned a degree in a different field but want to become teachers. They can frequently be taken online, but student teaching, if required, must be done on-site.

Career and Technical Education Licensure

Career and technical education (CTE) licensure is for those who want to teach a subject area they have worked in, such as agriculture, construction, engineering, or dozens of other fields. Requirements vary by state. In some, you need an associate or higher degree, while others only require work experience before taking any required coursework or exams. Earning this license will only allow you to teach the subject you have experience in. If you want to teach a topic other than the one you have work experience in, you will need to obtain a minimum of a bachelor’s and relevant licensure before you begin.

Online Education Degrees

If you’re looking into online teaching degrees, you’re probably motivated, at least in part, by one of their chief benefits: convenience. While some online teaching degree programs require at least some face time, others are entirely virtual, allowing you to complete your coursework at home. This sort of flexible scheduling is especially important if you’re juggling a family, a job, or both.

What to Look for in an Education Degree Program

To become a teacher, you have to determine not only the type of degree you need but also the best school for you. When deciding which program to attend, consider the following:

Accreditation

In most places, for your degree to be accepted by the state department of education, the college you attend must be accredited. Accreditation indicates that the school has met the high standards required by the accrediting agency. The accreditation agency must be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE); if it’s not, you may have trouble getting financing or being accepted in another degree program.

The DOE has a searchable database of accredited schools so you can verify accreditation before enrolling. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) also recognizes particular accrediting agencies, and having their stamp of approval as well is a plus. Although there are many accrediting organizations, the following are six widely-recognized regional accrediting agencies:

Cost

When looking at schools, consider how much you can afford—now and down the line. Make sure to factor in not just tuition costs but also any fees you may need to pay and things like on-campus living costs. Thoroughly research all your financial aid options, including any scholarships offered by the institution or outside organizations.

Location

Consider whether your college is in a place you would like to live. If there aren’t any institutions in your desired location, you can opt to learn online in many cases.

Match With Your Preferred Field

After determining what you want to teach, find a school that will help you achieve your goals. While most colleges offer degrees in general subject areas, like elementary or secondary education, you can find a school that offers specific training in any subject, from science to theatre.

Alignment With Your Needs

Needs go beyond degree name and cost. For example, if you currently work full time, it may be best to find a school that allows you to study part-time or online. If you hope to work in a diverse school, find an institution with a heavy focus on multicultural education.

Overall Quality

This broad category includes things like the view the public has of the institution, availability of career assistance resources, aptitude and reputation of instructors, job placement percentage after graduation, and the reviews from current and former students. Much of this information can be found directly on schools’ sites or through a web search. However, the best resource may be the school itself. There is no such thing as a stupid question when it comes to your future, so talk at length with representatives from the college—and especially from their education department—before enrolling.