Educational Leadership & Policy

Is a Master’s in Education Policy and Leadership Worth It?

Is a Master’s in Education Policy and Leadership Worth It?
Some programs require—or at least strongly prefer—a background in education. However, you'll find that you can still become an effective education leader even if you're coming from a different field. Successful students have come from backgrounds in nonprofit, government, policy and more. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry December 3, 2019

You're comfortable teaching, but have you thought of broadening your scope to help more than just the students in your classroom? Some educators pursue a master's in education policy and leadership because they want to maximize their earning potential. Still, a boost in pay isn't the only reason to earn this degree.

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You’ve seen the impact you have on your students, and you’ve started to wonder whether you can broaden that impact by working with entire schools, or entire districts, or even at the state level. You’ll need additional qualifications to move into a role that makes that sort of work possible.

That’s why you’ve been considering a master’s in education policy and leadership. Yes, other graduate programs can qualify you to step into administration and advocacy roles, but few are as laser-focused on specific areas of educational leadership and/or policy.

Maybe you’ve already started looking at the leadership- and policy-focused M.Ed. programs at schools like American University, New York University, Tulane University, or the University of Pennsylvania just to see what the curriculum looks like and how much they cost.

We’ll look at the curricula of these degree programs later, but first, let’s discuss cost. There’s no denying that master’s degree programs across disciplines cost money. Unfortunately, there are also some jobs in education that you just cannot get without a master’s—including many leadership and policy positions. That means that when you’re thinking about whether an M.Ed. in Policy and Leadership is worth it, you simply cannot look at cost alone.

Cost should be one factor in your decision, but you also need to consider whether and how having this degree will open doors, boost your earning potential, and make it possible for you to achieve your most ambitious dreams.

In this article about whether a master’s in education policy and leadership is worth it, we’ll cover:

  • Who the master’s in education policy and leadership is for
  • What you’ll study in a master’s in education policy and leadership program
  • The commitment required to earn a master’s in education policy and leadership
  • The cost to earn a master’s in education policy and leadership
  • What specific jobs will this degree qualify you for?
  • Is a master’s in education policy and leadership the right degree for me?

Who the master’s in education policy and leadership is for

This is a degree for teachers who want to transform education for the better, full stop. Teachers, policymakers and education professionals who seek this kind of expansive and transformative change often pursue master’s in education policy and leadership degrees.

Some programs require—or at least strongly prefer—a background in education. However, you’ll find that you can still become an effective education leader even if you come from a different field. Successful students have backgrounds in nonprofit, government, policy and more. The common factor among all education policy and leadership students is their passion for education and their willingness to put in the work to provide better outcomes for students.

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The students in part-time and full-time education policy master’s programs are optimists who believe they can make education better on a grand scale. They acknowledge the current education system in the United States is fraught with problems, but they don’t view any of those problems as insurmountable. They’re pursuing master’s degrees in education policy because they’ve dreamed of transforming their districts, improving on the ways students are taught across the entire state, or even driving sweeping education reform at the federal level. (source)

Universities offer so many degrees fitting for this category. At some universities, a Master of Education Policy or Master of Education Leadership program covers all the same subject matter as an M.Ed in Education Policy and Leadership. Others call this degree a Master of Education in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies; Master’s in Educational Leadership & Policy; Master of Education in Education Policy, Organization & Leadership; or a Master of Arts in Education Policy and Leadership. The only way to know whether the leadership and policy master’s program at a particular school is worth it is to look at the curriculum and the school’s job placement data. Make sure the curriculum supports your unique career goals and that the degree sufficiently impresses employers. (source)

University and Program Name Learn More

What you’ll study in a master’s in education policy and leadership program

While curricula may vary depending on the school and program, every education policy program covers certain fundamentals. Your program of study will likely include coursework in:

  • Data analysis
  • Decision-making
  • Economics
  • Educational policy
  • Legal issues and education
  • Organizational planning
  • Policy analysis
  • Public policy
  • Professional development and leadership
  • Research methods
  • School finance

The rest of your courses may be specific to your chosen concentration. Concentrations (sometimes called tracks) can be as diverse as:

  • Diversity and equity in education
  • Educational leadership
  • Global studies in education
  • Higher education administration
  • Human resource development
  • Learning design and leadership
  • Philosophy of education
  • Policy studies
  • Pre-K-12 administration
  • Social sciences and education policy

These various academic tracks train tomorrow’s educational leaders, whether they aspire to become administrators or policy creators, but the curricula in each can be very different. Some M.Ed in Education Policy and Leadership students focus on curriculum design and educational coaching. Others emphasize legal issues in special education and inequality in higher education.

A master’s in education policy and leadership is a highly customizable degree. For example, American University’s program includes two elective slots among its ten-course curriculum. Students may even choose courses outside the School of Education; so long as the subject matter relates to education policy and leadership, you can incorporate it into your master’s study.

As you look at the curriculum of each program, think about whether you’re actually interested in the required core classes and electives and whether they’re relevant to your career aspirations. A program that bores you or won’t give you the skills and knowledge you need to meet your goals, no matter how convenient or inexpensive, will never be worth it.

The cost to earn a master’s in education policy and leadership

According to government data, the average cost of tuition in all master’s programs was just under $20,000 per year in 2020-21. At public institutions, that figure falls to around $12,000; it increases to over $26,500 at private institutions.

There are ways to pay for your degree other than taking out loans. Some employers offer tuition reimbursement (never hurts to ask), and some states have programs in place to help teachers earn master’s degrees. There are institutional scholarships and other financial aid options available for students pursuing master’s degrees in education. For example, American University’s M.Ed Education Policy and Leadership degree offers a 29 percent tuition discount to Teach for America participants. Third-party grants and scholarships are also available; sometimes it just takes a little extra leg work to find them. Additionally, schools may offer teaching or research assistantships.

The commitment required to earn a master’s in education policy and leadership

Barring any complications, you can complete this degree in less than two years. Some programs can even be completed in one year (regardless of whether you already hold a master’s degree in teaching) if you enroll full-time. Most universities appreciate that working teachers do not have lots of disposable time to commit to a degree. As a result, most master’s in education programs are fairly condensed. They usually only require students to complete about 30 credits. There are even flexible online programs that can be completed in 20 or so months. The takeaway: you don’t have to give up your career to earn this degree.

What specific jobs will this degree qualify you for?

Education policy is a multidisciplinary field that can qualify you to work as an administrator, education expert in government, nonprofit, and private agencies, lobbyist, curriculum designer, advisor in legislative and legal settings, or analyst.

Here are a few of the job titles open to those who hold a master’s in education policy and leadership:

  • Education policy analyst: As an education policy analyst, you’ll identify challenges, research mandated education policies, analyze their effectiveness, and lobby for more effective laws related to education. In other words, you’ll be responsible for seeing problems and finding workable solutions. In this role, you will work with not only teachers and administrators, but also lobbyists, lawyers, politicians, and special interest groups. What you won’t do is make a lot more money. The average salary for a mid-level education policy analyst is $63,000, according to PayScale.
  • Director of education policy: As a director of education policy, you’ll work for a university, state agency, or school board to develop policies and legislative agendas that make it easier to meet the needs of students in public and private educational settings. In this role, you will need to have a solid understanding of K-12 or higher education policies, your state’s policies related to education, and the legislative process. The average director of education policy salary is about $130,000.
  • Education administrator, elementary and secondary education: Obtaining a master’s of education can open doors to higher level administration positions in your school. It could also open the way to becoming a vice principal or principal (each state has its own requirements, so check with your state’s Department of Education for further information). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, education administrators with a master’s degree earn 44 percent more than bachelor’s degree holders.
  • Higher education administrator: As an administrator at the higher education level, you’ll manage a specific department at a school or work on behalf of a specific student population. You’ll serve as a liaison among faculty members, administration, and students. You may also be responsible for developing new curricula, overseeing fundraising initiatives, creating or signing off on budgets, and even processing student complaints. The average college administrator salary is about $64,000, according to PayScale.
  • Instructional coordinator: As an instructional coordinator, you’ll help district administrators define, implement, maintain, and assess academic standards. In this role, you may also help create new curricula and instructional tools. Many instructional coordinators work in the public K-12 school system or in higher education, but some find employment in government agencies and external academic services like tutoring networks. The BLS reports that the average instructional coordinator salary is about $64,000, even though coordinator positions typically require many years of experience.
  • Non-profit program director: Many people with a degree in education policy choose to work in education nonprofit and advocacy. Nonprofit organizations often work directly with students in vulnerable populations, influence change from a grassroots level, and help provide positive change to those who need it most. According to Salary.com, the average non-profit program director’s salary is $123,000.
  • Senior learning and development specialist: People in this position evaluate needs of students, teachers or employees and create specialized content to meet certain learning goals and expectations. The average salary is $112,000, according to Comparably.

Master’s in education policy and leadership holders also work outside the school system, in national nonprofits concerned with education, policy think tanks, and government agencies. With this degree, you can follow a variety of very different career pathways.

Is a master’s in education policy and leadership the right degree for me?

One of the biggest challenges in answering this question is that universities offer so many degrees fitting this category. At some universities, a Master of Education Policy or Master of Education Leadership program covers all the same subject matter as an M.Ed in Education Policy and Leadership. Others call this degree a Master of Education in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies; Master’s in Educational Leadership & Policy; Master of Education in Education Policy, Organization & Leadership; or a Master of Arts in Education Policy and Leadership. Columbia University even offers two degrees in this area: a 33-credit MA and a 60-credit M.Ed.

The only way to know whether the leadership and policy master’s program at a particular school is worth it is to look at the curriculum and the school’s job placement data. Make sure the curriculum supports your unique career goals and that the degree sufficiently impresses employers.

Chances are good that you will be able to find a program that will qualify you for the work you hope to do. Once you have this degree, you’ll be ready to tackle the significant policy issues like:

  • Effecting school improvement across student populations
  • Getting chronically underperforming schools the resources they need
  • Making sure underprivileged and minority students have equality of education
  • Removing the roadblocks that drive teachers out of the field

In the process, you’ll make a bit more money. The average elementary school teacher salary is about $61,000 per year. High school teachers may earn a bit more. As an administrator or policymaker, you’ll earn more than that, but maybe not a lot more. If you pursue this track, you’ll likely be driven more by your passion for the work than the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

We all know that education isn’t the most lucrative field, but it can be one of the most rewarding. If you’re seriously passionate about education and improving the experiences of students across the US, a master’s in education can help you do that on a much bigger scale than you previously could.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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