Educators and education administrators can choose from among several master’s degree options. The Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and the Master of Science in Teaching (MST) help teachers augment their skills, boost their earning potential, or transition into specialty roles. Then there is the Master of Education (MEd; at some schools, a Master of Science in Education (MSEd)).
The MEd is probably the most versatile (and consequently the most confusing) graduate degree option for education professionals. It’s often viewed as the master’s in education for teachers who want to transition out of the classroom. However, as you’ll discover below, many Master of Education programs focus on classroom management, student engagement, learning theories, pedagogy, and models of instruction. Some MEd programs even lead to licensure. There can be no doubt that a Master of Education is a viable alternative to an MAT or MST.
If you’re thinking you can’t swing pursuing a Master of Education at a good school, think again. Online master’s in education programs are common; colleges and universities, including those atop the rankings, understand that most teachers can’t take a year or two off work to earn a master’s degree. Most of these online programs are similar—or identical—to on-campus programs. The degrees conferred by these programs typically don’t indicate whether a student studied online or on-campus.
In this article, we look at what sets the strongest online master’s in education programs apart, and cover:
The Master of Education is a graduate-level degree, but it might be better described as a graduate degree pathway. Unlike MAT and MST programs—which focus almost entirely on advanced pedagogic skills—MEd programs are concentration-based and subject-specific.
There are as many master’s in education programs for educators looking to transition into related fields like educational administration, curriculum design, instructional technology, educational consulting, or school counseling as there are programs designed for teachers who want to spend their careers in the classroom.
Other programs narrow their focus on a single area. The School of Education at American University, for example, offers its online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership only.
Master of Education programs attract teachers, administrators, specialists, consultants, and other education professionals. Some states require teachers to earn master’s-level education degrees to maintain licensure or meet continuing education requirements. However, many teachers pursue master’s degrees for other reasons: they want to become better elementary, middle school, or high school teachers, and/or earn more money.
Other students in MEd programs are there because they want to transition into other roles related to education. If you want to become an educational psychologist, literacy specialist, curriculum designer, a vice principal or principal, or a curriculum consultant, an MEd can help you achieve your goal.
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. (
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. ( )
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The number one reason students choose online MEd programs is flexibility. Online master’s in education programs help people earn graduate degrees when they need to continue working while studying, have children or elderly relatives to care for, or there are no colleges or universities with MEd programs nearby. Some students choose online degree programs because those programs allow them to enroll in prestigious schools far from home or choose particular, career-boosting concentrations.
Some online education degree programs are more affordable than on-campus programs, and some have more relaxed admissions requirements. However, just because a master’s in education program is delivered online doesn’t mean it will cost less or let more people in. Online MEd programs at top colleges and universities can cost a lot and tend to be extremely selective.
The good news is that a master’s degree is a master’s degree—especially in education, where it’s common for teachers, administrators, and other professionals to pursue degrees online. “Employers care that you have the degree and that you have the knowledge – they don’t care if you got it online,” special education teacher Patricia Samuels told U.S. News & World Report in an article about what employers think about online master’s degrees in education.
Because most colleges and universities offer multiple MEd specializations, it’s not easy to summarize the master’s in education curriculum. Typically, core courses in MEd programs vary by concentration and specialization area. However, at some schools, students across concentrations complete similar or identical core coursework related to educational theories, educational policies, school leadership, and data evaluation.
The takeaway is that every MEd program is different. Never make assumptions about what completing a master’s in education program will entail. Different MEd tracks at the same school and similarly named MEd tracks at two different schools can differ widely in required coursework.
The only way to know what the curriculum looks like for a specific MEd program is to look up its course list. Read program guides especially carefully if you’re looking for online Master of Education programs that can help you get a teaching license or endorsements. A program offered in one state may not fulfill the licensure or endorsement requirements of another, so always double-check with your state’s department of education before enrolling.
The top master’s in education programs allow students to choose from a broad range of MEd concentrations and specializations. The same is true of the top online MEd programs. That’s good because it means students don’t have to compromise. Chances are they will find a Master of Education program that aligns closely with their personal and professional goals.
On the other hand, it does mean that finding the right online master’s in education program can take longer. There are a lot of MEd concentrations, and they can seem quite similar upon first glance. Examples of common master’s in education concentrations include:
According to U.S. News & World Report, excellent online master’s in education programs can be found at:
Be aware that the programs at the schools above are designed to meet the needs of students with varying career goals. Some are for licensed teachers already working in public school districts, while others are for students pursuing teaching licenses. Be sure you meet the enrollment requirements (e.g., bachelor’s degree, GPA, GRE scores, etc.) before applying, and that degree programs you’re applying to will help you achieve your goals.
Consider reputation when choosing an MEd program. In the article cited earlier, Catherine Horn, associate education professor at the University of Houston, says that “we’re still in a space where the institution granting the online degree continues to have some sway in at least its perceived value.” There are some colleges and universities that will automatically make your resume stand out.
Internship and fieldwork support tends to be robust in the top online MEd programs. Some programs help students who aren’t teachers and can’t complete fieldwork in their own classrooms find paid internships or other experiential learning opportunities. These students receive financial support and graduate with significant hands-on experience that makes it easier to find full-time employment.
The best programs also offer students opportunities to participate in research. This is important considering that some MEd students are preparing for careers in academia, research, and policy. Some even send students to seminars and conferences to start building their networks and making the kinds of professional connections that create future opportunities.
It’s hard to pin down the average cost of online master’s in education programs. Colleges and universities with online MEd programs may charge anywhere from less than $400 per credit to more than $1,400 per credit. You might assume that the best online master’s in education programs would be the most expensive, but happily, that’s not the case. Most of the top programs in the United States charge around $500 per credit hour. That’s not cheap, but it’s also not MBA-level expensive, either. You’ll probably pay somewhere between $20,000 and $40,000 for a Master of Education. The least expensive school on the list above is Utah State. The priciest is VCU.
Most online degree programs are just as rigorous as traditional on-campus programs and require students to complete the same coursework over the same timeframe. Sometimes studying online can be more challenging than taking classes on campus because you need to be self-motivated and extremely good at managing your time.
These aren’t the only pros and cons you should consider when looking into online master’s in education programs, however. On the pro side, you’ll usually earn the exact same degree as students who study on campus, and your future employers won’t know you were a distance learner unless you decide to tell them. If you choose to tell them, chances are good they won’t care.
Most online MEd programs are designed to be flexible, which means you can keep working while enrolled. And teachers with graduate degrees earn anywhere from $1,400 to $11,000 more than those without, and it doesn’t matter how they earned those degrees.
On the con side, be aware that some online master’s in education programs may not meet your state’s licensure requirements. If you’re looking at online MEd programs with licensure tracks, be sure those programs meet your state’s requirements before enrolling.
You may also have a challenging time meeting internship or practicum requirements if you don’t already have your own classroom when enrolled in an online program based in another state. These cons can be easily mitigated by reading program guides and state regulations carefully before choosing a school to ensure you’re getting the education you need.
It can, but not every online MEd program has a teacher licensure track. Some programs assume students are already licensed and programs designed to prepare students to take on roles in education that don’t require licensure, like administrative jobs and jobs in curriculum development. Online master’s in education programs with teacher certification tracks typically have content and fieldwork built into the curriculum designed to support students as they meet the initial licensure requirements.
However, don’t automatically assume that an MEd with a concentration related to teaching will have a licensure track. Many master’s degree programs for teachers only admit applicants who already have a teaching certificate. That’s because they are designed to help certified teachers get endorsements in specialty areas of education like literacy, music, English as a Second Language, and working with students with severe special needs.
The bottom line is that there are both licensure and non-licensure master’s level teaching degrees that can help you become a better teacher or make the transition out of the classroom into other areas of education. The key to finding the right one for you is doing your research. Make sure you’ll get what you need out of an online master’s in education program, whether that’s a teaching license, an endorsement, or the qualifications necessary to make a career switch.
This article was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most recent data on the subject.
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