What a Master's in Elementary Education Salary Boost Really Looks Like
March 10, 2021
Getting an MAT or an MEd in Elementary Ed can increase your earning potential, but only one of these degrees will turn you into a top education earner.
If you always dreamed of spending your career in an elementary school classroom and you're thinking about getting a master's degree, you may be leaning toward a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT). It's definitely a smart choice for educators who love being in front of students. It might not be the best choice, however, if your dreams also include earning more than the average teacher salary.
An MAT can take your professional development to the next level and boost your earning potential in the classroom. A Master of Education in Elementary Education, or MEd, on the other hand, will increase your earning potential just as much if you stick with teaching and will open doors to even higher-paying opportunities in school administration, curriculum design, and educational consulting.
Choosing between these two masters in elementary education pathways can be tough. It's good to have options, but if you're not entirely sure where you want to be in five or ten or twenty years, should you focus on enhancing your teaching chops or on building up your leadership skills?
As you mull over your options, consider how each degree will impact your salary now and in the future. Both degrees provide a salary boost, but only the MEd confers the skills and knowledge you'll need to transition out of teaching. Teachers with master's degrees are paid more than teachers with bachelor's degrees, but elementary school administrators are paid even more.
In this article about how degree type affects master's in elementary education salary, we cover:
- What is a master's in elementary education?
- Is it possible to teach in an elementary school without a master's degree?
- Do elementary education teachers with master's degrees earn more?
- Where can I find the top master's in elementary education programs?
- Will I earn more if I attend a top MAT or MEd program?
- Do teachers with MAT degrees earn more than teachers with MEd degrees?
- Are there any downsides to earning a master's in elementary education?
What is a master's in elementary education?
The master's in elementary education isn't a degree, but rather a category of degrees designed for educators who specialize in working with children in kindergarten through fifth or sixth grade. What is the purpose of degrees explicitly targeted to these grade levels?
Unlike teachers in middle schools and high schools (who typically specialize in one or two subjects), elementary school teachers have to be the ultimate generalists. On top of teaching reading, writing, math, science, and social studies, they also teach manners, good citizenship, empathy, and hygiene. Teachers in K, first-, and second-grade classrooms teach their students how to learn while sometimes standing in for parents when knees get scraped or bathroom accidents happen.
There are actually three degree options for educators who want to dive deeper into elementary ed: the Master of Science (MS) in Elementary Education, the Master of Arts in Teaching in Elementary Education, and the Master's in Education in Elementary Education.
- MS in Elementary Education programs are for licensed teachers with bachelor's degrees in education who want new skills and strategies they can use in the classroom. They might study assessment strategies, curriculum development, and educational technology.
- MAT in Elementary Education programs typically serve aspiring teachers who don't yet have their teaching licenses and want to transition into the classroom. These programs cover fundamental teaching methods and nearly always culminate in a full-time student teaching experience.
- MEd programs for elementary-level educators are usually designed for teachers who want to transition out of the classroom into administrative or leadership positions in education. MEd students often have their eye on the principal's chair.
Is it possible to teach in an elementary school without a master's degree?
In many states, you can become an elementary school teacher without earning any of the above degrees. All states require public school teachers in grades K through 5 to have at least a bachelor's degree in elementary education (and pass the PRAXIS exams or state exams) to get a teaching license, but only some require educators at the elementary level to earn a master's degree. In those states, you may need to have a master's degree to get a teaching license; or you may be required to earn a master's degree in elementary education within a certain number of years of launching your career to maintain your licensure. The easiest way to find out what the requirements are in your state is to reach out to your state's Board of Education.
There are some compelling reasons to look into master's degrees programs for teachers, even if your state doesn't require you to have one. Higher teacher salaries are one, as you'll see below, but there are others. The responses in one Quora thread that asked 'Is a graduate degree in elementary education worth it?' illustrate how varied the benefits of having a master's degree can be:
- "Having that credential on your resume will get you noticed and interviewed more than a candidate without it, so if you're just starting your teaching career (looking for a job), it would be a good thing to have."
- "I overestimated my preparedness for teaching… It was only after I had a classroom [and] struggled with the learning difficulties of real students that I had the urgent need to figure out how to teach better. My graduate courses were very important to me."
- "I am still connected with [my graduate school classmates] today and some have led me to new opportunities. It's fun to be learning around other people with the same passion and interest."
- "[My program had] an emphasis on fieldwork, so I felt more prepared when I started teaching. I also felt like the program helped me understand my students better."
Do elementary education teachers with master's degrees earn more?
Teachers with master's degrees almost always earn more than their colleagues with bachelor's degrees. In the first year after graduation, a teacher with an MAT, MEd, or MS earns about $2,800 more on average.
Once that teacher reaches the top of their earning potential, chances are they'll be earning $7,000 to $10,000 more than they would have if they hadn't earned a master's degree. There are some districts that don't base teacher salaries on education level, but not that many: 88 percent of large districts do offer additional pay to teachers who hold master's degrees.
Where can I find the top master's in elementary education programs?
US News and World Report publishes annual lists of the best elementary teacher education programs. According to the site, the top master's degrees programs for K-through-fifth-grade educators can be found at the following schools:
- Ohio State University (Main Campus)
- Michigan State University
- Stanford University
- Teachers College at Columbia University
- University of Georgia
- University of Michigan - Ann Arbor
- University of Virginia (Main Campus)
- University of Wisconsin - Madison
- Vanderbilt University
Will I earn more if I attend a top MAT or MEd program?
You may earn more if you graduate from a top master's in elementary education program, but only if you're transitioning into administration or other roles outside the classroom. In administration, a master's degree from a high-ranking school may allow you to negotiate for a higher salary, and you'll almost certainly be able to command a higher salary in consulting with a degree from a top school.
Teacher salaries, on the other hand, are frequently determined by state budgets, so chances are your paycheck will look the same whether you earn a teaching degree from Stanford University or a small local university. Having a big name college or university on your resume might help you land interviews. Still, licensure should be a more important consideration than prestige when you're looking at MAT programs.
Always look for reputable degree programs in the state where you teach (or plan to teach) or schools with programs that support interstate licensing reciprocity. The online MAT program at American University, for example, has licensure reciprocity in 47 states, making it a good option for students from almost anywhere.
Do teachers with MAT degrees earn more than teachers with MEd degrees?
Earning any education-focused master's degree typically results in a pay bump for elementary school teachers who decide to stay in the classroom. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that grade school teachers with master's degrees can earn about 28 percent more than their colleagues with bachelor's degrees. The highest-paid elementary ed teachers can earn close to $100,000, though there's no guarantee that you'll make it into that 10 percent just because you have an MAT or an MEd. Your earning potential in the classroom will likely be the same whether you choose a Master of Arts in Teaching program or a Master of Education Program.
If you're not sure you want to spend your career in the classroom, an MEd in Elementary Education is the better choice. It will increase your earning potential if you do stay in teaching and give you the qualifications you'll need to transition into higher-paying roles like:
- Assistant Principal ($86,000)
- Curriculum Designer ($75,000)
- District Administrator ($73,000)
- Principal ($107,000)
- Vice Principal ($88,000)
You can also make the leap into leadership in fields like education policy and textbook publishing or become an education consultant with an MEd. In a consulting role, you can earn $75,000 or more right out of graduate school depending on your area of specialization and how much you charge.
Are there any downsides to earning a master's in elementary education?
Surprisingly, some educators decide that earning a master's in elementary education isn't worth the expense or time investment. There are a few downsides to getting this particular type of master's degree.
First, having an MAT or MEd in Elementary Education can actually make it more difficult to find work. That's because having a master's degree will make you a more expensive teacher. Teacher salaries are frequently mandated by the district based on education level and experience. It's not unheard of for schools to choose a bachelor's degree holder over a teacher with a master's degree, provided their professional experience is similar.
Next, earning a master's degree in elementary education may limit your future prospects. An MS, MAT, or MEd in Elementary Education will be an asset for as long as you decide to teach in grade schools or work in administration at the elementary level. But what if you think you might want to transition into higher-paying teaching positions at the middle school or high school level? In that case, it may make more sense for you to pursue a Master of Arts in Teaching or a Master of Education in a specific subject, special education, or another concentration with a broad focus.
Finally, the debt you might have to take on can cancel out a master's in elementary education salary boost—at least for a while. You can't bank on your district paying for your master's degree in teaching. Some states and districts fund graduate school for teachers who commit to teaching in underserved districts, but most don't. Chances are you'll be financing your master's in elementary education yourself, so think carefully about how much debt you currently have and how much more you're willing to take on before enrolling in a master's degree program.
If you're sure you want to spend your career in elementary education, however, these potential downsides may not matter much. Most states and districts pay teachers and administrators with master's degrees more, and having a graduate degree will almost always be an asset. How much more you can earn with a master's in elementary education will depend on the state you teach in, the district's budget, and how many years of experience you have. A graduate degree will initially give teachers with the most experience the most substantial salary boost, but it's essential to think in terms of lifetime earning potential when deciding whether to get a master's degree in teaching.
The fact is that as you rack up experience in grade school classrooms or in administrative positions, you'll eventually hit a point where you're earning more than you would have been able to earn with only a bachelor's degree. You probably didn't go into teaching at the K-5 level to get rich, but that doesn't mean you have to settle for less where your paycheck is concerned. The jury is still out on whether a having a master's degree can make you a better teacher. It's almost certain, though, that having a graduate degree will make you a better-paid one.
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