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Guide to Online Teaching Degrees

Michael McCarthy

Written By: Mike McCarthy

Published: 4/7/2022

The country always needs teachers, and many colleges offer education and teaching degrees to satisfy that need. The goal of these programs is to prepare you for a teaching career by completing coursework in pedagogy, developmental psychology, and educational technology. You'll also take classes in the subjects you intend to teach. As a prospective student, you can select from a variety of traditional or online education degrees, giving you choice in what and how you learn. Below, we give information that may help you as a candidate for an education degree at any level.

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Types of Teaching Degrees

Teaching degrees come in many forms, from bachelor's degrees to doctorates in education. They may feature a curriculum tailored to early childhood learners, special education or general K-6 students, or middle and high school students. Below is a breakdown of the types of education degrees you can pursue.

Associate degrees in education may qualify graduates to work in a classroom in several capacities, such as a teacher's aide, preschool teacher, or substitute teacher. An associate program also builds a foundation for a bachelor's degree if you choose to continue your studies.

A bachelor's in education is the minimum credential required to become a non-substitute K-12 teacher. Faculty design most bachelor's programs to lead to certification in the state where they're offered.

Master's degrees in education features advanced pedagogical coursework and may grant teachers an extra credential to improve their salary and employment prospects. A special type of master's degree, called a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT), is intended for students who earned a bachelor's in a subject other than education. MATs cover much of the same curricula as an education bachelor's degree and typically lead to certification.

Doctoral degrees in education come in two varieties: a PhD or a Doctor of Education (EdD). PhDs are research-oriented and best suited for enrollees who want to be professors of education. EdDs are professional doctorates for teachers who want to enter the administrative field.

At the bachelor's level, education degrees can take the form of a bachelor of education (BEd), bachelor of arts (BA), or bachelor of science (BA). Similarly, a master's degree may be called a master of education (MEd), master of arts (MA), or master of science (MS). The differences are usually minimal between programs of the same level, though colleges may designate a degree with a science or math focus as a BS or MS and one with an English or social studies focus as a BA or MA.

You only need a high school diploma to enroll in an associate or bachelor's program. For most education master's degrees, you must hold a bachelor's diploma in education. An MAT is the exception to this rule, because these programs are designed for people with no teaching background. Doctoral programs typically require a master's degree and some professional teaching experience — unlike some disciplines, it's rare that a doctoral program in education will accept a candidate who doesn't hold a master's.

Interested in learning about similar programs? Explore online degrees in child development, human services, and school counseling.

What Do You Learn in an Education Program?

Teacher education program curricula vary by school, specialty, age of students taught, and degree level. The following table breaks down what's required to enroll in and complete several types of in-person or online education degrees. Costs refer to the 2019-2020 school year, which is the latest year for which the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has data.

  • Full-Time Program Length

    One year (20-25 credit hours)

  • Common Concentrations

    • Early childhood education
    • Special education
  • Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or GED

  • Average Annual Cost of Tuition & Fees

    $3,800 at two-year public schools (most certificate programs are offered by these institutions)

  • Full-Time Program Length

    Two years (60 credit hours)

  • Common Concentrations

    • Early childhood education
    • Elementary education
    • Special education
  • Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or GED

  • Average Annual Cost of Tuition & Fees

    $3,800 at two-year public schools

  • Full-Time Program Length

    Four years (120 credit hours)

  • Common Concentrations

    • Early childhood education
    • Elementary education
    • Reading and literacy instruction
    • Middle school education
    • Secondary education
    • Special education
  • Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or GED, usually with minimum 2.5 GPA

  • Average Annual Cost of Tuition & Fees

    • Public: $9,400
    • Private non-profit: $36,700
    • Private for-profit: $19,100
MEd, MA, or MS
  • Full-Time Program Length

    Two years (30-36 credit hours)

  • Common Concentrations

    • Elementary education
    • Middle school education
    • Secondary education
    • Mathematics
    • Science
    • English as a second language
  • Admission Requirements

    Bachelor's degree in education, often with minimum 3.0 GPA

  • Average Annual Cost of Tuition & Fees

    • Public: $12,410
    • Private non-profit: $28,430
    • Private for-profit: $14,289
  • Full-Time Program Length

    One or two years (30-36 credit hours)

  • Common Concentrations

    Usually none — these are condensed programs without much space for specialization

  • Admission Requirements

    Bachelor's degree in any subject except education, often with minimum 3.0 GPA

  • Average Annual Cost of Tuition & Fees

    • Public: $12,410
    • Private non-profit: $28,430
    • Private for-profit: $14,289
  • Full-Time Program Length

    Three years

  • Common Concentrations

    • Educational psychology
    • Educational leadership
    • Rural education
    • Special education
    • Urban education
  • Admission Requirements

    Master's degree in education — often with minimum 3.0-3.2 GPA — and some teaching experience

  • Average Annual Cost of Tuition & Fees

    • Public: $12,410
    • Private non-profit: $28,430
    • Private for-profit: $14,289
  • Full-Time Program Length

    Variable, often between four and six years

  • Common Concentrations

    Usually none — students specialize based on dissertation topics rather than coursework

  • Admission Requirements

    Master's degree in education — often with minimum 3.0-3.2 GPA — and some teaching experience

  • Average Annual Cost of Tuition & Fees

    • Public: $12,410
    • Private non-profit: $28,430
    • Private for-profit: $14,289

Common Curriculum

Education degree curricula can differ significantly by degree level and specialization. However, programs of similar type often have some courses and desired learning outcomes in common. We've included examples of these below to give a flavor for what you might encounter in various teaching degree programs.

Certificates include only the courses you need to earn a credential in a focus area, such as special education.

Associate degrees introduce concepts such as curriculum design and instructional technology. Depending on a program's concentration, you may take courses on developmental psychology or common issues in special education.

Bachelor's degrees seek to make you into a licensed teacher through more advanced pedagogy courses, classes in your chosen subject, classroom observation, and student teaching. They also include about 60 credits of general education and liberal arts courses to round out your education.

Master's degrees contain about half subject-area classes and half professional teaching education courses. These programs typically end with a capstone course where you present the results of a research project. An experienced educator will also observe your classroom if you're a working teacher. If you're an MAT student, you'll take many of the same pedagogy courses as undergraduates and begin student teaching in the latter half of the program, with the goal of quickly becoming a knowledgeable teacher.

Doctoral degrees differ by type. EdD courses focus on practical application of education theory, especially in your chosen specialization. PhD programs feature research-heavy classes that emphasize theory as well as both qualitative and quantitative methods of collecting data. All PhD candidates write lengthy dissertations, but only some EdD students do. As an EdD candidate, you may instead create a dissertation in practice — applying research practices to a practical situation at your school and analyzing the results.

Can You Get a Teaching Degree Online?

You can find online education degrees at all levels and at both private and public institutions. Education departments usually design these programs to fulfill all local requirements for teaching licenses, but it's a good idea to check a college's accreditation status to be safe.

Most distance learning programs feature asynchronous coursework, which means you're not required to attend live sessions. You instead watch recorded lectures, interact in discussion forums, and submit assignments through a learning management system. This format lets you participate at convenient times so you can better balance school with other responsibilities.

You should understand that some schools have classes with synchronous elements, such as live class discussions or mock teaching sessions. In addition, one major component of an education degree isn't online: student teaching. Professors design most master's degrees and EdDs for working teachers and administrators, so students in these programs typically use their own classrooms as their student teaching venue. But as a bachelor's or MAT student, you'll partner with a teacher in your community to teach their classes for a set period.

Learn about the factors that matter most to online students pursuing a college degree.

Teaching Degree Specializations

Young learners come in all varieties and have different educational needs based on their age, background, and physical or mental capability. For this reason, colleges offer teaching degrees with a range of concentrations that allow you to serve special populations. Read on for details of the most common specializations in teaching education.

Early Childhood Education

These programs cover infant and child psychology, early literacy development, the importance of social context, and the family's role in learning. You may also take classes in teaching ethics and topics in special education for pre-K learners.

Elementary Education

Faculty discuss the educational needs of students from kindergarten through sixth grade, including their early forays into reading, math, social studies, and science. Generalist programs typically contain survey classes on special education and English language learners, but you may also choose concentrations in these areas.

Secondary Education

This specialization highlights subject matter expertise: You take many courses in your focus area alongside pedagogy courses to ensure you can transfer this knowledge. Programs also feature courses on emotional and cognitive development during adolescence.

Special Education

Courses in this specialization cover how to assess students' mental and physical abilities, develop individual education plans, and create tailored lessons and activities. Because of the wide range of student backgrounds in special education classrooms, faculty emphasize skills like empathy and adaptability rather than expert knowledge on specific disabilities.

Physical Education

Children and adolescents need to exercise their bodies as well as their minds, and physical education degrees aim to make teachers who can help them do this. Coursework includes lessons on physical development, injury prevention and treatment, assessment techniques, and PE for special education populations.

What Are the Best Colleges for Education Majors?

Education is a popular major, and a large number of schools offer degrees in the discipline. This is good news for you as an applicant, because you have plenty of choice in what and how you study to become a teacher.

Below, we've collected pages from our site that highlight education degrees. Some of these list the most commonly searched schools while others are rankings of the best programs of their type.

Teaching Licensure and Certification

Earning your teacher certification depends on where you live and what you want to teach. In fact, it may even be called "licensure" in some states rather than "certification." Thankfully, the non-profit — a collaboration between Microsoft and the U.S. Department of Education — has a helpful guide to teaching certifications in all areas of the country.

No matter where you live, the traditional path to certification involves a few key steps:

  • Earning a bachelor's or master's degree in education from an accredited institution
  • Passing both a basic skills test and a test of your subject area knowledge
  • Passing a background check

However, you can still seek certification in most areas of the country if you hold a bachelor's diploma in a subject other than education. Most states have created alternative paths to certification that could allow you to start teaching with a provisional certification as long as you commit to educating yourself about the teaching profession. In this case, the state will ask you to earn one of three additional credentials depending on its policy:

  • A certificate of completion from a state-approved teaching academy with a certification program
  • A one-year certificate in education from an accredited college
  • An MAT

Because certification requirements differ by state, you may wonder whether another state will recognize your certification if you decide to move. As with everything else relating to this topic, the answer depends on the states in question. Most states have some level of certification reciprocity, but they might require you to take additional coursework or exams at some point. The Education Commission of the States breaks down reciprocity details by state, so consult this helpful resource if you're considering a move.

What Can You Do With a Teaching Degree?

The obvious answer to this question is that you can become a teacher. But not all teachers have the same experiences, so we give details of several types of teaching below.

Preschool Teachers

Preschool teachers nurture very young minds, introducing children to educational concepts and preparing them for kindergarten. A large part of the job is socializing students to work and play together, which takes patience and a keen knowledge of child psychology and development. Preschool teachers earn median annual wages of $31,930 and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects the job field to grow 18% in the 2020-2030 period. To teach at this level, you'll need a degree with a concentration in early childhood education.

Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers

Kindergarten and elementary school teachers typically educate students aged 5-12. They teach reading, science, social studies, and math using a curriculum that grows more complex the older the students get. The data analytics company Burning Glass Technologies lists communication, collaboration, and organization as some of the top-requested soft skills in job posts for these teachers. They earn median salaries of $60,660 per year and their job outlook is projected at 7% growth through 2030. You can study early childhood or elementary education if this is your chosen path.

Middle School Teachers

Middle school teachers cover seventh and eighth grades, and even sixth grade in many districts. Teachers at this level tend to concentrate on one subject area, such as English or science, because the content is increasingly complex. As with elementary school teachers, many employers request aptitude with communication skills, teamwork, and organization. Middle school educators make median yearly salaries of $60,810 and the BLS projects 7% job growth through 2030.

High School Teachers

High school teachers instruct teenage students in a wide range of subjects, preparing some to enter the workforce and others to continue their education. These teachers may take on additional responsibilities, such as coaching sports teams or advising clubs and student organizations. They earn median wages of $62,870 per year and the field is expected to grow 8% in the 2020-2030 period. You'll need to specialize in a particular subject to teach high school learners, so it's helpful to choose a degree in secondary education with a concentration in teaching that subject.

Special Education Teachers

Special education teachers guide students with mental, physical, or emotional challenges. They can work at any grade level but tend to specialize in one age group. As a special education instructor, you might run your own classroom or work with smaller groups of students who are integrated into other classes but need occasional help. These teachers earn median yearly salaries of $61,500, with only small differences among employees at different grade levels. The BLS projects 8% growth in special education teaching jobs through the end of the decade, and other sources point to a chronic need for qualified special educators across the country.

How To Choose an Education Program

Your degree-selection process is unique because only you can decide what you want in a program. As you weigh various factors, ask yourself the following questions to see if they help your process.

What do I want to teach? Maybe you're interested in early childhood special education, or perhaps you want to continue the legacy of the high school math teacher who inspired you. These career paths involve different choices at the beginning of your higher education journey, so it's useful to think through your goals now.

Do I have professional experience in another field? You might consider one of your state's alternative paths to certification if you hold a bachelor's degree in another discipline and want to switch careers. In this case, you'll most likely pursue either a postgraduate certificate or an MAT.

Is this school regionally accredited? Many colleges seek regional accreditation, which is a sign of approval from an independent organization that speaks to a school's educational quality. Regional accreditation is considered more prestigious than national accreditation because regional agencies tend to have higher academic standards. For this reason, regionally accredited colleges typically don't accept transfer credits from nationally accredited schools.

Is the program accredited? Academic degree programs can also earn accreditation from special review bodies. For education, the relevant organization is the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). You don't necessarily have to graduate from a CAEP-accredited program to earn licensure in all states, but this credential is an extra testament to a degree's quality.

Do I want to study online or in person? You might be convinced that distance learning's flexibility will help you best organize your life, or you may crave the informal interactions of a campus experience. It's best to answer this question early so you only spend time looking at suitable programs.

Is an Education Degree Worth It?

Your goals, interests, and personal circumstances are different from everyone else's, so the real question is whether an education degree is worth it for you. As with any career, this major comes with possible pros and cons, some of which we outline below. Much of the available data is a few years old because the bulk of recent research on teaching and teacher education has focused on COVID-19's effects rather than perennial topics.

If you're specifically considering a graduate degree, check out one expert's opinion on whether an online master's in education is worth it.

Potential Benefits

Education degrees seem to adequately prepare graduates for the teaching profession. Burning Glass data indicates that employers ask for skills that are well-covered in most teacher preparation programs, such as experience with lesson planning and student progress reports.

Data suggests that U.S. teachers are generally satisfied with their jobs. According to the wide-ranging Teaching and Learning International Survey, 90% of respondents said they were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their work.

Math, science, and special education teachers are especially in demand. The Brookings Institution notes that some states even issue "emergency certifications" to cover the gap in qualified teachers. Earning a teaching degree with one of these specializations may improve your marketability.

Potential Drawbacks

Teachers earn relatively low pay, especially at younger grade levels and early in their careers. The median annual salary for teachers as a whole is $48,000, about $12,000 less than the median wage for U.S. employees with a baccalaureate degree. The NCES reports that 55% of teachers are dissatisfied with their pay. In general, private schools pay less than public schools, which may be an additional consideration.

Teacher turnover is highest in high-poverty districts, indicating that even well-intentioned education graduates find these conditions overwhelming. While it's not accurate to say that there's a general teacher shortage nationwide, data does indicate that public school teachers leave their jobs at a steady rate in the neediest rural and urban areas — and school districts have a hard time replacing them.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Degree Do You Need To Be A Teacher?

In some states, you can become a substitute teacher with an associate degree in education. But you need a bachelor's degree and certification to be a full-time teacher anywhere.

How Much Does an Online Teaching Degree Cost?

According to the NCES, undergraduate tuition and fees average $13,360 per year. In addition, graduate degrees have an average annual cost of $19,792. These numbers exclude room and board but include both on-campus and online programs. However, you have several options for saving money on your education. First, you can attend a public college in your state to receive the in-state tuition rate. You can also attend an online program, which is often more affordable than traditional programs without sacrificing positive career outcomes. Finally, you should always apply for all available financial aid — check out some scholarship options in the "Resources for Education Students" section below.

What Is the Easiest Education Degree to Get?

In general, a program that takes less time is easier to complete. Therefore, a one-year certificate is most likely the easiest education credential to get. In terms of subject matter, your skills and abilities determine what you find easy or difficult — for example, you may be a math virtuoso but have no interest in searching for themes in poetry.

How Long Does It Take To Earn a Teaching Degree Online?

You can earn an online bachelor's degree in four years if you study full-time, and this gives you the minimum degree needed to become a certified teacher. In reality, only 41% of undergraduates finish in four years, though this sample is for all bachelor's students and not only those studying online.

Resources for Education Students

Read on for helpful sources of information about education degrees and the teaching profession.

Certification and Licensure
Financial Aid and Scholarships

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