Master’s in Educational Leadership

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Aspiring principals and education administrators often pursue a master’s in educational leadership. Educational leadership programs provide advanced instruction in strategic planning, student affairs, organizational management, financial management, and education-related law. They maintain a core focus on developing strong leadership skills.

Leadership positions offer some of the highest pay rates in the education field.Postsecondary administrators and school principals earn median salaries of more than $95,000 annually. These positions offer much more than just financial rewards, though. Educational leaders help shape the policies and curricula that inspire successive generations of students.

This guide presents detailed information on what degree-seekers can expect from master’s programs in educational leadership.

Why Get an Educational Leadership Master’s?

Educational leadership emerged as a specialized professional track during the 20th century. Initially, these programs catered to active practitioners, providing a professional development forum. As the new millennium approached, educational leadership programs integrated theoretical and practical frameworks from the social sciences, evolving into concentrated learning opportunities for aspiring administrators.

Professionals with educational leadership master’s degrees and doctorates work in multiple settings. Principals and assistant principals work in K-12 schools, and postsecondary institutions employ administrators in many specialized roles. Positions involving educational policy, curricula, and financing typically fall under boards of education.

Historically, education program enrollment increases during prolonged economic downturns, contributing to education’s recession-proof reputation.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), K-12 schools employed more than 283,000 principals in 2019. The nation’s postsecondary network added more than 190,000 administrators to the tally. By 2029, the BLS projects these two fields alone to combine for more than 490,000 positions.

Demand for education remains strong regardless of economic conditions. Historically, education program enrollment increases during prolonged economic downturns, contributing to education’s recession-proof reputation. A master’s in educational leadership offers an essential credential for administrative roles. Bachelor’s degrees in education tend to focus on foundational essentials rather than specialized skills.

Key benefits of earning an educational leadership master’s include:

  • Specialized Focus: Some general education degrees offer courses or concentrations in educational leadership, but dedicated programs go into much more depth and detail. Learners benefit by developing comprehensive, complete skill sets that more closely match professional demands.
  • Experiential Learning: Educational leadership programs allow degree-seekers to “learn by doing” under the tutelage of experienced, successful administrative professionals. Most of them feature optional or required fieldwork practicums, providing invaluable hands-on experience.
  • Sociocultural Competence: Educational leaders need a high level of sociocultural sensitivity for the diverse communities they serve. Specialized programs offer an ideal way to calibrate perspectives that optimize inclusivity.

What To Expect From Master’s Programs in Educational Leadership

Master’s programs in educational leadership typically embrace a foundational core philosophy that defines specific, tangible objectives. The objectives vary, but usually cover leadership styles, instructional design principles, special education integration, and educational technology. Educational leadership degrees equip emerging administrators with the knowledge and tools to apply evidence-based standards and bridge achievement gaps.

A master’s in educational leadership usually takes 1-2 years to complete. Shorter programs often use narrower admission standards and expect incoming learners to possess existing knowledge that justifies the expedited schedule. Two-year programs do not normally presuppose any previous targeted training, and so take longer.

Educational leadership already ranks as a specialized degree, but many institutions also offer more precise concentrations. Examples include K-12, curriculum, special education, and charter or private school leadership. Some schools feature differentiated curricula focused on postsecondary institutions.

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements vary, but most include at least an accredited bachelor’s degree. Some master’s programs accept applicants from all academic backgrounds, but those with non-education-related undergraduate degrees typically require teaching licensure.

GPA cutoffs vary, but usually fall in the 2.75 range or higher for applicants seeking unrestricted admission. Many schools no longer require standardized test scores, but those that do usually request recent GRE scores. Supplementary application materials include personal statements and recommendation letters from authoritative sources familiar with the applicant’s character, potential, and achievements.

Importantly, schools commonly request evidence of prior teaching experience. Some institutions accept classroom observation or student teaching assignments as a substitute for traditional teaching. Applicants without a teaching license benefit from this path of entry. You can learn more by consulting this graduate application guide for teachers.

Degree Options

Most educational leadership master’s programs lead to a master of education (M.Ed.). General designations like the master of arts (MA) and master of science (MS) also apply, with MAs more common than MSs.

MA and MS programs usually feature divergent focuses. MA programs typically place stronger emphasis on qualitative skills, while MS programs emphasize quantitative aspects. Breaking this down further, MA programs highlight details such as:

  • Academic theory
  • Interpersonal proficiencies
  • Organizational management

Meanwhile, MS educational leadership degrees focus more closely on:

  • Applied research
  • Quantitative analysis
  • Results-oriented procedures

All three designations lead to a comparable set of career paths. However, access to specific opportunities may vary depending on the exact job requirements of the position in question. All three degree options fully qualify candidates for entry into education doctoral programs.

Comparing Educational Leadership to Other Education Degrees

Education offers an unusually high number of differentiated learning opportunities. As such, prospective students should consider all available options. Complete due diligence demands a nuanced understanding of how varying education programs prepare students for specific career paths. The table below offers an introductory summary of key comparison points.

Master’s in Educational LeadershipMaster’s in EducationMaster’s in Early Childhood Education
Subjects of FocusOrganizational leadershipCurriculum standards and pedagogical developmentInstitutional policies and procedures, and their impacts on studentsFinancial and human resource managementPublic relations, ethics, and lawCurriculum and classroom instructionDifferentiated instructionStudent assessmentApplying evidence-based research to classroom practicesSimilar to a master’s in education, but with a specific focus on children up to age eight
Educational Background RequirementsBachelor’s degree plus teaching license and/or classroom teaching experienceBachelor’s degreeBachelor’s degree
Career PathsPrincipal, assistant principalSchool board administrationCurriculum developmentDean, provost (postsecondary)Classroom teacherClassroom teacher

Students seeking careers in institutional administration, curriculum development, and other non-classroom-based roles derive more value from educational leadership degrees. Those seeking careers in classroom teaching and other student-facing roles may wish to consider targeted alternatives.

Popular Educational Leadership Degree Courses

Educational leadership programs maintain specific focuses, as determined by core philosophies and pedagogical objectives that vary by institution. Even so, most educational leadership master’s programs feature similar course offerings that develop essential professional proficiencies.

Below, find example core and elective classes included in most master’s in educational leadership programs:

  • Teacher Development

    This required course covers assessing an institution’s existing instructional assets, identifying gaps, and providing targeted training to fill those gaps. Learners explore organizational decision-making and strategies for harnessing individual teachers’ strengths to enhance their positive impact.

  • Financial and Resource Management

    This core course explains the structure of federal, state, and local funding models for public education institutions. Students learn methods for extracting maximum impact from limited financial and human resources. Some programs offer similar electives focused on charter and private education.

  • Institutional Improvement Strategies

    Sometimes a core course, sometimes an elective, this class analyzes the techniques and strategies school leaders use to improve student outcomes, academic performance, and institutional effectiveness.

The Master’s Practicum or Thesis

Master’s in educational leadership programs often end with a culminating experience: a capstone, practicum, or thesis. Learners display their synthesized mastery of program content in a long-form project demanding high levels of academic effort. All three options prompt students to draw on the sum total of their acquired knowledge. Degree-seekers retain high levels of control over the subject matter, which they choose themselves under faculty supervisor guidance.

Differences among the three options derive from respective divergences in academic focus. Capstones involve a more applied, practical orientation than thesis projects, which typically emphasize scholarly research and academic theory.

Some programs build to a practicum experience, where participants engage in fieldwork closely replicating their future professional duties. However, practicums seldom function as standalone requirements. They usually precede the capstone or thesis, with the fieldwork directly informing the major project’s design and area of inquiry.

How Much Will a Master’s in Educational Leadership Cost?

Many factors influence the cost of a master’s in educational leadership. Public schools tend to charge in-state students more affordable tuition rates, while out-of-state learners often pay fees comparable to those at private institutions. Private schools generally charge more, but they maintain flat fees applying to all learners regardless of residency status.

Specific costs remain subject to change, but the most affordable programs start under $4,000 annually. Tuition costs roughly mirror prevailing national graduate program averages. The National Center for Education Statistics reported 2019 yearly averages of $12,171 for public institutions and $25,929 for private institutions.

Actual attendance costs vary, and may include other fees and expenses related to campus facilities, relocation, and transportation. Candidates unable to pay the full cost of attendance should consider forms of aid with no repayment required. Options include scholarships, fellowships, and grants. The links below offer more information about financial aid opportunities.

Financial Aid Overview FAFSA Guide

Jobs for Master’s in Educational Leadership Graduates

Master’s programs in educational leadership lead to both frontline and behind-the-scenes education positions. Many graduates assume highly visible student-facing roles such as principals, assistant principals, and school administrators. Others work in non-institutional settings, developing curricula, instructional materials, and teacher training and development programs.

These roles often require a master’s degree minimally. Many educational leaders hold doctorates, and a master’s degree can act as an academic bridge to terminal programs.

Career-minded learners qualify for the following positions with a graduate-level educational leadership degree:

School Principal

As schools’ top administrators, principals supervise teachers and other staff members and ensure that classroom instruction satisfies curriculum requirements. Principals play a key role in creating safe, supportive learning environments and improving student outcomes.

  • Required Education: Master’s in educational leadership, or doctorate in education or educational leadership
  • Job Outlook (2019-29):+4% (2019-2029)
  • Median Annual Salary:$96,400

Instructional Coordinator

These professionals work with management-level administrators to supervise curricula and monitor teaching standards. They create, revise, and evaluate the impact of supplementary classroom instructional materials.

  • Required Education: Master’s in education or educational leadership
  • Job Outlook (2019-29):+6% (2019-2029)
  • Median Annual Salary:$66,290

Postsecondary Administrator

These administrators work in trade and vocational schools, colleges, and universities. They supervise academic programs, monitoring quality standards and overseeing institutional budgets, research initiatives, and the provision of campus services.

  • Required Education: Master’s in educational leadership
  • Job Outlook (2019-29):+4% (2019-2029)
  • Median Annual Salary:$95,410
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Frequently Asked Questions

What should I major in to become an educational leader?

Many master’s programs consider applicants from all academic backgrounds, provided they hold a valid teaching license. Otherwise, a bachelor’s degree in education provides the necessary knowledge base.

How long does it take to earn a master’s in educational leadership?

Graduation timelines vary, and often depend on admission policies. Programs that restrict admission to licensed teachers and applicants with education degrees usually take 12-18 months. Those with more inclusive standards typically take about 18-24 months.

What can I do with an educational leadership degree?

Educational leadership degrees qualify professionals for many different administrative and management roles. Examples include school principals, assistant principals, instructional coordinators, and postsecondary administrators.

Is a master’s in educational leadership worth it?

Increasingly, school boards and institutions require or strongly favor candidates with specialized degrees in educational leadership. The degree affords aspiring educational administrators and institutional managers the ideal academic background.

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