Teaching Profession Opinion

Is a Master’s Degree Worth $30,000?

By Justin Baeder — August 28, 2012 2 min read
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Should a Master’s degree be part of the teacher certification process, and what role should it play in compensation, if any?

Research has shown that holding a Master’s degree does not predict higher teaching quality, and critics have pointed out that states “spend” some $14.8 billion on the pay bump that is provided to teachers with a Master’s degree.

In some areas, such as the Pacific Northwest, it is standard for teachers to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in another field, followed by a Master’s in teaching, which includes the internship and certification process. This type of arrangement is essentially a 5-year Bachelor’s program, but with the added benefit of a pay bump for the new teacher (plus a higher tuition rate for the university).

My teacher certification program was part of a 4-year undergraduate degree. Since my internship took up the entire final semester of my senior year, there were a few courses in my major, such as physical chemistry, that I was unable to take and that weren’t required for my degree. Had I been required to obtain my certification in a 5th-year Master’s program, I would have been able to complete the full Bachelor of Science in Chemistry degree rather than the Bachelor of Arts in Science (an admittedly strange title). I would know slightly more about chemistry had I done my teacher certification as a Master’s student rather than as an undergraduate.

On the other hand, I would have foregone a year of experience as a classroom teacher, as well as a year of income, and would have paid tens of thousands of dollars in additional tuition.

So there are several questions to answer:
Does obtaining a Master’s degree improve a teacher’s quality?
Does requiring a Master’s degree result in better candidate selection? In other words, does the requirement effectively weed out poor candidates?
Do the opportunity cost and financial cost of obtaining a Master’s degree for initial certification justify the benefits?
Should people with Master’s degrees automatically earn more?

The situation is complex because most teachers with Master’s degrees now earned them with the expectation that they would lead to an immediate and permanent pay bump, and the cost-benefit calculation is precarious. I spent some $30,000 on my Master’s degree, which paid for itself indirectly by serving as a stepping stone into an administrative position. Had I remained in the classroom and received the $5,000 pay bump, that’s a 6-year break-even, not including student loan interest that raises the total cost dramatically.

It is virtually impossible to pay cash for a Master’s degree, so student loans pay an enormous role. For preservice teachers obtaining their initial certification, student loans and family money are the only options, since the course load and internship demands make it nearly impossible to work on the side.

Even for teachers who are already working, student loans may be the only path to a Master’s. Spreading $30,000 in tuition over two or three years is nearly impossible on a $30,000 salary. The resulting debt can have a long-term impact on families, and may actually drive people out of teaching. Loans are easy to get but hard to pay off.

But perhaps we should look at the Master’s “bump” as part of base pay for teachers, since such a high proportion receive it.

Take a look at this report from the Center for American Progress, which EdWeek’s Steven Sawchuck reported on last month. What do you think?

The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.