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You may never make the Fortune 500, and there’s no yacht or private jet in your future, but teaching is one of the professions that makes civilized life possible. Teachers lead children, young people, and working adults to the skills they need for their careers, to knowledge that betters their life, and to understanding that makes them citizens of the world. If they’re not compensated like hedge fund managers and corporate vice-presidents, they are rewarded by the memories of students they helped.

Obviously, to teach others, you need an education yourself. We’re far from the one-room schoolhouses and isolated ivory towers of yesteryear; teaching today is a highly specialized profession, with many fields of expertise. You may figure out your strengths as you go along, but you should have a clear idea before you go into a teaching degree what general direction you want to follow.

Degree Program Types

AA/AS: Education associate’s degrees are usually in Early Childhood Education or Elementary Education. Early Childhood Education prepares graduates to work in day care or preschool, with appropriate licensing. Elementary Education qualifies graduates for work as teacher’s assistants in public or private elementary schools.

(Check out: What is the Benefit of Going to a Community College?)

BA/BS: To teach at the elementary or secondary level, a bachelor’s degree is a necessity, in public or private elementary, middle, or high school. It is also beneficial for people who want to open their own day care, and can be an advantage at the preschool level.

MA/MS: A master’s degree usually provides graduates with a higher salary at the elementary, middle, and secondary levels, as well as for higher administrative roles in education. It is a distinct advantage for teachers who want to work in more elite charter or private schools. The master’s degree is also an entry-level requirement for teaching at the college level, qualifying a graduate to teach as an adjunct (part-time) or lecturer (part- or full-time), though not as a professor.

PhD: The PhD is the standard credential for teaching at the college level. The assistant professor rank (the first level of tenure-track, full-time faculty) at most colleges and universities requires a PhD for every discipline except the arts (where the MFA is the terminal degree).

Online vs. Residential Programs

Online associate degrees in early childhood and elementary education are common, and may be to your advantage, especially if you already have a lot of experience working with children. Almost all elementary or secondary education degrees require student teaching, so even if all coursework can be completed online, students will have to do a period of observed teaching.

(check out: Are Online Degrees a Good Investment?)

Online programs are very useful for working teachers who wish to increase their credentials with a master’s degree; since they are already working in education, and only need to do coursework, online programs are convenient and usually low-cost. If you want to teach at the college level, however, there are some warnings. If you’re teaching in high school and want to get your foot in the door at the local community college, an online master’s degree can help. However, employment at the tenure-track level can depend inordinately on networking, which is harder to accomplish in an online setting, so an online PhD is really only advisable if you’re already teaching at the college level (for instance, as a lecturer at a state university, an instructor at a community college, or a small liberal arts college) and want a shot at a higher rank.

Best Value Residential Rankings

Top 50 Best Value Undergraduate Schools of 2015

Top 50 Best Value Graduate Schools of 2015

Best Value Online Rankings

Top 50 Best Value Online Schools of 2015

Top 50 Best Value Online Graduate Schools of 2015

Top 50 Best Value Online Graduate Education Programs of 2016

Cheapest Rankings

Top 10 Cheapest Online Universities 

Top 10 Cheapest Online Master’s Degree Programs

Financing Education

While there are some tuition-free colleges – including many of the Ivy League and elite polytechnic institutes, which will often provide full financial assistance based on a student’s needs – most people are going to need to finance their education in some way. The ideal is scholarships, which do not have to be paid back. These are available from the college or university, and often through private donors and scholarship funds. Some are need-based (only for lower-income students) and some are merit-based (for high achieving students), while others are tied to particular jobs (such as teaching) or groups (Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts, for instance).

Next on the list of preferences would be government Pell grants, which also do not need to be repaid, or Federal Work Study, in which students work (usually on-campus) in exchange for tuition money. These jobs are scheduled around course times, unlike a regular part-time job, but grants and work study are also somewhat limited; they are usually not enough to pay full costs.

So, most students end up taking out some form of student loan. Federal students loans, administrated through government contractors, are usually reliable and have reasonable interest rates. Private loans, however, will depend on the student or parents’ credit rating, and may have high interest rates or be difficult to pay off.

Almost all of these options depend on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which determines your level of need and available aid. All students will benefit from filling out the FAFSA, so don’t let it intimidate you – it’s long, but you’ll be glad you did.

Career Paths

According to BLS, education jobs bring in a range of  annual salaries.  From the high $20s all they way up to $50s depending on the particular position for those with the minimum education requirements (usually a bachelor’s degree). Expect pre-school teachers, or teacher assistants to make the least; K-12 certified elementary teacher or assistant; middle school teacher; high school teacher will fair about the same across the board but vary tremendously depending on the state you choose to teach in. College instructors and lecturers require a Master’s degree. A professorship will often require a PhD, and the pay varies greatly between small liberal arts schools, private Ivies, and large public institutions. Education administration may be something worth looking into; from elementary/secondary principal or vice-principle or higher education administrator, these careers pay the highest in the Education field.