Online Master's Degree in Early Childhood Education

Why Get a Master's in Early Childhood Education?

Early childhood education professionals often find that earning a master's degree not only benefits the children they work with, but also boosts their career prospects and enhances their practice. Statistical data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that professionals with a master's degree in early childhood education earn an average of $13,000 more annually than those with only a bachelor's degree. Additionally, master's degree holders can pursue administrative and other high-level employment opportunities, such as curriculum director, preschool administrator, or elementary school principal.

Several accredited institutions now offer an online master's in early childhood education. Online programs are flexible; most offer asynchronous classes that let students take courses at times that are most convenient for them. This makes it possible for full-time professionals to stay employed while earning their master's degrees. Although a master's in early childhood education can cover several study areas, most programs include courses in education research, literacy development, and human and family development. Some programs also offer areas of specialization or emphasis, such as elementary curriculum, special education, ESL education, and advanced content specialization.

Choosing an Online Early Childhood Education Program

There are several factors to consider when deciding on an online master's program in early childhood education. The length of time it would take to complete a program is often a primary consideration. It typically takes two years of full-time study to complete, but factors such as part-time enrollment, whether or not the student opts for specialization, and the type of specialization a student decides to pursue can extend this time frame. Conversely, some schools offer accelerated programs, which can reduce the amount of time it takes to graduate.

Featured Online Programs

A program's cost is another factor to consider. Some schools charge out-of-state students a higher tuition fee, even if they are studying online. There are also schools that require online students to pay a technology fee. Some online programs follow a hybrid structure, that is, students take some courses online and others on campus. Campus attendance may add to a program's overall cost.

In the United States, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, or NAEYC, gives accreditation to early childhood programs on the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degree levels.

Students should also check a school or program's accreditation. In the United States, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, or NAEYC, gives accreditation to early childhood programs on the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degree levels. The NAEYC works with the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) to ensure that early childhood education programs meet their standards and that students graduate with the knowledge and competencies expected of early childhood educators.

Types of Early Childhood Education Degrees

Early childhood educators have three master's degree options. A master of arts in teaching (MAT) is a program primarily designed for graduates who hold a non-teaching bachelor's degree. Most MAT programs prepare students for licensure. It is usually comprised of 30 credits and typically takes one to two years to complete. Most programs require students to complete a supervised teaching experience. As seen from the chart below, new graduates of an MAT program usually have a starting salary of $44,541.

A master of science (MS) in education is a more research-focused degree and designed for licensed teachers seeking further learning and/or career advancement. A typical MS degree has around 45 credits, takes two to three years to earn, and often requires students to write a thesis or take a comprehensive exam at the end of the program. An MS degree holder usually has a starting salary around $45,000 per year.

Education professionals who wish to practice within a broader arena will find that having a master's in education (M.Ed.) can help them navigate this transition out of the classroom. It is also a research-focused program and most require students to complete a minimum of 39 credits. Culminating experiences vary. Some schools require a comprehensive exam, while others require a graduation portfolio or an application project. M.Ed. graduates start out with a salary of $43,342.

Entry Requirements

Admission requirements for a master's in early childhood education vary among different schools. The type of master's degree being sought -- whether MAT, MS, or M.Ed. -- may affect entry requirements as well. The minimum degree requirement is often a bachelor's degree, preferably in early childhood education. However, MAT programs are open to bachelor's degree holders from other concentration areas, like child development, elementary education, or family studies. Several programs require applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), but some programs accept the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) or the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). Because a master's program can be academically rigorous, most schools prefer applicants with a history of academic excellence, as evinced by an undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher. Applicants for a master's in early childhood education usually have teaching experience, which often means they have obtained state certification as well. As part of the application process, most schools also require applicants to submit at least two letters of professional recommendation and a writing sample, by way of a statement of intent regarding their master's studies and future career plans.

Directory of Accredited Master's in Early Childhood Education Programs

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Early Childhood Education Licensure and Certifications

All states require teachers to be licensed to teach in public schools. Most private and charter schools adhere to the same standard. Each state has its own requirements for licensure, so there is no single set of requirements for teaching licensure that will cover all states. A master's degree may qualify candidates for a higher position, but it does not usually take the place of licensure.

A master's degree may qualify candidates for a higher position, but it does not usually take the place of licensure.

In general, the path to teaching licensure begins with a bachelor's degree in education in the field the student wishes to pursue, such as early childhood education or elementary education. However, there are alternative paths to licensure for holders of a noneducation bachelor's degree, with most requiring enrollment in education-specific courses. Most states also require students to complete practical teaching experience prior to licensure. The length of this teaching requirement varies between states.

Most states require licensure applicants to take and pass a required exam for educators. In most cases, this means taking the Praxis tests. Each test measures an applicant's aptitude level in a specific area: basic academic skills, subject-specific knowledge, and specialized content knowledge. In an effort to relieve teacher shortages across the country, several states have entered into reciprocity agreements. This does not mean teaching licenses are automatically recognized by states with reciprocity agreements. It does, however, make the process of applying for a license between these states much simpler. All states require teaching licensure applicants to pass a criminal background check.

What Can You Do With an Online Master's in Early Childhood Education?

Early childhood educators work in a variety of settings. Most prefer to work directly with children and teach in preschool and kindergarten classrooms or in home-based settings. Some early childhood education specialists become educational administrators, setting up the curriculum and directing the day-to-day activities of day care centers, specialized learning centers, and other similar educational environments. Still, some early childhood educators choose to focus on research by working in academia, the government, or for nonprofit organizations.

What Is the Salary for Early Childhood Educators?

Preschool Teacher

Preschool teachers work directly with children in private or public schools, daycare centers, Head Start programs, or other child development environments. They engage children in a variety of age and developmentally appropriate activities designed to instill and develop social, intellectual, and physical skills.

Median Salary: $28,990

Kindergarten Teacher

Kindergarten teachers instruct pre-elementary school children in basic subjects, such as reading and math to prepare them for further instruction in higher grades. They also teach subjects such as music, art, and early literature. Kindergarten teachers work during a 10-month school year and typically have summers off from their teaching position.

Median Salary: $54,230

Elementary School Teacher

In addition to teaching standard school subjects such as math, reading, and basic social science subjects, elementary school teachers also focus on a child's emotional, mental, and social development. Elementary school teachers typically have one class and they instruct their students in several subject areas.

Median Salary: $57,160

Childcare Center Director

Although childcare directors no longer work directly with children, they still oversee the day-to-day activities of the children in their care. They are also responsible for designing program plans, preparing budgets, supervising their staff, and making sure the center meets all state curriculum and safety regulations.

Median Salary: $39,691

Preschool Director

Preschool directors often work in an independent preschool, but they can also find job opportunities in large private or public schools. They manage and direct the classroom and administrative activities of a preschool. They also make sure the preschool meets state educational and safety standards.

Median Salary: $39,866

Paying for Your Online Master's in Early Childhood Education

There are several ways to pay for an online master's in early childhood education. Some schools offer monthly payment plans for students who opt to shoulder the cost of a master's program out of pocket. This can be arranged directly with the school or a third party, which may or may not be endorsed by the school. Typically, monthly payment plans carry a small interest rate. For students who wish to explore other means to pay for their master's degree, the following options are also available.

Financial Aid

Just like undergraduates, graduate students must file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) if they want to qualify for federal, state, and school financial aid. This can be done online. Paper-based application forms are also available at almost any college, university, or public library. Graduate students are considered independent students, which means they do not have to share their parents' financial information on their FAFSA.

The U.S. Department of Education channels FAFSA funds to colleges and universities. Schools typically disburse them twice a year—once at the beginning of each semester. They apply the funds first to a student's tuition and fees, then to their room and board (if applicable) before other academic costs. Schools have different policies regarding issuing excess FAFSA funds to students. Students have the sole discretion on how to spend this excess amount.

Federal student loans, often part of a student's financial aid package, have several advantages over private student loans. They have a lower and fixed interest rate, no prepayment penalty fee, and students do not have to start paying them back until after they graduate. A federal student loan is also subsidized, which means the government pays the interest on the loan for as long as the student is enrolled.

Work-Study Programs

Students can only take advantage of this funding opportunity if their school participates in the Federal Work-Study Program. Any student with financial need is eligible to apply. The program encourages students to work in a field related as closely as possible to their course of study. Students receive at least the current federal minimum wage. Graduate students are paid either by the hour or receive a salary, depending on the type of work they do. The amount a student receives from this program cannot exceed his or her total Federal Work-Study award. Students are paid directly or they can request the school to use the money to cover their educational expenses.

Tuition Reimbursement Programs

Some employers use tuition reimbursement programs as a way to keep their employees motivated. Most employers will only cover the cost of classes or courses that are directly related to the employee's work or position. Because this is a reimbursement program, the worker/student must first pay for the classes he or she enrolls in and then request the company to reimburse them for the expense. Most tuition reimbursement programs do not cover the other costs of attending a class, such as transportation and materials. Some companies require employees to stay with the company for a designated amount of time after reimbursing them for their tuition.

Grants, Fellowships, and Scholarships

Unlike loans, scholarships, grants, and fellowships do not require repayment, which makes them ideal sources of higher education funding. Most scholarships are merit-based, meaning they are awarded to students who possess certain qualities such as academic brilliance, athletic prowess, or artistic ability. Grants are often need-based, meaning they are awarded to students according to their financial situation. These do sometimes overlap, since some scholarships also have a need-based component. A fellowship is a specific type of grant that is usually awarded to students pursuing a specific area of interest, although there are fellowships open to outstanding students who can then use the award to further their research or studies.

Scholarships for Online Master's in Early Childhood Education Degrees

American Montessori Society Teacher Education Scholarships $3,000

Who Can Apply: Applicants must be current undergraduates or post-graduate students enrolled in a teacher education program affiliated with the AMS. Scholarship applicants must show financial need, submit a strong personal essay, verification of acceptance or enrollment in an AMS-affiliated school or program, and three letters of recommendation. View Scholarship

Applegate-Jackson-Parks Future Teacher Scholarship $1,000

Who Can Apply: Must be graduate or undergraduate student majoring in education in a U.S. college or university. Applicants must submit a 500-word essay along with other requirements. The essay must demonstrate the applicant's understanding and interest in the Right to Work principle and its relevance to educators. View Scholarship

Bright Futures Scholarship Program $250 to $1,000

Who Can Apply: Open to high school, college, and graduate students enrolled in a program or pursuing a degree focused on early childhood education. Applicants must show proof of having worked with this age group (children under 6 years of age) for at least 9 months. View Scholarship

Massachusetts DHE – Early Childhood Educators Scholarship Program $2,250 to $4,500

Who Can Apply: Open to Massachusetts residents pursuing an early childhood education degree in a community college, four-year college, or a university. Applicants must show employment of at least one year as an educator in an early education and care program authorized by the state. Awards are given for each semester. View Scholarship

Roothbert Fund Scholarships $2,000 to $3,000

Who Can Apply: Preference is given to students with excellent academic backgrounds who are planning to pursue a career in education. Applicants must live (or plan to live) in one of the states listed on the scholarship's website. Candidates will be invited for a personal interview. Recipients can renew the scholarship for the same amount for another year. View Scholarship

Resources for Master's in Early Childhood Education Students

  • Association for Childhood Education International The ACEI connects early childhood educators throughout the world by expanding diplomatic interactions, supporting innovation exchange, and hosting international conventions such as the Early Childhood Summit and Teacher Training.
  • Council for Exceptional Children – Division for Early Childhood The DEC boasts an international membership base of early childhood educators working with children with disabilities and other special needs. Many of its programs are CEUs—continuing education units--that can count toward license renewal.
  • HighScope Educational Research Foundation HighScope offers free membership, and it publishes the Journal for Early Educators that provides members with the latest research and updated policies on early childhood education. HighScope meets the requirements for Child Development Associate (CDA) credentialing.
  • National Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators The NAECTE advocates for improvements in early childhood education and provides its members with opportunities for professional growth. It publishes the Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education and disseminates information through position papers and regional reports.
  • National Association for the Education of Young Children The NAEYC provides a variety of resources that promote the professional preparation and growth of its members. These include in-person and online training, regional and national conferences, and digital and paper publications.