Graduate Education and the "Master’s Bump" for Teaching Professionals

The State of Compensation for Teachers

Much has been made of the lackluster salaries for teachers in the United States. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites an average salary of $51,380 for elementary school teachers and the slightly higher $51,960 and $53,230 for middle and high school teachers, respectively, that average incorporates the salary of those who have been teaching for years, or even decades. Salaries for the lowest 10 percent of educators–typically, beginning teachers with bachelor’s degrees–are less than $35,000 per year, regardless of the age of their students.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise when educators seek ways to increase their salaries, such as taking charge of extracurricular activities as athletic or activities coaches. But in the last 10 years, more teachers have taken advantage of the opportunity to earn more money as a direct result of furthering their education.

What is the master’s bump?

The “master’s bump” is a term for the automatic pay raise for which teachers are eligible after earning a graduate degree. According to the Huffington Post, nearly half of all states have policies in place that reward teachers for earning a master’s degree with a direct pay increase, which has had a marked effect on the budgets of school districts that are already stretched beyond thinness. In fact, the same source references a report from the American Center for Progress citing a 72 percent increase in the amount of money that school districts spend compensating teachers who have earned a graduate degree, which qualifies them for the associated master’s bump. Furthermore, it states that while the rate of pay increase varies by state, teachers in these states can expect to earn an additional $4,890 to $7,426 per year once they have a master’s degree.

Many educators believe that the knowledge a teacher gains through graduate education improves the effectiveness of their teaching. However, as better-educated teachers cost districts more money, the practice of the master’s bump is coming under fire in certain circles. Specifically, a recent study suggests that teachers with master’s degrees are no more effective than their bachelor’s degree-holding counterparts, leading some school district officials to wonder whether they are wasting their money. Furthermore, the last decade’s drastic increase in teachers with master’s degrees correlates with the wider availability of online master’s degree programs, which some people suspect are associated with the rise of “diploma mills” that offer meaningless certification requiring little to no effort on the part of those who receive them.

Warning Signs for Diploma Mills

Not to mince words, diploma mills are companies masquerading as universities that sell “degrees” with no value that people can then use in lieu of actual credentials. Unlike legitimate online schools, which are accredited institutions that have web-based classes taught by qualified individuals, diploma mills are simply a front for a fake school. As Doug Lederman of Inside Higher Ed remarks, “It’s not easy to find fans of diploma mills” due to the deceptive nature of the business. Nonetheless, these unaccredited institutions have proven difficult to shut down in the United States since they offer little contact information and change names frequently to avoid detection. Students who are concerned about the way diploma mills work and who wish to avoid them should look for the following warning signs:


  • The institution is not accredited by organizations associated with the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation
  • The  institution offers fast-track learning and awards degrees in an unusually short amount of time, like weeks or a few months
  • The institution offers to sell you a degree based on your life experience, rather than your academic achievement
  • The institution does not offer any classes
  • The institution’s contact information is suspect; for instance, its website has no phone number or its address is a P.O. box or an apartment number
  • The institution’s website does not have a .edu address
  • The institution’s website does not list the names of any professors, deans or directors

It is also a good idea for students to search online for student reviews of the school that they are considering to be sure it offers a good education before enrolling.

Accreditation for Online Schools

Before earning a master’s degree in education online, prospective students should expect to do some research. Online education has a tainted reputation as a result of diploma mills, but there are reputable universities that offer legitimate educational experiences online. While the majority of these online schools are for-profit universities, some not-for-profit schools exist, such as Western Governors University.

Still, not all online universities are created equally. One way that teachers and their employers can assess the legitimacy of an online school is to check its accreditation status. Accreditation comes in two forms: institutional and specialized.

Institutional Accreditation

Institutional accreditation is awarded to an entire college or university. In order for a college or university to receive institutional accreditation, all departments within the institution must work toward meeting the institution’s goals and objectives. And although an institution may receive accreditation, that does not necessarily mean that all departments within it are of equal quality.

Several different accrediting agencies, including the Distance Education and Training Council and Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, can accredit schools at the national and regional levels. Generally speaking, nationally accredited institutions are for-profit and vocational schools, while regionally accredited schools are not-for-profit institutions. Both national and regional accreditation is accepted by the Department of Education.

When an institution undergoes the accreditation process, it reviews the standards set by the accrediting agency from which it seeks approval. It then conducts a self-evaluation against those standards. After the self-evaluation, the institution hosts an evaluation team from the accrediting agency, which is typically composed of peer reviewers from other accredited schools.

Once the accrediting agency determines that an institution meets its standards, it is granted accreditation for a number of years, after which it will have to submit to review again. Continued observation and reevaluation are meant to ensure that colleges and universities continue to meet and exceed the standards of the accrediting agency and fellow accredited institutions.

Specialized Accreditation

Specialized accreditation, also known as programmatic accreditation, is awarded to a program or department within an institutionally accredited school. Because specialized accreditation only addresses parts of an institution, specific fields often have their own accrediting agencies which are usually associated with professional organizations. For instance, the most common specialized accrediting agencies for the teaching profession are the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council.

Like institutional accreditation agencies, many specialized accreditation agencies participate in self- and on-site evaluations, and include peer reviewers in the process of accreditation. Because specialized agencies observe and accredit individual programs or schools, their scope is smaller and more focused than institutional accrediting agencies.

How to Find Accredited Online Master’s Degrees

Many online schools are nationally accredited and offer teachers the chance to earn their master’s degrees in education, leading to the master’s bump. A significant advantage to studying online is the ability to earn a degree without disrupting a career, which is important to many teachers. Additionally, web-based study offers greater flexibility for teaching schedules than night classes at a campus-based institution. Teachers looking to find and complete legitimate online master’s programs in education should utilize the resources below.