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Graduate Study in Education

Education Degrees, Admission to Education Graduate Programs, Degree Requirements

Graduate programs in the field of education are offered in U.S. colleges and universities at the master's, specialist, and doctoral levels. Like graduate programs in other disciplines and fields of study, graduate programs in education require baccalaureate degrees as a prerequisite. Degrees are typically awarded after students complete specified program requirements.

From 1997 to 1998 education was the most popular field of study at the master's and doctoral level. According to the U.S. Department of Education, slightly more than one-quarter (114,691) of the 430,164 master's degrees awarded in 1997 to 1998 were in the field of education, and at the doctoral level, approximately 15 percent (6,729) of the 46,010 doctoral degrees awarded were in education. Men earned slightly fewer than one-quarter of the master's degrees (24%) awarded in 1997 to 1998 and at the doctoral level men earned 37 percent of the degrees. Whites represented 77 percent of the master's degree recipients in 1997 to 1998, followed by black non-Hispanics (9%), Hispanics (4%), non-resident aliens (3%), Asian or Pacific Islanders (2%) and American Indian/Alaskan Natives (1%), with students who did not report their race/ethnicity representing 5 percent of master's degree recipients. At the doctoral level, whites earned 71 percent of the doctoral degrees, followed by black non-Hispanics (11%), nonresident aliens (8%), Hispanics (4%), Asian or Pacific Islanders (2%), American Indian/Alaskan Natives (1%) and students who did not report their race/ethnicity represented 3 percent.

Education Degrees

Similar to psychology and social work, but unlike many other graduate-level fields of study, students who enroll in education graduate programs choose between a research path and a professional practice path and in some cases, a path that combines research and practice. Traditionally, the research path is designed for people who want to examine and evaluate educational practices and research, with the goal of preparing students to become college faculty or researchers, while the professional path is designed for people who wish to practice in the field in positions such as school principal, school superintendent, chief financial officer within a primary or secondary school, a dean of admissions, or a dean of student affairs at a college or university. This difference between the applied and the research-oriented degree is reflected in the types of degrees. The master of education (Ed.M.), the specialist in education (Ed.S), a degree intended for teachers, counselors, and administrators who wish to pursue graduate study beyond the master's level, and the doctor of education (Ed.D.) programs prepare students to apply knowledge and scholarship toward addressing problems in educational settings. In contrast the master of arts (M.A.), the master of science (M.S.), the master of arts in teaching (M.A.T), the master of science in education (M.S.Ed.), the doctor of arts (D.A.), which is intended to develop pedagogical skills along with scholarly achievement and research excellence, and the doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) programs prepare students to engage in research and scholarship on education to create knowledge.

Certificate programs are yet another post-baccalaureate educational option. Examples of some of the certificates include a post-baccalaureate certificate program (nondegree) and a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS). Most candidates for the CAGS have earned a master's degree. The CAGS often serves one of the following two purposes: (1) an end goal for individuals who seek advanced training without having the pressure or the time commitment of a doctoral degree program or (2) an intermediary step before students formally apply to a doctoral program.

Graduate education instructional programs cover the spectrum of the educational landscape from pre-kindergarten to adult education. The National Center for Education Statistics Classification of Instructional Programs has classified fifteen program of instruction areas in education:

  • education, general
  • bilingual, multilingual, and multicultural education
  • curriculum and instruction
  • educational administration and supervision
  • educational/instructional media design
  • educational assessment, evaluation, and research
  • international and comparative education
  • social and philosophical foundations of education
  • special education and teaching
  • student counseling and personnel services
  • teacher education and professional development: specific levels and methods
  • teacher education and professional development: specific subject areas
  • teaching English or French as a second or foreign language
  • teaching assistants/aides
  • education, other

Within each of these sixteen categories are finer classifications of areas of instruction.

Admission to Education Graduate Programs

Unlike undergraduate admissions in which students apply to a college or university's central admissions office, which then reviews all students' application materials, admissions decisions at the graduate level are usually handled by a faculty committee at the education graduate school or the specific graduate program within the school (e.g. curriculum and instruction, or educational administration and planning). The typical application materials submitted for admission include the following: (1) academic transcripts from all prior colleges or universities attended; (2) an application for admissions; (3) an essay or statement of purpose and goals (4) an application fee; (5) letters of recommendation; and (6) admissions test scores.

There are three primary admissions tests accepted by graduate schools of education: Graduate Record Examination (GRE), Miller Analogies, and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). The GRE General Test has three parts: verbal, quantitative, and analytical. These parts are not related to any specific field of study, but rather are intended to assess the abilities of applicants to graduate school in mathematical reasoning, literacy, and analytical thinking. Scores for each section of the GRE General Test range from 200 to 800. A two-part writing assessment is also available to measure student abilities to articulate complex ideas clearly and effectively and to support their ideas with relevant reasons and examples. The writing assessment has one combined score. The GRE also includes eight subject area tests. Some graduate programs require students who are applying to educational psychology programs to take the GRE psychology test, which measures the extent of knowledge of psychology that would be acquired primarily in undergraduate psychology curricula. Subject test scores range from 200 to 990. The Miller Analogies Test consists of 100 partial analogies that are completed in fifty minutes. Miller Analogy score reports present three MAT Scores: a student's raw score (the number answered correctly), the percentile based on intended major, and the percentile based on the general population of MAT examinees. The TOEFL measures the ability of nonnative speakers of English to use and understand North American English.

Graduate school admission committees typically review several parts of an applicant's admission record:

  • the reputation of their undergraduate institution
  • undergraduate grade point average (UGPA), both overall and in some instances their GPA in their undergraduate major
  • admission test scores
  • personal statement
  • work history if applicable
  • letters of recommendation
  • how student's research interests match faculty research interests.

The weight that each graduate program assigns to these components varies from program to program. Particularly at the doctoral level, admissions decisions may also be based on the amount of funds that are available to support students who are applying. Some programs do not admit more students than they anticipate being able to fully fund for the duration of their graduate career, while others seek to provide initial support to attract students, and assume that students will find a niche along with support after they are engaged in the process.

Students apply for financial aid for graduate school simultaneously with their application for admission. There are three primary types of financial assistance at the graduate level. The first is a fellowship. When a student receives a fellowship, she/he typically receives money without an obligation to perform any work in exchange for the money. Assistantships are the second form of financial assistance. There are three types of assistantships: teaching, research and administrative. Teaching assistantships usually require students to perform teaching duties in exchange for tuition and a stipend. Research assistantships usually require students to work with faculty on their research in exchange for tuition and a stipend. Administrative assistantships require students to work with administrative offices on programs or projects in exchange for tuition and a stipend. In both the cases of fellowships and assistantships, students may or may not receive health benefits. The third form of financial assistance is a loan. Loans require students to repay the money typically with interest. The exact terms of the loans vary depending upon the originating source of the loan. A less prevalent form of paying for graduate school is the use of employer tuition assistance plans. Graduate level financial aid awards may be made on the basis of academic credentials (e.g., test scores, undergraduate grades, if a an applicant's area of interest is related to one of the faculty's areas of interest), academic promise, or on the basis of financial need.

Degree Requirements

Students may be enrolled either full-time or part-time. Graduate programs may offer classes during the traditional academic year, during the summer, or in a two-day weekend format offered monthly throughout the calendar year. Graduate education programs are typically delivered in two formats. The traditional delivery method is in person where faculty meet students at the main campus or at a satellite campus location. Satellite locations may be either in-state or out-of-state. The other medium involves distance education technology.

Graduate degrees in education are typically awarded after students complete specified program requirements. Course work requirements are a basic degree requirement. Course requirements may include a set number of courses or credit hours as well as a distribution requirement. The distribution requirement may include courses within the education graduate program as well as courses in other related disciplines or fields of study offered at the institution. At the master's level students may be required to complete a culminating exercise ranging from creative projects to a master's thesis. Master's students may also be required to complete a field experience practicum.

At the doctoral level, students complete a qualifying or preliminary examination at the end of their course work. The structure of the exercise will vary from program to program and may be dependent upon whether the student is pursuing an Ed.D. or a Ph.D. After passing the qualifying or preliminary examination, the doctoral student is typically required to write and defend a dissertation. The requirements of the dissertation may vary depending upon the terminal degree. The Ed.D. dissertation may require doctoral students to examine an issue in education, while the Ph.D. dissertation requires the doctoral student to pursue original research.


U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION. NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 2000a. Classification of Instructional Programs–2000. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION. NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 2000b. Degrees and Other Awards Conferred by Title IV Participating, Degree-Granting Institutions: 1997–1998. Report No. 2001–177. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.


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