We Did the Math on What a Teaching Degree Will Earn You Over the Life of Your Career. Here’s What We Found…

Brian Miller
Secondary Principal

Your guide to nailing down exactly what you'll spend earning a teaching degree, and the actual dollar value of that education over the course of your career.


Okay, okay… we know that no one goes into teaching to get rich. You do it because you love it, because there's a warm and fuzzy pay-off in helping those kids connect the dots and watching them go places in the world, and knowing that in some small way you helped them get there.

But that doesn't mean that money isn't also really important.

As you prepare to step into the big wide world and head off to college, it's going to hit you like a ton of bricks. A college education today isn't cheap.

So these days, even future teachers can't help but consider a concept that up till recently was something only business students thought much about: Return on Investment (ROI).

But that's exactly what your education degree is-an investment in your future. It's a financial decision as much as a career choice.

As you start thinking about how you're going to finance your education and pay it off, it's also smart to be thinking about how much money that degree will be bringing in.

The concept is dead simple. Calculated over the life of your career, ROI is the additional dollars of income that every dollar spent on education will bring in.


Lifetime Compensation (Beyond What You Might Earn Without a Degree)

-Total Cost of Education


Total Return on Investment


A few weeks back we showed you what your teacher salary and benefits are worth on an annual basis. Here we take it a step further by looking at what your up-front investment will be to get your degree, and what the potential value of that education will be when calculated over your entire career.

What Exactly Does a Degree in Education Cost These Days?

Becoming a teacher today means earning a bachelor's degree at a minimum, along with the initial teacher certification courses and student teaching experience your state requires.

According to the Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average yearly cost of attending a four-year school was $27,091 in the 2020-2021 school year, including the cost of room, board, tuition, and fees. That works out to $108,364 at the end of four years.

This estimate has the average amount of federal student aid granted that year already deducted, so what you're looking at here is a true total estimate of what you can expect to invest for those first four years of college.

That's a tidy sum, and unless your state governor just pulled your name out of a hat for one of those vaccine lotteries, you're going to have to figure out how to cover the costs yourself.

Your actual costs can vary quite a lot based on what kind of school you pick and where it's located. A big-city school may have tuition rates slightly higher than a sleepy state college out in cow country. But if that metro-area school offers your program online and you already have an affordable living arrangement, that can go a lot further in keeping your costs in check than relocating to an outlying area just to save a buck on tuition.

All kinds of factors come into play when you start talking about room and board and the overall cost of living. Whether you have folks that let you live at home, or you split a two-bedroom apartment with six other starving students and subsist on nothing but ramen and water, we all know there are ways to keep costs down during your college years.

But taking all possible circumstances into account, $108,364 is the average the Department of Education came up with for the total cost of four years of college including living expenses.

Cost of living aside, we know you want to see a line item for just the tuition.

To give you an idea of real-world costs for a well-respected bachelor's degree that includes an initial teacher certification program, you can look at this representative list of annual rates from schools around the country for the 2021-2022 schoolyear. Before you get sticker shock, keep in mind that these are the rates before deducting the federal financial aid that most students qualify for, or any additional grants and scholarships student teachers are often eligible to receive.


  • University of California - Berkeley (public) - $41,473
  • University of Southern California - Los Angeles (private) - $81,659


  • University of Florida - normal (public) - $21,431
  • Barry University - Miami (private) - $49,044


  • Albany State University - Albany (public) - $21,730
  • Clark Atlanta University - Atlanta (private) - $39,446


  • University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign (public) - $31,636
  • Lake Forest College - normal (private) - $66,400


  • Kansas State University - normal (public) - $25,730
  • Baker University - normal (private) - $47,420

New York

  • State University of New York at New Paltz - New Paltz (public) - $27,387
  • Barnard College - New York (private) - $80,693


  • Pennsylvania State University - normal (public) - $38,270
  • University of Pennsylvania - normal (private) - $83,298


  • Sam Houston University - Huntsville (public) - $24,612
  • Abilene Christian University - Abilene (private) - $55,500


  • Washington State University - Pullman (public) - $28,767
  • Pacific Lutheran University - Tacoma (private) - $63,563

Costs include average tuition rates, fees and other student expenses for full-time, first-year undergraduates before federal financial aid. For public universities with different in-state and out-of-state rates, we provide the residential rates.

What You Pay May Depend on What You Make… or What Your Parents Make

Federal scholarships and grants can go a long way in helping cover the cost of college. Every dime that goes into your tuition that doesn't come out of your pocket only shrinks the numbers in the expense column of your ROI calculation. Your family's financial status can have a big impact on your eligibility for those awards, though.

Students who come from middle class households may not qualify for grants to cover everything, but also don't come from the kind of wealth that puts them in a position to handle all the costs without some help. In most cases, students in that situation end up borrowing to cover the difference.

But even with the low interest rates and flexible terms that come with student loans, at the end of the day they are still loans, and you'll be paying them back for years. And for many teachers, those payments can cut pretty deep into the paychecks they receive.

The U.S. Department of Education found that the average student loan debt at the end of a bachelor's program is more than $30,000. That's the better part of an entire year's salary for many entry-level teachers.

On the other hand, being a teacher has some advantages when it comes to student loans. The federal Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program offers one path to having at least some of your loans written off if you choose to work in a high-need school district. In fact, NCES found that around 60 percent of PK-12 educators receive a deferment or forbearance on their federal loans.

You Probably Need to Account for the Cost of a Master's Degree Too

So far, we've only been looking at expenses tied to the bachelor's degree you need for initial licensure. But for many teachers, a two-year Master's Degree in Education (M.Ed.) or similar graduate program is also a sunk cost, either because it's required in the state for advanced licensure, or something they do on their own for the salary bump.

According to NCES, in 2021 the annual average cost of a graduate program came out to:

  • Public schools - $19,749
  • Private schools - $26,621

That means that the total cost of a two-year master's program is going to range from about $24,400 to roughly $52,000.

The thing is, though, most teachers are required to earn a certain amount of continuing education each year just to keep their licenses. Since that professional development is mandatory, it can make good sense to get those training hours in a master's program so you can get the pay hike that comes with it.

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What Can I Expect To Earn In Salary and Benefits Over the Course of My Teaching Career?

So far, we've been looking strictly at the expense side of the ledger. But here comes the fun part-figuring out what teachers in your area can expect to earn.

While your tuition and college costs may be steep, they are also limited. You'll take on most of that debt over the course of a few years. For the return, on the other hand, you will have decades to enjoy the benefits.

When looking at the lifetime return on investment versus just annual totals, there are a lot more variables in play to try to figure out what that final tally will be. In the interest of veracity, we're going to be providing all the information you need to find out what you can expect for yourself based on different decisions you might make in your career, but we stop short of giving you an all out total.

First, let's start with the baseline. Say you never earned a bachelor's in education or any other four-year degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you'd be looking at a median annual income of $38,792 with a high school diploma, or $46,124 with an associate's degree. Over 25-years, that's a total income of $969,800 with a diploma or $1,153,100 with an associate's.

Compare that to BLS data from May of 2021, showing the median salary for teachers at different grade levels across the country:

  • Kindergarten School Teacher - $60,900
  • Elementary School Teacher - $61,400
  • Middle School Teacher - $61,320
  • High School Teacher - $61,820
  • Special Education Teacher - $71,330

The median is a good place to start with this data since it identifies the midpoint in the range of salaries you are likely to earn over the course of your career. You may start lower, but you will definitely go higher as you advance on the step-and-ladder system that most school districts use.

There are teachers out there that put in 40 or more years. There are also many that transition to teaching later in life through alternative pathways including initial teacher prep master's programs after doing something they didn't love for a number of years. Looking at a 25-year career allows us to make a conservative estimate that takes all these scenarios into account.

Over the course of a 25-year career, your teacher salary would bring in:

  • Kindergarten School Teacher - $1,522,500
  • Elementary School Teacher - $1,535,000
  • Middle School Teacher - $1,533,000
  • High School Teacher - $1,545,500
  • Special Education Teacher - $1,783,250

If you're taking notes, this is the part where you deduct from these totals what you would've earned in that other life where you didn't get yourself a degree. You don't need to be a math teacher to see that you easily clear an extra $400,000 - $500,000 over the course of your career by becoming a teacher. There's your house, paid for free and clear, right there!

Of course, you also need to think about some of the other perks that come with becoming a teacher. Getting summers off is usually the big one that comes to mind when most people think of the fringe benefits that come with a teaching career. You get paid for twelve months, but you're only working for ten. And that's even before you consider the breaks you get during the schoolyear on top of regular holidays.

The profession also offers supremely steady work. Teaching is basically recession-proof. Kids are growing up no matter what happens with the economy. The Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic showed the resilience of careers that don't just evaporate when the economy slows down. You can't put a dollar value on that stability, but it's definitely a part of your benefit calculation.

What You Teach Can Matter As Much As Where You Teach

Like real estate and college costs, the location where you plan to teach can have a significant impact on the salary you can make as a teacher. In general, you'll find that the same places that have higher college costs also have higher salaries than the national average figures listed above.


  • Elementary School - $86,470
  • Middle School - $92,350
  • High School - $94,600


  • Elementary School - $61,510
  • Middle School - $60,280
  • High School - $64,120


  • Elementary School - $63,930
  • Middle School - $64,460
  • High School - $69,430


  • Elementary School - $67,810
  • Middle School - $67,170
  • High School - $71,690


  • Elementary School - $56,060
  • Middle School - $59,630
  • High School - $56,320

New York

  • Elementary School - $87,700
  • Middle School - $94,690
  • High School - $92,660


  • Elementary School - $70,200
  • Middle School - $68,850
  • High School - $73,800


  • Elementary School - $59,210
  • Middle School - $59,080
  • High School - $60,470


  • Elementary School - $83,010
  • Middle School - $83,460
  • High School - $85,260

Bureau of Labor Statistics figures don't include special education teachers and career and technical education teachers.

Over 25 years, your total income would look more like this:


  • Elementary School - $2,161,750
  • Middle School - $2,308,750
  • High School - $2,365,000


  • Elementary School - $1,537,750
  • Middle School - $1,507,000
  • High School - $1,603,250


  • Elementary School - $1,598,250
  • Middle School - $1,611,500
  • High School - $1,735,750


  • Elementary School - $1,695,250
  • Middle School - $1,679,250
  • High School - $1,792,250


  • Elementary School - $1,401,500
  • Middle School - $1,490,750
  • High School - $1,408,000

New York

  • Elementary School - $2,192,500
  • Middle School - $2,367,250
  • High School - $2,316,500


  • Elementary School - $1,755,000
  • Middle School - $1,721,250
  • High School - $1,845,000


  • Elementary School - $1,480,250
  • Middle School - $1,477,000
  • High School - $1,511,750


  • Elementary School - $2,075,250
  • Middle School - $2,086,500
  • High School - $2,131,500

Wrapping your head around these numbers can give you some easy hacks to think about.

For example, both tuition rates and the cost of living in California and Washington are very similar, but a teacher in California can make nearly $10,000 per year over what a teacher in Washington can make. That offers a real long-term benefit when you calculate it across the length of your career - a quarter million dollars or more. Teachers these days are already routinely relocating for the perfect position, so you might as well be strategic about it.

You'll also notice that high school teachers around the country often earn more than teachers at the elementary and middle school levels. That's despite the fact that they all pay the same tuition rates for initial certification. As a rule, working in high schools will bump the net return on your educational investment higher.

The Investment In a Master's Pays Off Quicker and Better Than You Might Think

Teacher union contracts frequently specify salary bumps for teachers who earn a master's. In fact, an analysis conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that 90 percent of large districts are obligated to do so.

Some districts offer a much higher premium than others, but according to NCTQ data, in the best-case scenario, over the course of a full 25-year career that master's degree can drop an extra $280,000 into your bank account. That means you could break even for the cost of a master's degree a whole lot sooner than you might think.

Pension and Healthcare Benefits Should Really Be Part of Your Calculation Too

Teachers often get great benefits packages. Retirement costs and healthcare expenses in the United States are substantial, so any teacher contract that covers those areas generously has a huge value in the long run.

According to 2021 data from BLS, 90 percent of schoolteachers are enrolled in a defined-benefit pension plan of some kind. Those plans have a guaranteed payout on retirement, driven by formulas baked into the contract rather than being totally dependent on the whims of the stock market. That kind of stability is hard to come by, and it's one of the major benefits that comes with a career in teaching.

On the healthcare front, the skyrocketing costs of care can make good health benefits a real lifesaver. But there are a few things you need to think about with medical coverage. For one, the district doesn't pay the entire amount of your premiums. On average, teachers pay about 16 percent of the total plan. That's still lower than the 20 percent that most American workers pay, but it's still worth noting.

And the value of that coverage is heavily dependent on how you use it. For a single teacher who hits the gym every morning, insurance might not pay out that much since it's rarely needed. If you have a large family, or a sick child, though, that insurance could absorb millions that you would otherwise have to come up with out-of-pocket.

Averaged out over a lifetime, you can figure that your pension and healthcare benefits combined can boost your total return by as much as 40 percent.

We all know that you're not really getting into teaching because of the money. It's not that kind of job and you're not that kind of person. But you should be the kind of person that embraces the logic of good planning, and part of that means taking the time to figure out the economics of your education.

As a teacher, you get a career in a field that offers summers off, incredible stability, and the kind of job satisfaction that most people will just never understand… and it's pretty amazing that you can get all that while still enjoying a comfortable middle class lifestyle.

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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Kindergarten, Elementary, Middle school, High school, and Special Education teachers (Preschool, Kindergarten and Elementary, Middle, High School, and All, Other) reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed March 2023.

Income data for associate degree holders and high school graduates also provided by BLS.

General tuition data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (Price of Attending an Undergraduate Institution and Digest of Education Statistics for undergraduate and graduate programs). Tuition data for individual schools provided by NCES College Navigator. NCES is a service of the U.S. Department of Education.

NCES loan and scholarship data comes from an April 2017 report published by the Department of Education.

Brian Miller