by Brian Neese, Southeastern University
For years, the news has been clear — more teachers are needed. And many are stepping up to answer that call. But despite the need for teachers, not all states are created equal. Budgets are distributed differently, not only within states but also within counties. Resources and access can differ dramatically. And although many teachers begin the work for the love of education, salary and cost of living are still significant factors in career satisfaction.
With the patchwork quilt of information about how much teachers earn across the United States, it can be difficult to determine where to settle down. Although many factors contribute to the decision to live and work in a specific area, salary is one significant factor. Cost of living, however, also needs to be considered, because that is a determinant in how much pay a teacher actually takes home. The need for teachers in various regions, as well as what types of teachers are needed, can also play a role in the decision to live and work in a given state.
Using salary information from the National Education Association and the U.S. Department of Education, Southeastern University’s interactive map illustrates the best states to teach in America based on monetary factors. It also includes cost-of-living information from The Council for Community and Economic Research and a summary of tenure protections using information provided by the Education Commission of the States.
Top States for Teachers
Pennsylvania and Wyoming lead the nation as the best states to teach in America. As two top 10 states for all three salary metrics — average starting salary, average salary for teachers with a bachelor’s degree and average salary for teachers with a master’s degree — they are the only states that rank this highly for salary and also fall outside of the top 10 for the highest cost of living. Not only do these teachers earn more, but they also pay less for basic living expenses, leaving them with more take-home pay.
Other states that offer a strong value for teachers include Indiana, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan and Ohio. These are the only states found in the top half nationally for all salary metrics while staying in the bottom half for cost of living.
It is important to note that metro areas can affect the statewide averages for salary and cost-of-living data. Teachers should examine various regions within a state to gain a clearer picture of how salary and cost of living interact in any given area.
Different Regions, Different Benefits
Of course, the various regions of the United States each have their own charms … and challenges. Here are just a few of the aspects teachers should consider about each area.
- This area offers a competitive salary with a relatively high cost of living. All nine states have a cost of living in the upper 40 percent of the country, with five states falling in the top 10.
- New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut lead the region in salary indicators.
- Pennsylvania is the best value for teachers in this region, with high salary figures and a slightly above-average cost of living.
- This area fluctuates in terms of the cost of living and salary data for teachers.
- Texas is the strongest value for teachers in the South. It has a cost of living in the bottom 25th percentile and offers two top 15 salary metrics.
- Kentucky is another value in the South. It has the fourth-best cost of living in the nation and can be found in the top half of states in the country for average starting teacher salary and average salary for teachers with a master’s degree.
- This region offers a generally high cost of living with varying ranges for salary metrics. Only four of the 13 states in the West place in the lower half of the cost-of-living rankings.
- For states with a high cost of living, salary figures can be high (Alaska and California) or near the middle (Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Colorado) as compared to national averages.
- Wyoming leads the West, and likely the nation, in terms of salary and cost of living balance. It ranks in the top 10 nationally for all three salary figures and has a 93.9 percent cost-of-living average for the state, which is below the national average.
- This region presents value for teachers looking to balance cost of living and salary. Nine of the 12 Midwestern states are in the bottom half nationally for highest cost of living, while seven are in the top half nationally for average base salary for teachers with a master’s degree.
- Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin emerge as top states in the region for salary and cost of living.
- Illinois and Michigan lead the country for the highest percent increase between average base salaries for teachers with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. Illinois is first at 42.6 percent, while Michigan comes in second with a 35.7 percent increase in salary — no other states in the nation exceed the 30 percent mark.
The Importance of Education for Teachers
One of the most powerful ways for teachers to increase their earning potential is to advance their education. According to the U.S. Department of Education, teachers with a bachelor’s degree earn a national average base salary of $46,340, while teachers with a master’s degree earn an average base salary of $57,830 — a 24.8 percent increase.
In addition to an increase in earnings, teachers with a master’s degree are more competitive in the job market. Ease of mobility, enhanced job security and other opportunities are generally more open to teachers with a master’s degree than to those with just a bachelor’s degree.
A master’s degree can also lead to specialization opportunities that can enhance teachers’ career opportunities, earnings and overall career development.
The current need for teachers with specialized skills highlights an opportunity for teachers across the country. In the 2014–2015 school year, five subjects were in demand by at least half of the states in the U.S., including more than three-fourths of states for special education, math and science, and more than half of states for foreign language and teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). In-demand specializations include the following:
- Special Education: The number of U.S. students enrolled in special education programs in the past 10 years has risen 30 percent. (National Education Association).
- Math and Science: Initiatives surrounding enhanced proficiency in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have resulted in an increased demand for teachers. The U.S. Department of Education has reported a plan that includes developing, recruiting and retaining 100,000 STEM teachers over the next 10 years.
- Foreign Language and TESOL: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 9.1 percent of public school students in the United States were English language learners. The rise in English language learners — especially students from households that speak Spanish — has resulted in an increase of teachers who can help foreign language learners in their native language, as well as teachers who can help learners improve their English skills.
Teachers looking to specialize in a certain area can pursue certification in a specific degree concentration. For instance, a master’s degree in special education or TESOL is a common option for teachers to advance their education and earn a career specialization.
Although choosing a location is not based solely on salary and cost of living, understanding these factors can help teachers decide where to pursue a career. When taking into account available data for salary and cost of living, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Indiana, Illinois and Louisiana fared well in the analysis of the best states to teach in America. Florida is another top state when considering state-specific data.
No matter where teachers live, however, a master’s degree improves salary and mobility prospects. Specializing in an in-demand subject area increases those metrics, as well.
For teachers looking to advance their careers with a master’s degree, it’s important to choose a university that offers the most valuable specializations. Southeastern University, for example, offers online Master of Education programs with five specialization options, as well as an online Doctor of Education program. Teachers can use these degrees to improve their career prospects and then choose the area that best meets their needs.
Online education degree programs at Southeastern University include the following:
- MEd in Arts and Academic Interdisciplinary Education
- MEd in Elementary Education
- MEd in Educational Leadership
- MEd in Exceptional Student Education
- MEd in Reading Education
- MEd in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
- Doctor of Education
Choosing where to live depends on many factors, but finding a state that balances salary with cost of living can be an important consideration. The good news is that the more education you have, the more flexibility you’ll have as a teacher to find a home that will meet your needs.