How to Become a Principal

Find out how to become a Principal. Then get matched with the perfect online school admin degree today!

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School administrators, such as high school principals and assistant principals are managers of daily operations and functions. It is often their duty to:

  • direct classes
  • oversee teachers and school staff
  • provide safe learning for students
  • observe and assess teachers
  • manage school finances
  • create collaborative networks


If your goal is to become an elementary school principal, you may want to gain experience teaching at the K-6 level. In your own education, you may choose to take prep course work. Some of these may look at the psychology of a young child, lesson planning, and special needs. But, other topics that look at how a child develops and how they connect with authorities.


To become a high school principal may need a different set of skills and knowledge of the teen brain and their behavior. In other words, in your course work you may seek out topics that delve into social issues and counseling. And, since high schools often have many co curricular activities and departments, you may want to take more business and finance classes.


Per O’Net, 44% of high school principals report they have a post masters cert, 37% a masters degree.


Becoming a principal may not happen overnight. But there are some steps that may pave the way to a successful career. Moreover, make sure to check with your local district before you define your plans.

Getting started – Teaching Experience: The journey to a career as a principal often requires one to gain experience as a teacher first. Firstly, a school principal may need from one to five years of experience teaching in a certain subject area or grade level. For instance, to initiate a teaching career a principal must first have a valid teaching certification along with at least a bachelors degree.

At this stage, classes may focus on child development, the ins and outs of planning lessons, teaching your subject, and how to manage a classroom. Likewise, aspiring teachers complete observation hours, student teaching, and state level testing.


Wondering what it takes to become a principal? Meld your experience in education with the admin skills needed to lead as a school administrator, high school principal or superintendent.

For starters, to become a principal requires a mix of education, skills and experience. But, it is also key to keep your finger on the pulse of state requirements. These state requirements and school district standards offer guidance. Moreover, they may help you decide on the perfect degree path. In addition, they may enforce certification and licensure for the kind of role you want to pursue.


Masters Degree: Most states and schools require principals to have a masters degree in education administration, educational leadership or education.

These programs may ready grads with the leadership skills central to the role. In other words, how to manage staff, students, projects and budgets. Most importantly, community outreach and how to communicate are crucial to the discussion as well. Above all, some admin degree programs may also entail a supervised practicum with a current school admin.

Master of Arts in Educational Leadership

To enter into this MA program, you usually need to have experience in pre-K-12 education and a minimum of two years of teaching or student services experience.

Grads may be eligible for state certification after having passed an exam.

Master of Science in Leadership in Higher Education

This MS program may help with or without a related background, to develop as leaders. In their courses, students may learn about finances, PR, educational policy and politics. In addition, a final thesis, project, presentation or internship may be required.

Education Specialist: Leadership and Administration (Principal Licensure Prep)

An Education Specialist degree sometimes referred to as a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) usually stacks courses with supervised field experience. Therefore, an EdS program may help current educators meet the educational requirements for principal licensure.

Doctor of Philosophy in Leadership in Higher Education

This Ph.D. program is a research Ph.D. You may learn about legal issues, the history of higher ed and how it is organized and financed. To earn their degree, Ph.D. students usually complete a dissertation. And, through research, analysis and thought leadership, they may work to address issues such as global higher ed.

Helpful Hint

The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) may accredit schools with educator prep programs leading to:

  • certificate/license
  • bachelors degrees
  • masters degrees
  • PhD degrees


Some common courses include:

School Law: In this course, you could learn how law and gov't can impact how schools run. Study how school boards work, the role of the state, and other key topics.

School Finance: What does it take to run a school and manage its budget? This course may include the financial concepts and skills that a principal need to know.

Instructional Leadership: This course may cover how to lead the process of teaching and learning. In other words, you could take a close look at theories, methods, and examples of leadership.

Community Partnerships: Schools are vital parts of larger communities. In this course, you could learn how to lead and work with outside groups and members.

Educational Leadership: Learn how school leaders guide teachers, staff, and students. You could study leadership skills, the importance of diversity, and other topics.


A number of accredited online and traditional schools have school admin degree programs.

Credentialing: While this may not be the case in private schools, most states require public school principals to be licensed as school admins. In summary, licensure standards vary by state, but most ask that you have a masters degree, pass an exam and a background check.

Tests at the admin level may look like teacher proficiency exams. However, they focus on knowledge of how to budget, laws, ethics and the like. Further, many states offer tests at all levels: elementary, middle and high school.


The path to a career as a principal may not be the end of the road for the school admin. Below are some common paths. Keep your goals and long term interests in mind as you search for an online degree.


Certain school principals progress in their professional journey to attain the position of superintendents. Achieving the role of a superintendent may necessitate further educational accomplishments and the attainment of relevant certifications or licensures.

According to 2023 BLS data:

Median Salary: $103,460 per year

Job Growth Through 2032: 1% (Little or no change)

Typical Entry level Education: Master’s degree


Some principals aspire to transition into instructional coordinator roles. Achieving this goal typically demands obtaining a master’s degree and acquiring work experience as either a teacher or a school administrator. Additionally, securing a state-issued license may be necessary within the public school system.

According to 2023 BLS data:

Median Salary: $74,620 per year

Job Growth Through 2032: 2% (As fast as average)

Typical Entry level Education: Master’s degree


Becoming a post-secondary education administrator often demands a master’s degree and relevant experience, although specific requirements vary by position. Smaller schools might consider candidates with a bachelor’s degree for certain roles. Provosts and deans typically hold a PhD, often specializing in higher education or a related field.

According to 2023 BLS data:

Median Salary: $102,610 per year

Job Growth Through 2032: 4% (Faster than average)

Typical Entry level Education: Master’s degree

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Sources for school statistics is the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

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