How to Become a Principal

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

How to Become a Principal

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. They may help you decide on a suitable degree path. Or they may enforce certification and licensure for the kind of role you want to pursue.

What is a Principal?

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

•direct curriculums
•oversee teachers and other school staff
•provide a safe and constructive learning environment for students
•observe and assess teachers
•manage school finances
•create collaborative networks

Elementary School Principal

If your goal is to become an elementary school principal, you may want to accrue experience teaching at the K-6 level. In your own education, you may choose to take preparatory coursework. These may examine the psychology of young children, lesson planning, and special needs. Topics that explain how children develop and connect with authority figures.

High School Principal

Becoming a high school principal may require a different set of skills and knowledge of the teenage brain and behavior. In your coursework, you may seek out topics that delve into social issues and academic counseling. Also, since high schools often have multiple co-curricular activities and departments, you may want to take more business management and finance classes.

DID YOU KNOW? Per O’Net, 44% of high school principals report they have a post-masters certificate, 37% a masters degree. 

What are the Requirements for Becoming a Principal?

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

Getting started - Teaching Experience: The journey to principal usually requires individuals to gain experience as teachers first. Commonly, a school principal may need from one to five years of experience teaching in a specific subject area or general grade level. 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 managing a classroom. Aspiring teachers also complete observation hours, student teaching, and state level testing.

What degree do I need to become a principal?

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

These programs may ready graduates with the leadership skills central to the role. For instance, how to manage staff, students, projects and budgets. Community outreach and communication are crucial to the discussion as well. Some administrative degree programs may also entail a supervised practicum with a current school administrator.

Credentialing: While this may not be the case in private schools, most states require public school principals to be licensed as school administrators. Licensure requirements vary by state, but most require students to have a masters degree, pass an exam and a background check.

Tests at the administration level may resemble teacher proficiency exams. Yet instead they focus on knowledge of budgeting, applicable laws, ethics and the like. Many states offer tests at all levels -elementary, middle and high school.

Choosing a School Administration Degree

A number of accredited online and traditional schools have school administration degree programs. We’ve compiled a short list of popular programs from partner schools.

Master of Arts in Educational Leadership

To enter into an MA in Educational Leadership program, applicants usually need to have experience in pre-K-12 education and a minimum of two years of teaching or student services experience.
Graduates may be eligible for state certification after successfully passing an exam. (e.g. New York University)

Master of Science in Leadership in Higher Education

An MS in Leadership in Higher Education 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. A final thesis, project, presentation or internship may be required. (e.g. Pepperdine University).

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. Where designated, an EdS program may help current educators meet the educational requirements for principal licensure. (e.g. Walden University).

Doctor of Philosophy in Leadership in Higher Education

A Ph.D. in Leadership in Higher Education is a research doctorate. Students may learn about legal issues, the history of higher education and how it is organized and financed. To earn their degree, Ph.D. students usually complete a dissertation. Through research, analysis and thought leadership, they may work to address issues such as global higher education. (e.g. Northcentral University).

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

•bachelors degrees
•masters degrees
•post-baccalaureate certificates
•doctoral degrees

Why Become a Principal?

Teachers who want to move into an administrative role might work their way up the ladder as assistant principals. One of the appealing factors may be salary. The average salary for elementary, middle, and high school principals was $94,390 in May 2017. By comparison, in the same time frame, the average annual salary for high school teachers was $59,170.

Beyond Being a Principal: Potential Next Steps

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


Some principals advance in their career to become superintendents. To become a superintendent may require completion of additional education and certification or licensure

  • Median Salary: $117,000
  • Job growth through 2026: 8%
  • Typical Entry-level education: Master's

Instructional Coordinator

Other principals may strive to become instructional coordinators. If this is a goal, to become an instructional coordinator requires a masters degree and work experience as a teacher or school administrator. A state-issued license may also be required in the public school system.

  • Median salary: $57,000
  • Job growth through 2026: 8%
  • Typical Entry-level education: Master’s degree

Postsecondary Education Administration

To become a postsecondary education administrator usually requires a masters degree and experience, though it depends on the position. Smaller colleges and community colleges may hire administrators for some roles with a bachelor degree. Provosts and deans are usually educated at the doctoral level and may have a PhD in higher education or a related field. 

  • Median Salary: $92,360
  • Job growth through 2026: 10%
  • Typical Entry-level education:Master's degree