Jul 31, 2023
The education PhD is designed for educators who aspire to pursue careers in education research, administration, and postsecondary teaching. While the doctorate in education (EdD) is often regarded as a hands-on degree sought after by individuals interested in becoming principals and superintendents at the K-12 level, the PhD in education is considered the degree of choice for those who wish to apply their education to scholarly research, policy-making, writing, and leadership in higher education. Online education PhD programs offer students the academic rigor they desire, while still providing the flexibility needed to balance their other responsibilities.
How can I decide if the PhD or the EdD is right for me? Can I meet the rigors required to complete an education PhD program? What should I look for in an online PhD education program?
Find the answers to these questions and more here, and discover the most suitable program for your educational objectives. Whether you’re looking to understand the differences between the PhD and EdD, searching for an affordable or part-time program, or curious about the earning potential of individuals with a PhD in education, we’ve got you covered.
The Best Online PhDs in Education: 2023
Whether you choose to pursue an online or on-campus education PhD program, there are some key differences that may appeal to students, including areas of specialization, faculty expertise, networking opportunities, and length of study. However, the best online programs all share certain characteristics that make them an attractive option for working professionals. When selecting the right program for you, it’s important to consider factors such as flexibility, affordability, convenience, accreditation, and academic rigor.
We’ve taken into account these and other important factors to come up with our list of the best online PhD in education programs for 2023. Learn more about our top picks below, and see if one matches your unique needs.
Regent University offers ten specialized PhDs in education. Students can choose between a degree in adult education, advanced educational leadership, Christian educational leadership, curriculum & instruction, educational psychology, education technology & online learning, exceptional education executive leadership, higher learning leadership and management, K-12 leadership, and special education leadership. No matter which option a student chooses, all students complete 67 credits, including a few core courses across concentrations. Students must also complete a dissertation under the guidance of a faculty member. Both the dissertation and courses can be completed online. Since many students are working professionals in their field, courses are often offered in the evenings. Successful applicants should already have their master's degree in their field of choice or a related discipline.
Docorate of Philosophy
- Credits: 67
- Length: 3-4 years
- Cost: $800/credit
- Mode: Online
- Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
K-12 educators looking forward to getting their PhD will want to consider Ball State University's doctorate of philosophy. The university offers two PhDs in education, each with a different focus. For students interested in leadership careers at the elementary school level, the elementary education PhD is offered. The second PhD offered is in special education for students who are interested in leadership roles in special education programs. Both degrees require students to complete a dissertation and courses in educational theory. Students also take courses in their chosen concentration, becoming an expert in that area. While both programs are advertised as fully online, there are some in-person courses required. For both PhDs, the school claims students can complete 85%-90% of their coursework online, though they must complete the last 10%-15% on campus. Successful applicants should already have their teaching license and a bachelor's and/or master's degree in education before they apply. To graduate, students must pass a comprehensive exam and defend their thesis.
Doctorate of Philsophy in Special Education or Elementary Education
- Credits: 91
- Length: 4 years
- Cost: $451/credit in-state | $676/credit out-of-state
- Mode: Hybrid
- Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
Clemson University offers four PhDs in education that are grounded in theory. Applicants can choose to apply to the PhD in teaching and learning, educational leadership, special education, or learning sciences. No matter which degree a student is enrolled in, they take a mixture of theoretical coursework in that area and more general classes in education. All of these degrees are applicable in K-12, though only the teaching and learning, learning science, and educational leadership offer a concentration in higher education. All four programs are designed for maximum flexibility, with students taking all their coursework online and after typical full-time work hours. Students also must complete a dissertation in their respective area under the guidance of a faculty mentor to graduate. Applicants should have a bachelor's and master's in the field or a related discipline at the time of applying.
Doctorate of Philsophy
- Credits: 56-65
- Length: 3-4 years
- Cost: $659/credit in-state | $783/credit out-of-state
- Mode: Online
- Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
The demographics of who's attending college is shifting, and there is a need for higher education administrators who understand that shift. To meet that need, Notre Dame of Maryland University offers a cutting-edge doctorate of philosophy in higher education for changing populations. The 100% online PhD covers topics that would be in most PhD in education programs, such as education policy analysis and curriculum design. Along with this, the curriculum features classes related to shifting college demographics, such as language and intercultural communication for changing populations and educators as change leaders. Students also complete a dissertation mentored by a faculty member. To graduate, students must successfully defend their thesis and pass a university-approved exam. Successful applicants should already have a bachelor's and/or master's in a related field.
Doctor of Philosophy in Higher Education Leadership for Changing Populations
- Credits: 42
- Length: 3 years
- Cost: $625/credit
- Mode: Online
- Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
Western Michigan University's Department of Education offers a variety of high-quality PhDs for working professionals. Students can choose to pursue a PhD in science education or K-12 leadership. Within the science education umbrella, Western Michigan University offers PhDs in physics, geosciences, physical geography, chemistry, biological sciences, and science education more generally. For these science education PhDs, students take coursework on science education theory and in their specific subdiscipline. Students can also choose between a K-12 and college science track. All three tracks complete a dissertation. For the PhD in K-12 leadership, students take the coursework needed to become an educational administrator, such as a principal or superintendent. For all PhDs, there is a fully online option, though there are some optional courses students can take in-person if they desire.
Doctorate of Philosophy in Science Education
- Credits: 69
- Length: 3-4 years
- Cost: $258.50/credit
- Mode: Online or hybrid
- Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
Highlighting Online PhD in Education Programs
St. John’s University Online PhD in Literacy
St. John’s University recognizes the key to economic and social equality lies in the ability to read and write. The school offers a PhD in literacy for students seeking professional careers as educational researchers on reading and writing in schools. Online PhD students in the program learn the theoretical and historical approaches to literacy and will develop the methodologies that will enable them to conduct their own original studies. Online PhD education students at St. John’s receive the same academic quality that on-campus students receive. They attend virtual classes, interact with other students, take exams, and watch lectures at their own convenience through an electronic course management system.
- The 42-credit literacy PhD program admits students in fall, spring, and summer, and takes between two and a half and three years to complete.
- Students are required to write a dissertation and successfully pass a comprehensive exam.
- The cost of attendance is $1,265 per credit, with additional fees and supplies extra.
Indiana State University Online PhD in Educational Administration
Indiana State University offers a hybrid online Ph.D. in educational administration for students who want a career path in K-12 administration leadership and research. The program requires a total of 72 hours of post-bachelor’s credits. Students can use up to 42 of their master’s credits towards the PhD and take the remaining 30 credits through the PhD program. Coursework is completed online through interactive lessons, and students are required to attend four in-person classroom meetings each semester in Indianapolis, Indiana.
- Students can complete the program in two and a half years and take up to six years to finish.
- Tuition for the online PhD education program ranges between $554.00 and $837.00 per credit, with students from a select group of Midwestern states paying the lower fee.
Colorado State University Online PhD in Higher Education Leadership
The online PhD in higher education leadership at Colorado State University prepares graduates to lead faculty, staff, and students at postsecondary institutions. This program is a standout for people who already work in higher education and would like to take on a role as a dean or provost. Along with cultivating the skills needed to be successful in higher education leadership roles, the program also enables students to develop research skills and acumen that aid them in expanding their knowledge in practice and outcomes at the college and university level. The online PhD in education at CSU is taught in the cohort model, which means you’ll start and finish the program with the same group of scholars. This gives you the opportunity to build on your relationships with the members of your cohort as you go through the program together.
- The program is 60 credits, comprised of 30 course credits and 30 research credits, and can be completed in five years.
- Tuition is $926 per credit, with fees assessed separately. Out-of-state students and Colorado residents pay the same tuition.
Benefits of the Online PhD in Education
The education PhD is one of the most varied advanced degrees currently available to graduate students. In addition to offering a broad range of leadership tracks, students can also specialize in areas such as mathematics education, science education, special education, and more, in order to focus on research and instruction in their chosen field. With over a dozen PhD specializations to choose from, students have the opportunity to pursue their academic and classroom interests and translate them into long-term career success.
Types of Online PhDs in Education
When researching online PhD programs in education, it’s important to understand the extent and nature of online learning involved in the program. This may include determining whether the program is fully online or partially online, as well as whether there are any residency requirements and, if so, for how long. As you explore different programs, you may have additional questions and considerations, but the following breakdown can serve as a helpful starting point for your research.
Timeline: How Long Does It Take to Get an Online PhD in Education?
Earning an PhD online can take anywhere from three to eight years, depending on your circumstances. Several factors can accelerate or slowdown the process. Let’s look at the timeline for the degree and the critical points that will dictate your time to completion.
When charting your education PhD, a calendar can help you visualize where you want to be and when. Here’s a sample timeline to get you started:
What’s the Difference Between an EdD and a PhD in Education?
In the field of education, advanced students have three primary degree options beyond the master’s level: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), doctor of education (EdD), and the education specialist (EdS). Each has its own purpose and helps education students achieve a different professional track.
The Education PhD Breakdown
The research-based PhD in education focuses heavily on advancing knowledge and scholarship in the field. Programs stress the dissertation and academic publication process and may require students to present at conferences and other education-related gatherings. PhD programs also prepare students to teach at the college level via teaching assistantships, or to dive deeper into research projects via research assistantships. Many PhD holders in education go on to faculty positions at colleges, but may also enter school administration and related careers.
EdD Programs Compared
The EdD is considered a “practical” doctorate as the coursework and research directly apply to a classroom, school, or district setting. While original research may occur, this hands-on leadership degree focuses on taking current research and methodologies and creating new strategies for day-to-day application. Some EdD programs require a dissertation, while others allow students to complete a capstone project, such as developing and implementing a new curriculum or building a software program to improve high school student productivity.
What About the EdS?
The EdS is a specialized degree designed for professional educators seeking expertise in a specific area of education. The degree is shorter and often places less emphasis on a capstone project compared to the EdD or PhD. Students in EdS programs can concentrate their studies in areas such as curriculum, instruction, and assessment, instructional leadership, or K-12 leadership. This degree is ideal for educators who prefer a shorter program with a narrower scope of study.
Online PhD in Education Learning Outcomes
Learning outcomes articulate why you’re attending the program and what skills and knowledge you’ll come away with. Programs are typically proud of their stated learning outcomes, and you should be able to find the learning outcomes for any PhD in education program you’re considering attending. While education PhD programs online will have different graduation requirements and specializations, they all have precise goals for learning that students must show proficiency of to be eligible for graduation. Learning outcomes in education PhD programs may include:
Analyze, interpret, and disseminate expertise of higher education to inform research and practice in the education sphere.
Evaluation and exploration
Able to use ideas, theories, concepts, approaches, and rationale from education and related fields of inquiry in exploring and evaluating higher education topics.
Spirit of innovation
Innovative thinking shown through the application of complex approaches, create useful and fresh solutions to make breakthroughs in the field of higher education.
Ability to establish and maintain professional relationships to build networks and consensus.
Proven ability to comprehend and use statistical and financial methods of inquiry and metrics for goal setting and performance measuring. Commitment to using evidence-based practices.
Specializations: Choosing the Focus of Your PhD in Education
Education PhD students have a wide range of specialization opportunities in just about any program. Here’s a look at the most common focus areas and how they break down.
Four Steps to Finding a PhD Education Program With Your Specialization
OK, so you know your interests. You’ve taught underprivileged students for years and you’re ready to make a systemic impact. You want that PhD, but you need to keep working while you’re in school. A blended or online PhD in education with a focus on student advocacy sounds just right for you, but does anyone offer it? And if no one has the exact program you want, what’s next? When searching for the ideal PhD program for you, start with these steps:
Most PhD programs give students fairly significant leeway when it comes to specialization. At the very least, they can help you cater the research and dissertation portion of their program to fit your needs. But it’s always good to make sure each college, education department, and PhD program have what you need to reach your goals.
The Dissertation Process
While coursework is a major part of earning an online PhD in education, the dissertation is the culmination of your program and signals to the education community that you’re ready to make a difference in your chosen field and sub-field. The lengthy and detailed nature of the process reflects this importance, and every education PhD candidate should understand the requirements. Here are the major dissertation steps, and how they work with an online PhD in education.
Select your dissertation advisor and committee
Choose a professor with practical and/or research expertise in the educational area that interests you. Seek out potential advisors who are accessible, will provide regular and candid feedback, with whom you get along, and who are comfortable with communication via Skype and other digital platforms. Because you’re earning your education doctorate online, non-face-to-face communication is a must. Your committee members should have similar characteristics, too.
Set your deadlines
While you have some flexibility, deadlines are key. They keep you on track and ensure you hit your milestones without testing the time limits of your program. They’re also important as you progress in your because scheduling your defense is a big milestone, and the timing needs to be right. You’ll defend your dissertation in-person, and that requires travel and coordinating face-to-face meetings with your advisor and committee.
Researching, writing, and presenting a paper at a conference can help you prepare for the dissertation process. The earlier in your program you can practice the better, given you’ll be busy with exams and early dissertation prep.
Submit your proposal
Your proposal is a comprehensive statement to your committee detailing your topic and research interests. The key to success is to outline both how and why you plan to tackle a specific and important problem in the field. Your proposal should also include a review of the literature targeting the issue, as well as a thorough rundown of your planned methodology. Stanford University’s graduate school of education has a great rundown of the major components of a proposal.
Find your funding
As an education PhD student, you may need to secure funding to finish your dissertation. Organizations such as the National Academy of Education (NAEd) have fellowship programs to help new education researchers complete their work and contribute to improvements in the field. As with any funding opportunity, seek out as many options as you can.
Draft and revise
The drafting process is lengthy and involves hours of collecting, analyzing, and synthesizing data, presenting that data with a logical thesis and support, and constant rewriting to ensure your argumentation is sound. In addition, you need to follow specific formatting guidelines. Your education department should have these guidelines readily available. See Penn State’s thesis and dissertation guidelines for a deeper dive.
The defense of your education dissertation begins with a presentation that gives a brief overview of the candidate, the problem, and the initial chapters, followed by a more detailed examination of key findings and the research that supports it. Following the presentation, the candidate answers questions posed mostly by the committee but also by other academics or guests in attendance. The candidate may also meet with his or her advisor afterward to address feedback, proposed revisions, and a timeline to complete those revisions.
After the defense or after all revision requests, you should receive final approval. This means the green light to publish your thesis and apply for graduation.
Accreditation of Online PhD Education Programs
Accreditation is crucial when considering online PhD programs in education. Accreditation ensures that a program meets certain quality standards and makes it easier for students to obtain financial aid. When searching for an online PhD program in education, it is important to look for programs that are accredited by recognized accrediting bodies, such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the US Department of Education. It is also important to note that not all programs within a school may be accredited, so be sure to research the specific program you are interested in.
Accreditation enables you to transfer recognized credits from one accredited institution to another. Additionally, in order for its students to be eligible to receive federal financial aid, a school must be accredited by an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. To ensure that your chosen school has received accreditation recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, do a quick search on the department’s website.
While regional institutional accreditation signals that the school you’re attending adheres to stringent standards in all aspects of higher education, programmatic accreditation helps ensure that the program you’re enrolled in adheres to the standards and best practices of your subject area. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) is one such program that accredits education programs, including the PhD. You can do a search on the CAEP website to see if your education PhD program is accredited.
Application & Admissions
When applying for admission to an online PhD program in education, you’ll need to submit a few basics. Although some variation exists, the staples are generally similar across programs. These include: official transcripts, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, research-heavy writing samples, a resume/CV, and proof of English proficiency. If you have these ready to go, you’re well on your way.
Many programs look at a candidate’s readiness for PhD work as a whole, which includes but is not limited to GPA. Some may consider your GPA in education courses only, others may look at your master’s GPA, and others at your overall GPA. For example, Indiana State University’s online PhD in educational leadership requires a B+ or above in all graduate work attempted.
Unlike an EdD program where GRE scores may hold little weight or not be required, they can matter when it comes to PhD programs. Colorado State University’s online PhD in higher education leadership requires all applicants to submit his or her scores if either their undergraduate or graduate GPA is below 3.0. And St. John’s online PhD in literacy requires a score of 4 on the analytical written section of the exam. If you have a less-than-ideal score, or you’re far removed from entrance exams, look for programs with wiggle room when it comes to standardized tests.
Online EdD programs tend to require at least three years of professional education experience for admission. This usually isn’t the case with online PhDs in education, where the experience focus is on academics. The standard degree requirement is a master’s in education, although some programs may accept students with a bachelor’s, as long as the student completes master’s-related coursework first.
How Much Does an Online PhD in Education Cost?
Many working professionals are concerned about the cost of earning an online PhD while balancing other financial responsibilities. In addition to tuition, there may be fees for applications, graduation, technology, and online services. Fortunately, there are many funding options available to prospective PhD students, including grants, fellowships, and federal financial aid.
Tuition makes up a majority of the cost of your online PhD. However, fully online programs, as opposed to hybrid programs with a campus element, often charge online students the in-state tuition rate, making an online PhD more affordable. This can save between $15,000 and $25,000 over the life of your program. Here’s a glimpse at the tuition rates for some of today’s best online education PhDs:
NOTE: You have many options when it comes to paying for your online PhD in education. Look for scholarship, fellowships, employer assistance programs, and federal student loans. Several PhD education programs also offer scholarships just for their students. For example, Northcentral University offers the Give Your All scholarship, which awards two full-tuition scholarships and two $20,000 scholarships. Capella University offers the Capella Progress Award, which is a $20,000 scholarship for doctoral students.
Salaries for the Online PhD in Education
The PhD is highly coveted, particularly in higher education. It’s typically required for careers such as dean of students or provost. Payscale.com reports those holding a master’s degree in education make an average of around $58,000 across the nation, but those with an PhD in education can see an increase of average salary to approximately $85,000 per year. While education alone can’t guarantee earned salary, the education PhD may elevate salary dramatically, depending on the career path you follow upon graduation. PayScale reports the following salaries for professionals who have earned the PhD in education: