Because education in the United States is considered a public good, and is delivered as a public service, people sometimes forget that in many senses it is an enormous business operation.
Although most schools in the country, both public and private, do not operate for profit, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of money changing hands. According to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data, the average expenditure per student for public schools in 2018-2019 was $13,701.
That money flows through to salaries, employee benefits, outside service providers, supplies, utilities, and a whole host of other expenses.
On the other side, it comes in through tax revenues, grants, and other kinds of government funding that all come with stringent accounting requirements.
Although school superintendents are ultimately responsible for bringing this money in while principals have some say in how it is spent, they aren’t trained in the finer details of tax accounting, reporting requirements, or payroll functions. Every school district has to hire professionals who has deeper knowledge of financial and regulatory matters, along with the basics of the American education industry.
Acquiring that special blend of expertise often requires specialized degrees, as well as meeting state requirements for licensure as a school business administrator. It’s a uniquely important job that keeps the lights on and the buses running, and it takes the right professional education to do it right.
What Does a School Business Administrator Do?
School business administrators are the leaders who take care of all the essential details of financial and operational matters in schools. They deal with the essentials of accounting in the complex area of public finances, set up and administer benefit plans, deal with payroll snags, and ensure that the rules are followed and that programs won’t run out of money before the end of the fiscal year.
In smaller districts or schools this can be a tiny operation, with only a handful of staff. In others, business leaders are managers of their own substantial army of specialists, in departments like:
In private schools or at colleges, school business administrators may also be responsible for overseeing marketing efforts.
Although business administrators handle the day-to-day aspects of all these functions, the ultimate responsibility for what they are doing falls to the principals, superintendents, and school boards for whom they work. So they are also responsible for reporting on financial and operational matters to those authorities, as well as taking orders and making policy in accordance with that guidance.
School Business Administrators Have Many Different Specializations
Particularly in larger schools, or at the district level, there is just as much specialization on the business side as there is in education itself. No one expects the school reading specialist to also take care of pre-calculus courses; it’s just as true that the school treasurer isn’t necessarily expected to be a human resources wizard.
As is true in other kinds of businesses, the larger the school organization, the more specialization you are likely to find. In smallish rural districts, a single business administrator may take on all these roles. In a major urban district, administrators may head entire departments for each of them.
Some of the most common specialties for school business administration include:
Cultivating the Right Skillset to Fill a School Business Administration Job
Just as there are many different specific roles in school business administration, there are different skillsets to support them. In general, a school business administrator will need the same core skills as any professional in their line of work, whether it’s bookkeeping or facility operations.
But school business administrators are also leaders, and no matter what their focus, they will need essential leadership skills to make it happen. Those include:
There’s also a presumption that school business administration jobs, particularly those that require licensure, have a high level of financial awareness. So being good with numbers is always a good idea when pursuing these positions.
Do You Need a License to Become a School Business Administrator?
Licensing is not required for every single business position in a school or district. For that matter, not all states have a specific license for business professionals in schools or district offices.
However, many states require some form of licensing or certification process complete with background checks for anyone working within a school building, including the office staff. In those states, licensing is as much about student safety as it is about regulating business jobs that have a significant amount of fiscal or supervisory responsibility.
Of course, business administrators at the college level, and frequently those working in private schools, are not required to hold state licensure. Their qualifications will usually have to be just as strong, if not stronger, than public school business admins, but it’s entirely up to the institution that hires them to review and enforce their own standards.
The state licenses for these positions come with various titles, including:
Different License Levels and Paths May Have Different Requirements for School Business Administrators
Like many types of educational licensing, states often have a sort of ladder of license levels leading into these positions. You may start off with a provisional license with bare bones, entry-level requirements, then progress to a standard, and later a professional license. Each builds on the qualifications of the previous level.
For states that offer this approach, it’s common to only need a bachelor’s degree to get the entry-level license as a school business administrator. For higher levels of qualification, you may need a master’s degree. The fields in which they are earned do not need to be consistent, however, so you can pick up a bachelor’s in business administration and later move on to a master’s in educational leadership.
Due to the pressure of filling these critical jobs, some states allow various exceptions or alternative pathways to licensure as well.
Alternative paths to licensure may carve out exceptions for the type or level of degree you hold, allowing certain specific coursework to meet the criteria. They may also credit years of experience as a business manager or supervisor in lieu of education.
Experience itself may stand as a requirement in some pathways to licensure. In some states, that can come through the possession of an initial teaching license, with the requisite classroom experience needed to earn it. In others, some years of employment, or a period of supervised practicum, can check the box.
Unlike other types of education licensure, requirements for business administrators may not include any educational testing requirement. In those states that do include an exam, the most common standardized test for these roles is the Praxis Administration and Supervision exam or a very similar state-specific test. You may also have other state-specific tests on ethics or regulatory matters.
The Right Degree to Qualify for School and District Business Administration Jobs
Because these jobs don’t involve standing up in front of a classroom trying to teach Shakespeare, or even supervising teachers who do, they may allow or require very different degree paths from those of other educational leaders.
It’s quite common for states to require a degree in accounting or another business-related field to get your foot in the door with a license. These can include:
Those may come at the bachelor’s level for an initial license in states that offer such. But in the long run, you’ll want or need a master’s degree with specialized and advanced training, whether it’s needed for a license or not.
It’s not uncommon for professionals in this area to pursue dual degrees, such as a joint Master of Arts in Education Administration and Master of Business Administration (MBA).
There are specializations that come at the unique skill requirements of these jobs from both directions. On the education-first side, you will find degrees like a Master of Education in Educational Business Administration, or Master of Science in Educational Leadership with a specialization in School District Business Leadership.
You can also come at it from the business side of the table. There are quite a few Master of Business Administration degrees with concentrations in Educational Leadership available that satisfy state licensure requirements for business administrators.
Some of these degrees offer additional concentration options, in areas such as:
What Kind of Coursework Do School Business Administrators Study in College?
Whichever route you take to your degree, you’ll find similar coursework with a somewhat different emphasis.
For starters, if you’re working in a highly specialized field like finance or human resources, your undergraduate degree will hit all the professional areas in those fields hard. You need the same qualifications as an accountant or HR manager no matter what industry you work in.
At the level of master’s studies, though, you’ll get a broader set of coursework that is designed to offer general leadership and strategic skills over technical detail. So you’ll find courses in areas such as:
And a wide range of electives allow you to further increase your educational leadership skills through studies in diversity and inclusion, educator training, labor negotiations, and special education law.
Like other master’s-level studies, these degrees are capped off by either a thesis paper or capstone project. The work is designed to allow you to pursue unique research on a subject of your choosing and express your own thoughts and ideas.
Salary Levels for School and District Business Administrators
Pinning down the salary levels of school business administrators is more complicated than with other educational leadership jobs. After all, principals and teachers all have their own unique categories tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for salary and employment levels.
In this vein, the closest BLS has to offer for business administrators is the catch-all category of Education Administrator, All Other. In that position, the average annual salary for 2021 was $89,130 per year. The most highly educated and experienced individuals in the job, and those likely to be working at the college or university level, could expect something in the top ten percent. As of 2021, that came out to more than $154,690.
But school business administrators who specialize in a more specific professional field, such as accounting or HR management, are tracked by BLS as part of those categories.
Because BLS also tracks salary data by industry, however, it’s possible to drill down and see exactly what the average salaries are for those professionals working in education environments, too. There are two main fields to look at:
As public employees, you can enjoy all the fruits of generous pension plans, paid-time-off, and excellent healthcare coverage together with solid job security.
Whether you are a professional who has the right business and accounting skills who wants to make the transition to an education environment, or an educator who sees an opportunity on the business-side of the field, the right degree and hard work can set you up to support the future of your community in an entirely new way.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Education Administrators, All Other, Human Resources Managers, General and Operations Managers, Financial Managers, and Accountants and Auditors reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed May 2023.