Headmasters' Compensation

Which Head Is Paid the Most?

Headmaster. Marc Romanelli/Getty Images

Education professionals often earn significantly less than what they could earn in the business world or in other professions. However, there is a group of leaders of private schools who are actually seeing surges in their salaries that pack quite the financial punch: the Head of School. What are these leaders really making and is it justified?

The Head of School's Job & Compensation Averages

A head-of-school is a job that comes with enormous responsibility. At private schools, these high powered individuals have to run not only a school but also a business. Many people don't like to think of schools as businesses, but the truth is, they are. A Head of School will actually oversee a multi-million dollar business, some schools are billion dollar businesses when you consider endowments and operating budgets, and they are responsible for the well-being of hundreds of children every day. Boarding schools add another level of responsibility when it comes to leadership and oversight of children, as they are essentially open 24/7. The head is involved in not only the aspects of academics and ensuring students receive quality educations, but also hiring and HR, fundraising, marketing, budgeting, investing, crisis management, recruiting, and enrollment. The person who sits in this role must be a part of every aspect of the school. 

When you consider the enormous expectations made of these dedicated individuals, most head of schools' compensation is far below comparable levels in other fields. How far below? Significantly. The average compensation of the top 500 CEO's is in the millions according to Executive Paywatch. According to NAIS, the average compensation for a head of school is about $201,000, with boarding school heads edging out their peers with about $238,000. However, some schools also have presidents, which at the day school level are making comparable salaries, but are making an average of $330,000 at boarding schools. 

But, that's not to say that Heads of Schools are hurting. An interesting note is that many private school heads also tend to receive extensive benefits, such as free housing and meals (even some day schools offer this), school vehicles, housekeeping services, country club memberships, discretionary funds, strong retirement benefits, and even expensive buyout packages should the school not be thrilled with his or her performance. This can easily equate to another $50,000-$200,000 in benefits, depending on the school. 

Comparison to Public School & College Compensation

While many claim heads-of-schools make less than their corporate counterparts, the truth is that many actually earn more than some public school superintendents. The average salary without benefits for a superintendent is about $150,000 nationally. But some states, like New York, have superintendent salaries exceeding $400,000. In general, the salaries at Urban Schools tend to be greater for superintendents.

Now, college presidents, by contrast, make significantly more than private school headmasters. Reports vary from source to source -- some claiming presidents average about $428,000, while others show the average is more than $525,000 annually with many earning well over $1,000,000 in annual compensation. The top 20 highest-paid presidents all earned over a million dollars annually, even in 2014. 

Why Do Head-of-School salaries vary so much?

Location significantly affects the salaries of these top-level positions, as does the school environment. Heads of schools, historically referred to as headmasters when the positions were held primarily by men, at junior schools (middle schools and elementary schools) tend to make significantly less than their secondary school counterparts, and boarding school heads tend to make the most due to a large amount of responsibility the school has in providing an appropriate homelife for students from around the world. Schools in small towns tend to offer smaller salaries, although many New England private schools buck that trend, with schools that are centuries old in small towns offering some of the top salaries in the country.

A couple of years ago, the Boston Globe came out with a story about the surge of salaries in New England, uncovering several heads with salaries ranging from $450,000 to over a million dollars. Fast forward to 2017, and those heads are making even more, with increases equating to 25% raises in only a few years.

School financials also play a role in head-of-school compensation. Naturally, those institutions with higher endowments and annual funds also tend to pay their leaders higher salaries. However, tuition doesn't always indicate the level of a head-of-school's salary. While some schools with high tuitions will indeed offer some of the most competitive compensation packages, those are usually schools that don't rely on tuition to cover the bulk of the operating budget. In general, the more tuition-driven a school in annually, the less likely it is that their head of school will be pulling the biggest dollars. 

Compensation Information Sources

The Form 990, which non-profit schools file annually, is similar to a tax return. It contains information about headmasters' compensation, as well as other high paid employees. Unfortunately, to make sense of figures you have to examine several different pages of the filing. The elements of the compensation packages are complex and are contained under many different expense headings. If the school is a 501(c)(3) not for profit educational institution, it must file a Form 990 with the IRS annually. The Foundation Center and Guidestar are two sites that make these returns available online.

Note: the cash salaries are somewhat misleading as most of these key employees receive significant allowances for housing, meals, transportation, travel, and retirement plans apart from their cash salaries. Figure an additional 15-30% for allowances and/or non-cash compensation. The gross amount in many cases exceeds $500,000, with some exceeding $1,000,000 with other compensation factored in.

A sampling of head-of-school and president base salaries ranked from highest to lowest, based on Form 990 submissions from 2014, unless otherwise noted:

  • Episcopal High School, Alexandria, VA $605,610 with $114,487 in est. other compensation
  • Milton Academy, Milton, MA $587,112 with $94,840 in est. other compensation
  • Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, NH - $551,143 with $299,463 in est. other compensation
  • Phillips Academy, Andover, MA - $489,000 was reported in 2013, with no head of school compensation listed in 2014
  • Choate Rosemary Hall, Wallingford, CT $486,215 with $192,907 in est. other compensation
  • Harvard Westlake School, Studio City, CA - President $483,731 with $107,105 in est. other*
  • Rye Country Day School, Rye, NY - $460,267 (down from $696,891 in 2013)
  • Hackley School, Tarrytown, NY - $456,084 salary and $328,644 in est. other compensation
  • Deerfield Academy, Deerfield, MA - $434,242 with $180,335 in est. other compensation
  • Western Reserve Academy, Hudson, OH - $322,484 with $128,589 in est. other compensation
  • Harvard Westlake School, Studio City, CA - Head $320,540 with $112,395 in est. other*

*Figures from the 2015 Form 990

Some older 990 forms have revealed the following headmaster salaries, from highest to lowest. We'll continue to update this information as we obtain it. 

  • Greensboro Day School, Greensboro, NC $304,158
  • The Brearley School, New York, NY $300,000
  • Lancaster Country Day School, Lancaster, PA $299,240
  • Poly Prep Country Day School, Brooklyn, NY $298,656
  • Georgetown Day School, Washington, DC $296,202
  • Culver Academies, Culver, IN $295,000
  • St. Mark's School of Texas, Dallas, TX $290,000
  • Hathaway Brown School, Shaker Heights, OH $287,113
  • Madeira School, Maclean, VA $286,847
  • The Dalton Schools, New York, NY $285,000
  • Hotchkiss School, Lakeville, CT $283,920
  • Punahou School, Honolulu, HI $274,967
  • Far Hills Country Day School, Far Hills, NJ $274,300
  • Groton School, Groton, MA $258,243
  • North Shore Country Day School, Winnetka, IL $250,000
  • Avon Old Farms School, Avon, CT $247,743
  • The Peddie School, Hightstown, NJ $242,314
  • Kent School, Kent, CT $240,000
  • Episcopal Academy, Merion, PA $232,743
  • Cranbrook Schools, Bloomfield Hills, MI $226,600
  • University School of Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI $224,400
  • McCallie School, Chattanooga, TN $223,660
  • Middlesex School, Concord, MA $223,000
  • Sidwell Friends School, Washington, DC $220,189
  • Ransom Everglades School, Miami, FL $220,000
  • The Masters School, Dobbs Ferry, NY $216,028
  • Greenwich Country Day School, Greenwich, CT $210,512
  • Harvey School, Katonah, NY $200,000
  • The Hill School, Pottstown, PA $216,100
  • Taft School, Watertown, CT $216,000
  • Shore Country Day School, Beverly, MA $206,250
  • Miami Country Day School, Miami, FL $200,000
  • Village School, Pacific Palisades, CA $210,000
  • Lake Forest Country Day School, Lake Forest, IL $188,677
  • Hillel School of Metropolitan Detroit, Farmington Hills, MI $156,866
  • Annie Wright School, Tacoma, WA $151,410
  • Foxcroft School, Middleburg, VA $150,000
  • Ravenscroft School, Raleigh, NC $143,700
  • Forman School, Litchfield, CT $142,500

Are Headmasters' Compensation Packages Justifiable?

A good headmaster deserves to be well-paid. The head of a private school must be a top-notch fundraiser, a superb public relations person, a fine administrator and a dynamic community leader. How lucky we are to have talented educators and administrators who lead private schools rather than manage a Fortune 100 enterprise. Many of them could make 5 or 10 or even 20 times as much as they currently do.

Trustees need to review their key employees' compensation packages annually and improve them as much as they can. It's extremely important to attract and retain talented administrators in our private schools. Our children's future depends on it.

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Kennedy, Robert. "Headmasters' Compensation." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/headmasters-compensation-salary-2774024. Kennedy, Robert. (2020, August 27). Headmasters' Compensation. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/headmasters-compensation-salary-2774024 Kennedy, Robert. "Headmasters' Compensation." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/headmasters-compensation-salary-2774024 (accessed March 21, 2023).