Cost of Leadership: 2023 Update

Erik EllefsenThe CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

Two people shaking hands after reaching an agreement.

At the encouragement of some school leaders, in 2018 Erik Ellefsen did a brief evaluation of Christian head of school compensation called The Cost of Leadership: A Brief Inquiry into Head of School Compensation. In 2021, Matthew Lee added significant insights based on updated data in Cost of Leadership: An Updated Analysis of School Leadership Compensation.

We were going to wait until 2024 to update this series to see how the pandemic may have impacted this data, but due to the number of Head of School searches happening this fall, we thought it might be helpful to both school leaders and boards to update our reporting now. Our new collaborator Alison Johnson has added a fresh and outside perspective that has us asking new questions.

Notes on the Data

As in the 2018 and 2021 surveys, we used GuideStar 990 data for the original 22 Christian schools. Additionally, in this analysis we added another 28 schools to broaden the comparison.

We tried to keep our added school choices and data collection similar to the process of the original 2018 survey:

  • We chose schools based on reputation and leadership stability, while broadening regional representation in this survey.
  • The 2018 survey used FY2015 reports, the 2021 survey used FY2018 reports, and this survey used FY2020 reports as these were the most recent available for all the schools. These will provide us with a clearer picture of trends post-Covid when we do future surveys.
  • Our primary comparison points include top Total Compensation (which in all cases was the Head of School or similarly titled position) and Line 18: Expenses.
  • Likewise, as in 2021, we used the Cost of Living Index for added context in this analysis.

What We Found

Using data from both the original schools as well as the new schools, we arrived at several key findings:

1. Head of School continues to be the highest compensated employee at all schools in the survey.

2. There was more variability in how the original school leaders are compensated compared to the additional schools. With data from the additional schools added, total compensation was more tightly distributed (see Figure 1). Likewise, the median compensation increased from $242,000 in 2015 to $300,000 in 2018 to $351,000 in 2020 for the original schools. However, when we added the new schools, the total compensation median moderates to $262,000 in 2020.

Cost of Living Index-adjusted compensation and benefits.

3. Schools in the South (outside of Northern Virginia) continue to be a regional outlier in total compensation in general, but especially when you add the Cost-of-Living Index analysis (see Figures 2 & 3).

Cost of Living Index-adjusted compensation and expenses.
Cost of living and total compensation.

4. Matt wrote about discoveries made related to gender disparity at these schools in a 2021 blog titled The Laborer Deserves Her Wages. In this survey, even adding the new schools, we did not find any discernible changes and continue to lament the lack of female leadership at the highest levels of Christian schools.

5. It appears that Line 18: Expenses in the 990 report is a good comparison point as Head of School compensation generally increases at a comparable rate to overall school expenses (see Figure 4). For schools that see these numbers we do believe that “Expenses” is the best current indicator for smaller or even less affluent schools as we had discovered in past years that tuition and student body size can be quite variable and hard to get accurate information on from schools.

Percent change in compensation and benefits since 2014 (inflation-adjusted).

How To Use This Information

Each time we’ve done this analysis we have sought to add insights that might lead to greater conversation on leadership and the cost of quality, stable, and life-giving leadership in Christian schools. Though the information in this study may not provide everything needed for these conversations, we hope that discussion is stimulated amongst the Christian school organizations as well as within schools themselves.

These conversations are particularly important given realities in our profession:

  • Significant increase in open positions this year that will create a domino effect into future years.
  • Significant increase in retirements as millennials are now a bigger portion of the job force than baby boomers.
  • Significant increase in turnover in leadership positions throughout the entirety of the education profession.
  • Significant increase in competition as school choice increases the options for school leadership.
  • Continued turnover in leadership as the average school leader tenure is approximately three years.
  • AND . . . a significant decrease in future generations choosing to pursue education as their profession of choice.

“Our goal is to provide relevant data to better our profession and improve outcomes for students in all schools.”

Here are a few questions to jumpstart conversation:

Christian School Organizations
  • Are you analyzing compensation data as well as considering who is being compensated at the highest levels in your member schools?
  • How are you developing opportunities for leaders from demographics underrepresented in Christian school top positions?
  • How are you analyzing this compensation data to compare faculty compensation rates with leadership compensation?
Leadership Search Firms
  • How do you frame compensation conversations with school boards prior to searches to set expectations?
  • How are you staying current on what constitutes high-quality school leadership characteristics and practices?
  • How are you promoting and advocating opportunities for underrepresented candidates?
School Boards
  • What do you believe about leadership compensation packages, and how do your 990s reflect stated school values?
  • Does your compensation package for your school leaders value their wellbeing, success, and professional growth?
  • Do your contract negotiations with school leaders reflect your values and commitments to current and future leaders?
  • If using a search firm, do they engage with you in a strategic compensation package discussion that recognizes your school’s values?

“Does your compensation package for your school leaders value their wellbeing, success, and professional growth?”

Current School Leaders
  • Does your compensation reflect your own values about this profession and leadership capacity in schools?
  • How are you promoting and developing greater leadership capacity in underrepresented leaders at your school?
  • Have you compared your compensation to that of your faculty to ensure a high-quality faculty?
  • How can you use this study to have honest and transparent conversations with your board about creating more dynamic leadership structures in your school?
Aspiring School Leaders
  • What do you value, and how does this information support your ambitions for future leadership?
  • How can you use 990 data as you prepare for the candidate process?
  • How are you opening doors for other leaders as you pursue your own professional ambitions?

We hope this information is beneficial. Our goal is to provide relevant data to better our profession and improve outcomes for students in all schools. We’d love to hear your feedback and wonderings as they inform our future work: seeking wisdom for our colleagues in school leadership.


  • Erik Ellefsen

    Erik Ellefsen is a CACE Senior Fellow and the Director of Networks and Improvement at the Baylor University’s Center for School Leadership. He also serves as Senior Fellow for Cardus, hosts Digital Education (a podcast providing engaging conversations with some of the most innovative education leaders), and is a leading collaborator and author of the Mindshift and Future Ready projects.

  • Alison Heape Johnson

    Alison Heape Johnson is a research fellow for the Association of Christian Schools International. Her research focuses on teacher and administrator pipelines and teacher quality in Christian education. Previously, she taught in public and Christian schools.

  • Matthew H. Lee

    Matthew H. Lee is a clinical assistant professor at Kennesaw State University, where he conducts research for the Education Economics Center. He is also a Senior Fellow with the Association of Christian Schools International and a non-resident scholar at the Baylor University Center for School Leadership.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.