Special Education Degrees

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Updated January 6, 2023

Special education careers require specific training and experience that can be obtained through degree programs offered at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

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How to Prepare for a Career Working with Students with Special Needs

Working with children who have special needs is a noble calling. Teachers who pursue a career in special education enrich the lives of students with disabilities as well as provide valuable information to parents about their child's progress. Special education careers require specific training and experience that can be obtained through degree programs offered at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. This page provides information about these degree programs, including what students can expect to learn, the jobs they can pursue after earning their degree, and the qualities prospective students should look for in a program.

Best Special Education Degree Programs

Although there are many special education degree programs, some are better than others. To help students find the best schools, we have ranked programs based on factors such as student-teacher ratio, tuition and student graduation rate. Browse our listing below of the top special education degree programs.

#1 Special Education Degrees

Eastern Michigan University

  • Ypsilanti, MI
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Eastern Michigan University, a public college in Ypsilanti, provides flexible study options for undergraduate students near and far. Learners can choose from 143 in-person bachelor's degree programs and three remote options. Students benefit from a supportive learning environment and personalized interactions with faculty and staff.

Students complete foundational and advanced coursework while enrolled, and can pursue internships and other experiential learning opportunities. Enrollees can modify their degree depending on their career goals, in consultation with an academic advisor. While enrolled, participants benefit from career and academic counselors, receiving personal and academic guidance throughout their studies.

Prospective students can inquire with the financial aid office about funding opportunities and explore their eligibility for scholarships, fellowships, and other aid. On average, students receive $8,183 in financial aid.

Average Tuition
In-state
$13,658
Out-of-state
$13,658
Retention Rate
70%
Admission Rate
74%
Students Enrolled
17,784
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
50% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Higher Learning Commission

#2 Special Education Degrees

Canisius College

  • Buffalo, NY
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Students seeking a flexible bachelor's degree program should consider Canisius College, which offers 65 bachelor's degree programs. Students benefit from a supportive learning community, top-ranked faculty, and motivated peers.

Students benefit from foundational and advanced coursework, as well as industry-specific lectures. Degree-seekers can work with their academic advisor to modify their coursework, pick electives, and customize their learning to suit their academic and professional goals. While enrolled, participants benefit from career and academic counselors, receiving personal and academic guidance throughout their studies.

Based on their eligibility, students can receive scholarships, fellowships, and other financial aid awards. The college offers 97% of all enrollees some form of aid.

Average Tuition
In-state
$27,940
Out-of-state
$27,940
Retention Rate
84%
Admission Rate
83%
Students Enrolled
3,102
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
32% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education

#3 Special Education Degrees

Daemen College

  • Amherst, NY
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Individuals looking for a premier bachelor's-level education that fits their schedule should consider Daemen College. Located in Amherst, New York, the private institution offers competitive, flexible programs that can be completed in person or online. Students connect with supportive faculty, colleagues, and other staff through in-person and online learning environments.

Students in the special education program complete industry-relevant coursework and attend lectures, gaining the skills and knowledge needed to succeed. Learners also have the option to pursue experiential learning opportunities, such as internships and research projects.

Enrollees work with an academic advisor and customize their degree to meet their academic and career goals. Students can access institutional resources, such as career services and academic advising, throughout their studies.

To manage the costs of education, students can apply for scholarships, fellowships, and other funding opportunties through the financial aid office. 

Average Tuition
In-state
$28,830
Out-of-state
$28,830
Retention Rate
78%
Admission Rate
62%
Students Enrolled
2,603
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
22% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education

#4 Special Education Degrees

Niagara University

  • Niagara University, NY
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Niagara University provides premier degree programs suitable for undergraduate students. Students can enroll in one of 52 campus-based bachelor's programs. Learners across modalities connect with peers and faculty through a supportive learning community.

Students complete foundational and advanced coursework while enrolled and can pursue internships and other experiential learning opportunities. While enrolled, learners can customize their study by declaring a double major, minor, or degree concentration, and can also choose elective classes. Students can access institutional resources, such as career srevices and academic advising, throughout the course of their studies.

Depending on eligibility, students can apply scholarships, fellowships, and other funding towards their educational expenses. 

Average Tuition
In-state
$33,000
Out-of-state
$33,000
Retention Rate
87%
Admission Rate
89%
Students Enrolled
3,723
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
31% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education

#5 Special Education Degrees

Syracuse University

  • Syracuse, NY
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Syracuse University supports flexible educational opportunities for undergraduate students. The Syracuse-based school supports hybrid learning, with in-person and online programs. The college campus and online learning environment enable students to connect with peers, faculty, and staff during their studies.

Whether in-person or online, students work alongside peers, faculty, and staff. Throughout their studies, students in the program complete coursework as part of the program curriculum. Learners engage foundational and advanced concepts throughout interactive study and gain practical knowledge.

Students can declare minors, degree concentrations, and further customize their studies in consultation with an academic advisor. Learners further benefit from access to institutional resources, such as academic advising and career services.

Students can meet with a financial aid counselor to explore funding opportunties. The institution reports that 82% of all degree-seekers receive some form of financial aid.

Average Tuition
In-state
$50,616
Out-of-state
$50,616
Retention Rate
92%
Admission Rate
44%
Students Enrolled
22,850
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
15% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education

#6 Special Education Degrees

University of Mary

  • Bismarck, ND
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

University of Mary is a private college offering premier bachelor's-level education to students worldwide. Undergraduate students benefit from hybrid learning opportunities, with the option to study in-person or online. Learners can choose from one of 57 bachelor's degree programs, or opt for remote study across seven programs.

Enrollees benefit from a supportive learning community throughout their studies. Students in the program complete industry-relevant coursework and attend lectures, gaining the skills and knowledge needed to succeed. Learners also have the option to pursue experiential learning opportunities, such as internships and research projects.

Students can select electives, degree concentrations, and degree minors, and pursue other academic modifications. Those enrolled can also access institutional resources, such as career services and academic advising, throughout their studies.

Students can meet with the financial aid office to determine their eligibility for scholarships and other educational funding.

Average Tuition
In-state
$17,350
Out-of-state
$17,350
Retention Rate
80%
Admission Rate
74%
Students Enrolled
3,779
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
45% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Higher Learning Commission

#7 Special Education Degrees

Purdue University Global-Indianapolis

  • West Lafayette, IN
  • 4 years
  • Online

Purdue University Global-Indianapolis supports flexible educational opportunities for undergraduate students. Students can pursue remote study or learn from the college's campus in West Lafayette, Indiana. Students gain access to a supportive learning community regardless of their location.

Whether in person or online, students join a supportive learning community, working alongside peers, faculty, and staff. The college provides students with a competitive education through intensive study. Learners complete foundational and advanced coursework, with the option to pursue internships and other experiential learning opportunities.

Students can declare minors, degree concentrations, and further customize their studies in consultation with an academic advisor. Students can access institutional resources, such as career services and academic advising, throughout their studies.

Depending on eligibility, students can apply for scholarships, fellowships, and other funding opportunities. According to the college, 76% of all enrollees receive financial aid.

Average Tuition
In-state
$7,920
Out-of-state
$13,356
Retention Rate
100%
Admission Rate
Not provided
Students Enrolled
38,138
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
99% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Higher Learning Commission

#8 Special Education Degrees

Fresno Pacific University

  • Fresno, CA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Fresno Pacific University provides premier degree programs suitable for undergraduate students. Enrollees can choose from one of 89 bachelor's degree programs or opt for remote study across three degree programs. Students benefit from a supportive learning environment and personalized interactions with faculty and staff.

Students gain skills and knowledge through their coursework and become better prepared for their future careers. Students can customize their studies by choosing electives and declaring minors and degree concentrations. While enrolled, participants benefit from career and academic counselors, receiving personal and academic guidance throughout their studies.

Based on their eligibility, students can receive scholarships, fellowships, and other financial aid awards. The college reports that 100% of all learners receive some form of aid.

Average Tuition
In-state
$32,458
Out-of-state
$32,458
Retention Rate
74%
Admission Rate
66%
Students Enrolled
4,300
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
40% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission

#9 Special Education Degrees

Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College

  • Saint Mary of the Woods, IN
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College offers numerous bachelor's degree programs suitable for learners from all walks of life. The college supports both in-person and remote bachelor's degree programs. Regardless of modality, enrollees benefit from rigorous coursework, supportive faculty and peers, and a premier education.

Enrollees complete general and advanced coursework, gaining the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in their field of choosing. Students can work with their academic advisor to customize their degree and study trajectory. Throughout their studies, students can access academic advising, career services, and other institutional resources.

Students can meet with the financial aid office to determine their eligibility for scholarships, fellowships, and other financial aid awards. Of all enrollees, 100% receive financial aid awards.

Average Tuition
In-state
$29,950
Out-of-state
$29,950
Retention Rate
66%
Admission Rate
67%
Students Enrolled
1,094
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
32% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Higher Learning Commission

#10 Special Education Degrees

Ball State University

  • Muncie, IN
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Looking for a premier education to jumpstart your career? Consider one of the 131 bachelor’s degrees from Ball State University. Learners can choose from in-person or online programs. To date, the school offers 29 online bachelor’s degrees.

Students gain skills and knowledge through their coursework and become better prepared for their future careers. Students have the option to modify their classes, choose electives, and customize their studies. While enrolled, participants benefit from career and academic counselors, receiving personal and academic guidance throughout their studies.

Students can meet with a financial aid counselor to determine their eligibility for funding and explore scholarships, fellowships, and other forms of aid. The institution reports that 91% of all degree-seekers receive some form of financial aid.

Average Tuition
In-state
$9,358
Out-of-state
$26,138
Retention Rate
75%
Admission Rate
77%
Students Enrolled
22,443
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
44% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Higher Learning Commission

#11 Special Education Degrees

SUNY College at Plattsburgh

  • Plattsburgh, NY
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Students looking to jumpstart their career should consider a bachelor's degree from SUNY College at Plattsburgh. Of its 64 bachelor's degree programs, two are offered online. Enrollees gain access to a supportive learning environment during their studies.

Students benefit from foundational and advanced coursework, as well as industry-specific lectures. Learners can work with their academic advisor to customize their degree and study trajectory. Enrollees can access career services, academic advising, and other resources throughout their program duration.

Depending on eligibility, students can apply scholarships, fellowships, and other funding towards their educational expenses. The institution reports that 94% of all degree-seekers receive some form of financial aid.

Average Tuition
In-state
$7,070
Out-of-state
$16,980
Retention Rate
75%
Admission Rate
58%
Students Enrolled
5,258
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
35% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education

#12 Special Education Degrees

SUNY Buffalo State

  • Buffalo, NY
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

SUNY Buffalo State supports flexible educational opportunities for undergraduate students. A leader in hybrid education, the public college supports both in-person and online learning. Students connect with supportive faculty, colleagues, and other staff through in-person and online learning environments.

Upon enrollment, students connect with a supportive learning community, whether in person or online. Degree-seekers benefit from a robust education, completing coursework that familiarizes them with their field of interest. Students complete foundational and advanced coursework, gaining a well-rounded education.

Enrollees work with an academic advisor and customize their degree to meet their academic and career goals. Students can receive guidance through career services, academic advising, and other institutional resources.

The college connects students with scholarships, fellowships, and other funding opportunities to be applied to educational expenses. Students can expect to receive an average financial aid package of $9,107.

Average Tuition
In-state
$7,070
Out-of-state
$16,980
Retention Rate
58%
Admission Rate
67%
Students Enrolled
8,658
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
26% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education

#13 Special Education Degrees

Mercyhurst University

  • Erie, PA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Students seeking a flexible education can explore Mercyhurst University's in-person and online degree offerings. The college supports 75 bachelor's programs that connect students with premier faculty and supportive learning communities.

While enrolled, students complete foundational and advanced coursework, gaining skills and knowledge relevant to their subject field. In consultation with an academic advisor, students can customize their coursework, select electives, and declare minors and degree concentrations. While enrolled, students can access institutional resources, including career services and academic advising.

Students can meet with the financial aid office to determine their eligibility for scholarships, fellowships, and other financial aid awards. The institution reports that 100% of all degree-seekers receive some form of financial aid.

Average Tuition
In-state
$37,500
Out-of-state
$37,500
Retention Rate
79%
Admission Rate
86%
Students Enrolled
2,704
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
15% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education

#14 Special Education Degrees

Indiana Wesleyan University-Marion

  • Marion, IN
  • 4 years
  • Campus

Students seeking a flexible bachelor's degree program should consider Indiana Wesleyan University-Marion. The private college offers 82 bachelor's degree programs that allow students to connect with premier faculty and a supportive learning community.

While enrolled, students complete foundational and advanced coursework, gaining skills and knowledge relevant to special education. Students can customize their study by declaring a double major, minor, or degree concentration, and can also choose elective classes. Students benefit from institutional resources throughout their studies, including career services and academic advising.

Students can meet with the financial aid office to determine their eligibility for scholarships, fellowships, and other financial aid awards. The college reports that 100% of all learners receive some form of aid.

Average Tuition
In-state
$27,296
Out-of-state
$27,296
Retention Rate
79%
Admission Rate
67%
Students Enrolled
3,165
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
19% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Higher Learning Commission

#15 Special Education Degrees

Lesley University

  • Cambridge, MA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Lesley University supports a variety of undergraduate-level degree options. The private institution offers hybrid degree programs at the undergraduate level. To date, the private college supports 50 bachelor's programs, 11 of which are online.

Remote and campus-based students connect with peers, faculty, and staff through a supportive learning environment. Students in the special education program complete coursework as part of the program curriculum. Learners complete foundational and advanced coursework, with the option to pursue internships and other experiential learning opportunities.

Learners can customize their study in consultation with an academic advisor, to suit personal and professional goals. Students can receive guidance through career services, academic advising, and other institutional resources.

To defray the costs of education, students can apply for scholarships, fellowships, and other funding opportunities. Of those enrolled, 99% receive some form of aid.

Average Tuition
In-state
$28,500
Out-of-state
$28,500
Retention Rate
81%
Admission Rate
75%
Students Enrolled
4,510
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
20% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes New England Commission on Higher Education

#16 Special Education Degrees

Pace University

  • New York, NY
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Pace University provides flexible study for students seeking bachelor's-level study. Learners can pursue remote study or learn from the college's campus in New York, New York. Regardless of location, students can connect with peers, faculty, and staff through a supportive learning community.

Students near and far benefit from a supportive learning community. Enrollees complete general and advanced classes and can modify their courseload to suit career goals.

Enrollees work with an academic advisor and customize their degree to meet their academic and career goals. Learners can receive personalized guidance by connecting with career services, academic advising, and other institutional resources.

Learners can meet with a financial aid counselor to determine their eligibility for scholarships, fellowships, and federal financial aid. According to the college, 97% of all enrollees receive financial aid.

Average Tuition
In-state
$44,714
Out-of-state
$44,714
Retention Rate
78%
Admission Rate
79%
Students Enrolled
13,395
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
43% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education

#17 Special Education Degrees

University of South Florida-Main Campus

  • Tampa, FL
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Individuals looking for a premier bachelor's-level education that fits their schedule should consider the University of South Florida-Main Campus. Learners can choose from a variety of degree programs, either in-person or online. To date, the school offers 84 bachelor’s programs, with five online degree options.

Learners in person and online benefit from a supportive learning community. The college provides students with a competitive education through intensive study. Students complete foundational and advanced coursework, gaining a well-rounded education.

Enrollees can declare minors, degree concentrations, and further customize their studies in consultation with an academic advisor. Students can access institutional resources, such as career services and academic advising, throughout their studies.

Depending on eligibility, students can apply for scholarships, fellowships, and other funding opportunities. The institution reports that 93% of all degree-seekers receive some form of financial aid.

Average Tuition
In-state
$4,559
Out-of-state
$15,473
Retention Rate
91%
Admission Rate
48%
Students Enrolled
44,246
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
55% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

#18 Special Education Degrees

Western Michigan University

  • Kalamazoo, MI
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Western Michigan University provides premier degree programs suitable for undergraduate students. Of its 163 bachelor's degree programs, three are offered online. Both modalities support rigorous study, and connect students with premier faculty and supportive learning communities.

Students complete foundational and advanced coursework throughout their studies. They work with an academic advisor to customize their degree and declare minors and degree concentrations. Enrollees can receive further guidance through academic advising, career services, and other resources.

The college connects students with numerous funding opportunities, from scholarships to federal financial aid. The college reports that 82% of all learners receive some form of aid, with the average financial aid award package being $8,448.

Average Tuition
In-state
$12,094
Out-of-state
$15,118
Retention Rate
78%
Admission Rate
80%
Students Enrolled
21,470
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
28% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Higher Learning Commission

#19 Special Education Degrees

Vanderbilt University

  • Nashville, TN
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Vanderbilt University, a private college in Nashville, Tennessee, provides flexible study options for undergraduate students near and far. Located in Nashville, Tennessee, the private institution features in-person and virtual programs, enabling students to benefit from top-ranked classes, prominent faculty, and a supportive learning community.

Degree-seekers gain skills and knowledge through classes, lectures, and experiential learning opportunities. Students can customize their study by declaring a double major, minor, or degree concentration, and can also choose elective classes. While enrolled, participants benefit from career and academic counselors, receiving personal and academic guidance throughout their studies.

Prospective students can inquire with the financial aid office about funding opportunities and explore their eligibility for scholarships, fellowships, and other aid. The college boasts that 68% of all enrollees receive some form of aid.

Average Tuition
In-state
$50,800
Out-of-state
$50,800
Retention Rate
97%
Admission Rate
9%
Students Enrolled
13,131
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
8% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

#20 Special Education Degrees

St. John's University-New York

  • Queens, NY
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

St. John's University-New York offers numerous bachelor's degree programs suitable for learners from all walks of life. Learners can choose from in-person or online bachelor's degree programs.

Students complete foundational and advanced coursework throughout their studies. Degree-seekers can work with their academic advisor to modify their coursework, pick electives, and customize their learning to suit their academic and professional goals. Throughout their program, students can access resources, such as career services, academic advising, and library services.

The college connects students with numerous funding opportunities, from scholarships to federal financial aid. The college reports that 100% of all learners receive some form of aid.

Average Tuition
In-state
$41,378
Out-of-state
$41,378
Retention Rate
82%
Admission Rate
72%
Students Enrolled
21,718
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
22% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education

Similar Degree Programs in Education

Education is a diverse field, so those who are interested in the profession can use their degrees to pursue several career paths. The following table allows users to browse our pages on some of the different degrees and career paths in the education field.

Early Childhood Education

Elementary Education

Secondary Education

Special Education

My advice is to enroll in a special education program if you hold the conviction that all students can learn, that all students deserve a chance to be included, and that all people have something special to contribute to our world.

Lindy Crawford, PhD

A Closer Look: Special Education Degrees by Level

Students who are interested in special education careers can earn degrees at the associate, bachelor's, master's and doctoral levels. Each degree level provides more advanced knowledge and skills, and gives students opportunities to build their expertise in a specific area. As professionals advance in their careers, they can earn higher-level degrees designed to build on their knowledge and professional experience.

Special Education Associate Degrees

  • Type of Schools: Community colleges, online colleges
  • Time to Complete: Two years, full-time
  • Career Opportunities: Teacher's aide, entry-level positions & internships

Associate degree programs are designed to give students the fundamental knowledge they need to either pursue entry-level positions or move on to earn higher level degrees. Prerequisites generally include earning a high school diploma or its equivalent.

The coursework in an associate's degree program is designed to familiarize students with the special education field. The following are examples of associate-level classes. 

  • Introduction to Special Education

    This introductory course focuses on the theory and practice of teaching special education courses. It also covers the laws associated with the profession as well as different types of learning disabilities.
  • Foundations of Child Development

    Students explore how children develop at different stages and the social and cultural factors that influence the child development process.
  • Observation and Assessment in Early Childhood Education

    Students learn assessment methods and how educators evaluate students based on observations of their behavior.
  • Educational Psychology

    Students in this course learn about the psychological concepts that apply to learning and teaching methodologies.

Special Education Bachelor's Degrees

  • Type of Schools: Four-year colleges and universities, online colleges
  • Time to Complete: Four years, full-time
  • Career Opportunities: Special education teacher, special education consultant, behavioral specialist, educational diagnostician, behavioral specialist

Special education bachelor's degree programs prepare students to become licensed teachers in their state and train them to teach students of all grades. Although each school has its own requirements for admission, applicants must come in with at least a high school diploma or its equivalent. Students learn about such topics as how to collaborate with other educators to provide education to special needs students, how to create a grade-appropriate curriculum, and how to use critical thinking skills to solve problems in the classroom. Some of these knowledge areas are put to use in an extended student teaching assignment, a standard requirement for graduation.

Special education bachelor's degree programs offer a robust curriculum that prepares students for the classroom. The courses below can typically be found in these programs.

  • Early Intervention for Children with Special Needs

    Students in this course learn how to conduct assessments on young children and create individualized action plans to help them with their education.
  • Early Literacy

    This course explores how teachers instill reading, writing and listening skills in young children.
  • Mathematics for Students with Disabilities

    This course looks at how special education instructional principles are applied to teaching math to students with disabilities.
  • Legal Aspects of Special Education

    Students in this class learn about the laws that govern special education teachers in public and private schools.

Special Education Master's Degrees (MS, MEd)

  • Type of Schools: Four-year universities and colleges, online colleges
  • Time to Complete: Two to three years, full-time
  • Career Opportunities: Special education teacher, special education consultant, education administrator, early intervention specialist, educational diagnostician

Those who are interested in enrolling in master's degree programs are generally required to earn a minimum 2.5 GPA in their undergraduate program and take the GMAT or GRE tests. These degrees are designed for educators who want to take their careers to the next level and pursue leadership roles in the field. Students who enroll in master's degrees learn advanced instructional and assessment skills as well as conduct special education research.

Students on the master's level are able to take specialized courses that focus on areas such as consultation, educational leadership and research. The following is a sample of the classes that are usually found in these programs. 

  • Introduction to Educational Research

    This course covers how to conduct educational research, from developing a hypothesis to discussing findings.
  • Students with Emotional/Social and Behavioral Disorders

    Students learn how to manage a classroom with students who have emotional and behavioral disorders. Course topics include models for disciplining students, assessment techniques and instructional planning.
  • Intervention Strategies

    Because it covers the different ways teachers intervene on behalf of students with learning disabilities, this course may include subjects such as self-monitoring strategies, social problem solving and transitional instruction.
  • Inclusive Classroom Practices

    Students explore the theories and best practices for creating an inclusive classroom environment for special needs students. Specific topics include integrated learning experiences, needs-based formative assessments, and curriculum adaptations and resources for special needs students.

Special Education Doctorate Degrees (PhD, EdD)

  • Type of Schools: Four-year colleges and universities, online colleges
  • Time to Complete: Four to five years
  • Career Opportunities: Professor of special education, state or federal grant coordinator, coordinator of special education, director of special education, disabilities and mental health services manager

In addition to preparing students for leadership positions in the special education field, doctoral degrees also train those who want to become college professors, consultants or education researchers. These programs focus on ethical leadership, research methods, administration principles and college-level teaching strategies. Through their thesis or fieldwork, students in doctoral programs can concentrate on a specific area of the field, such as severe disabilities, early intervention, students with visual impairments, or low-incidence disabilities.

Coursework in special education doctoral programs, such as the classes described below, is designed to give students a deep understanding of a specific topic in the field.

  • Leadership in Special Education Administration

    Provides an understanding of the challenges associated with special education leadership and how administrators can address them. In addition, students learn the role education leaders play in special education.
  • Current Issues in Special Education

    In this course, the latest research on special education practice and policy is looked into, as well as how this type of research is conducted.
  • Grant Writing

    Students in the course learn how to identify funding, gather required information and construct each component of a grant.
  • Ethics in Special Education

    Students explore the ethical concerns educators face and how to make decisions that address the needs of special education teachers and students alike.

Choosing the Right Degree Program: Five Things to Consider

After narrowing down their degree options, students should make sure that their programs of choice meet the following criteria:

  1. 1

    Accreditation

    Accreditation helps to ensure students are receiving a quality education from the school they enroll in. To get the most relevant training, students should attend a special education program accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.

  2. 2

    Options for Specialization

    The special education field is made up of several components, so students may choose to focus on a specific area, such as autism, early childhood education or deaf education. As a result, students should think about their goals and interests, and find a program that allows them to concentrate on the topic they want to gain expertise in.

  3. 3

    Observation Opportunities

    While the concepts students learn in the classroom provide a foundation for their education, it's also important for them to see these concepts at play in a real-world classroom. Programs that incorporate regular observations of special education classrooms provide students with a deeper understanding of how the theories they learn are applied by educators.

  4. 4

    Supervised Teaching Opportunities

    When students get the opportunity to teach classes of their own, it takes their learning to the next level and helps them develop the skills they will need during their career. Degree programs that provide diverse student teaching opportunities prepare educators for the rigors of the special education field.

  5. 5

    Community Partnerships

    Schools that have community partnerships can help students succeed in their programs as well as their careers. Prospective special education teachers can benefit from programs that are aligned with school districts, state education departments and nonprofit organizations because such programs open up opportunities for internships and employment.

Advice from a Special Education Professor

Q. What can students expect to learn in a special education degree program?

Special education degree programs vary across universities. Decisions about curricula are tied closely to requirements of state education associations that accredit special education degree programs and award teaching licenses. However, high-quality educational programs designed to prepare educators for teaching in the field of special education rely heavily on sharing research-based practices shown to be effective for teaching students who learn differently.

Q. How do special education programs differ from other types of education programs?

High-quality special education programs and high-quality general education programs share many of the same components. However, research in the field of special education makes clear that special attention be given to these teaching behaviors in a special education degree program:

  • Using data to inform instruction
  • Designing targeted instruction to meet the various needs presented by students with disabilities
  • Employing explicit instruction, including, but not limited to, extensive modeling, opportunities for practice, and positive feedback
  • Implementing classroom management practices that are positive and proactive
  • Understanding federal special education law that mandates a free and appropriate education be provided to students in the least restrictive environment
  • Familiarizing oneself about the role of caregivers and the effect that a child with a disability has on his or her family
  • Embracing and using contextually and culturally responsive teaching methods that acknowledge a diverse student body
  • Believing that all students can learn and that all students should be provided opportunities to reach their full potential

Q. What makes special education a rewarding career path?

Teachers of students with disabilities are rewarded daily. Special education teachers understand the value of small gains — academic, social or emotional — and are eager to celebrate these small successes with their students. Because special education teachers have learned the importance of focusing on students' strengths as opposed to their weaknesses, they design programs that enrich student learning. Teachers' use of evidence-based practices ensures that all students learn, and teachers' use of sensitive measures enables them to capture even the smallest increments of learning.

Potential Career Paths and Concentrations in Special Education

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the education and training field is expected to grow by eight percent between 2014 and 2024, which amounts to nearly 700,000 additional jobs. The special education field alone — from preschool to high school — is projected to see 28,000 new jobs during that span, which amounts to a six percent increase.

Browse Career Profiles: Special Education Teachers

Special education teachers work with students who have disabilities. These disabilities could be physical or sensory, such as blindness, but they could also be mental, emotional or learning disabilities, including conditions such as autism and depression. These educators assess the needs of students in order to create appropriate teaching plans, assign activities based on students' abilities, and help students adjust when they advance from one grade to the next.

  • Job Growth (2014-2024) 6%
  • Median Annual Salary (May 2015) $56,800
  • Typical Education Bachelor's degree and state license for public school teachers

Compare the national median salaries for special education teachers at various grade levels:

Special Education Teacher Salaries by Grade Level
PreschoolKindergarten & Elementary SchoolMiddle SchoolHigh School
$53,990$55,810$57,280$58,500

Recreational Therapists

Recreational therapists are responsible for planning and directing recreational treatments for people with disabilities, illnesses or injuries. Their work entails reviewing medical records, observing patients to assess their needs, monitoring and recording patient progress, and creating therapeutic exercise activities.

Rehabilitation Counselors

Rehabilitation counselors work with patients with developmental, physical, mental and emotional disabilities and help them become independent. Job duties include providing counseling services, maintaining patient records, and locating and referring patients to the services they need — such as career trainers, wheelchair distributors and doctors.

  • Job Growth (2014-2024) 9%
  • Median Annual Salary (May 2015) $34,390
  • Typical Education Master's degree and license (depending on the state)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook (2015)

Key Skills and Certifications for Special Education Teachers

  • State License

    While private schools do not require licensing, every state mandates that special education teachers obtain a license before teaching at a public school.
  • Student Teaching Experience

    Professionals are typically required to gain hands-on experience by working as student teachers as part of their degree. Some states require field experience as part of licensure, and some employers will only hire teachers who have this real-world classroom experience.
  • Specialized Training

    To increase their employability, some teachers specialize in a specific student age group or grade level, while others specialize in a condition, such as autism or visual impairments.
  • Instructional Skills

    For their students to be successful, special education teachers must have the instructional skills to explain classroom concepts in a way students can understand.
  • Critical Thinking Skills

    Teachers in special education classrooms must think on their feet, as many of their students are unable to work independently for significant stretches of time. They must analyze what is going on in the classroom and adjust their teaching in response to student needs.
  • Active Learning Skills

    The education field is constantly evolving, and new pedagogical theories are regularly being developed. As a result, special education teachers should be driven to seek out new information that will aid them in their own classrooms.
  • Patience

    Special needs students learn differently than other students, which can cause frustration for some teachers. It's important for educators to be patient with these students and understand that they often progress at a slower pace.

What skills and qualities do professionals need to be successful in the special education field?

  • Belief in the potential of all students
  • Positive regard for all students
  • Skills for teaching and assessing academics
  • Positive behavior management skills
  • Determination
  • Advocacy

Lindy Crawford, PhD

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