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Online Special Education Degree Programs Resource

The need for teachers with a bachelor’s degree in special education is growing across the country. Those who hold special education degrees work with students and preschool children in schools, special programs, daycare, and in their homes. Special education teachers help students who qualify for special services based on assessments of their capabilities when compared to other students their own age. These students’ disabilities are often mental, like learning disabilities, but they also may be physical or emotional. Special needs students have a federally mandated individualized education plan or IEP, and schools are legally required to provide these students with access to special education services. These are typically students who fall below the normal range, however, special educators may also teach students who are identified as gifted and talented. Special education jobs require patience, empathy, and a thorough knowledge of educational methods. This career field is subject to regulations from the state and federal government that are often changing, so a willingness to learn and abide by new regulations is necessary. Learn more about how to become a special education teacher through our career guide.

Special Education Degrees and Certification

Whether it comes from a traditional brick-and-mortar university or an online school, a bachelor’s degree in special education opens the door to many job opportunities. The traditional career option is to become a special education teacher in a public school. However, a growing area of special education is on-site teachers. These are teachers that come into children’s homes or daycare facilities and work with them on an appointment basis. Special education degrees can also qualify a graduate for tutoring jobs. Certified special education teachers are in high demand as tutors for students with special needs who need extra help outside of school hours. These are just a few of the many special education jobs available to those with a special education degree.

Top Ranked Special Education Degree Programs

The following schools have the best special education programs according to The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). The NCTQ evaluated and scored 2,400 US college teacher preparation programs in 2014.

1. Arizona State University
2. University of Washington – Seattle
3. Elon University
3. CUNY – Hunter College
5. Delaware State University
6. Illinois State University
7. Western Washington University
8. Indiana University – Bloomington
9. Purdue University – Calumet
10. William Carey University

The following schools were ranked by US News & World Report as having the best special education graduate programs (2017).

1. Vanderbilt University (Peabody)
2. University of Kansas
3. University of Oregon
4. University of Virginia (Curry)
5. University of Florida (tie)
5. University of Texas—Austin (tie)
7. University of Wisconsin—Madison
8. University of Minnesota—Twin Cities
9. University of Washington
10. University of Illinois—​Urbana-​Champaign

Profiles of Traditional Special Education Programs

University of Washington

The University of Washington’s graduate program in special education, which placed seventh on US News and World Report’s top special education programs in the country, allows students to earn a Master of Education (MEd) in secondary special education. The 45 credit program caters to current middle school and high school teachers and must be completed within two years. Individual classes are held once each week for four hours. In addition to developing the skills to work alongside general education teachers and to create curricula specifically for special needs students, graduate students gain hands-on experience by teaching special education classes during two mandatory internships. Graduates of the program will have obtained the educational qualifications necessary to earn the special education endorsement for grades prekindergarten to 12 in Washington State. The University of Washington’s College of Education is consistently ranked as one of the best special education schools in the country by US News.

Arizona State University

Arizona State University offers aspiring teachers the opportunity to gain the necessary educational qualifications to earn a Master of Education (MEd) in special education and to become certified in Arizona in special education for grades kindergarten to 12. Students may also pursue a Master of Education and Arizona Certification (MAC) which results in dual certification in K-12 special education and in elementary education. Both graduate programs, which take four semesters to complete, consist of 54 credits, 33 of which are required for the master’s degree and 21 of which are necessary to obtain certification in Arizona. In addition to core courses, all students must complete two clinical experiences in elementary and in secondary education. Student teaching is also required. Program classes are held at the Tempe and Polytechnic campuses.

Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University’s special education department offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees in special education. The four-year undergraduate program prepares students to earn K-12 certification and to work with students with autism, developmental delays, learning disabilities, and emotional or behavioral disorders. Undergraduate students can also double major, choosing special education and another major such as childhood development, cognitive studies, and human and organizational studies. Students, who already have an undergraduate degree in special education or a closely related field, can pursue the university’s Master of Education (MEd) in special education with an emphasis in early childhood education, high incidence disabilities, severe disabilities, and visual disabilities. In addition to core courses, all graduate students must complete a mandatory field experience to fulfill degree requirements. Vanderbilt University’s Department of Special Education has been ranked as the best special education program in the country by US News & World Report for over a decade.

Profiles of Hybrid and Online Special Education Programs

Purdue University

Purdue University offers an online Master of Science in Special Education program that can be completed on a track for initial licensure for first-time teachers or on a track for an added endorsement in special education for currently licensed teachers. The MSEd in Special Education for initial licensure offers online courses, though students must complete an in-person practicum and student teaching experiences. Graduates are prepared to work in mild interventions and may pursue an optional add-on focus on intense interventions. Depending on the track and interventions pursued, the program can typically be completed within 32 to 45 credit hours. All tracks complete the same core curriculum, which includes courses in Applied Behavior Analysis for Teachers; Identification, Evaluation, and Assessment of Exceptional Individuals; and Advanced Assistive Technology. Admission is open to individuals from all fields of undergraduate study. Applicants with an undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher are eligible to request a waiver of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) requirement.

University of Kansas

The University of Kansas offers two online master’s degrees in special education, the Master’s in Secondary Special Ed & Transitions and the Master’s in High-Incidence Disabilities. Both programs are designed for currently licensed teachers looking to develop their skills in working with students with differing needs. The Secondary Special Ed & Transitions program focuses on helping high school students with disabilities transition to adult life through instructional and support strategies and is a professional development program that does not lead to teacher licensure or a special ed endorsement in the state of Kansas. The High-Incidence Disabilities program focuses on developing the skills needed to work with children who have been diagnosed with prevalent disabilities including emotional and behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, and mild intellectual disabilities. While the majority of courses are available online, the High-Incidence Disabilities curriculum includes a field practicum. The Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas is recognized as one of the best public special education schools in the country by US News & World Report. The University of Kansas School of Education is accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).

University of Wisconsin-Stout

The University of Wisconsin-Stout (UW-Stout) offers a hybrid online Bachelor of Science in Special Education (BSSE) program that leads to initial teacher licensure in the state of Wisconsin. Designed as a transfer program for those who have completed an associate’s degree or technical diploma, the BSSE program offers students personalized support and advising as they prepare to become special education teachers. While coursework is primarily delivered online, students must complete special education field placements and student teaching internships in their local area to qualify for initial teacher licensure. Required courses include Inclusion of Students with Exceptional Needs; Introduction to Individuals with Cognitive Disabilities; Diagnosis and Remediation of Literacy and Math Disabilities; and Emotional and Behavioral Problems of Children and Adolescents. Program graduates are prepared to work with students with special needs in all subjects and at all age levels, from ages five through 21 (cross-categorical special education). The UW-Stout special education curriculum is compatible with the framework established by the Council for Exceptional Children for entry-level special education teachers.

Special Education Degree Requirements and Coursework

Individuals who possess the characteristics of patience, strong-work ethic, good organization and communication skills, and a strong desire to work with children with disabilities may be good candidates to excel as special education teachers.

To start coursework in a special education program typically requires acceptance into the school’s special education program. Requirements to enter a program may include a minimum GPA, a specified number of credits, completion of prerequisites, personal essay, qualifying exam scores, and letters of recommendation.

Some examples of common courses in the curriculum of a special education degree program include:

  • Introduction to Special Education and Learning Disorders
  • Typical and Atypical Early Development
  • Program Development for Young Children with Disabilities
  • Advanced Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Collaboration for Inclusive Schooling
  • Teaching the Student with Profound Disabilities
  • Teaching Students with Autism
  • Language Arts Instruction and Intervention
  • Assistive Technology for Students with Disabilities
  • Advanced Practicum in Mental Disabilities
  • Field Experience in Special Education

Additional Resources

  • Special Education Teachers – The US Bureau of Labor Statistics provides an overview of special education teacher careers including job description, salary, outlook.

Top 25 Special Education Blogs

See our list of top blogs by special education teachers that share insights into what it is like to be a special education teacher.

Teaching and Education Programs

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Frequently Asked Questions

Question: Is a master’s degree required to become a special education teacher?

Answer: Generally, special education teachers need a bachelor’s degree and a state teacher certification or license. Check with your state’s department of education for specific requirements.

Question: Can you earn a special education degree entirely online?

Answer: There are special education degrees available online such as programs provided by schools like the University of Georgia and Western Governors University. Online programs typically include a classroom component that requires student teaching at a local school.

Special Education Program Student Reviews

Student Review: “I was able to get in to UNLV’s Special Education program through a partnership with the Clark County School District. Our version of the program was accelerated and allowed us to do our last two years of the degree and student teaching in one calendar year. It was a very intense program but included all of the rigor, papers, projects, and assignments that a traditional track would. I enjoyed getting through all of the curriculum quickly. One drawback of the program was that we had several professors several times within the course of months. This probably would have happened in a traditional course but over the course of four years. Overall, I was very happy with the experience and enjoyed getting the head start on teaching.” -Sariah T., student at University of Nevada-Las Vegas
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