Special Education Degree Programs

Special education (also called special needs education, special ed., exceptional education, or SPED) degrees prepare teachers to work with students of all ages, from preschool to high school. On this page, you will learn about special education degree options, state certification, top-ranked programs, and requirements and coursework.

Table of Contents

Special Education Degree Overview

Special ed. teachers ordinarily work in public schools, but they also work in private schools, residential facilities, hospitals, and homes of students. 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 learning-related, but they also may be mental, physical, or emotional.

It is federally mandated that students with identified disabilities have access to special education services. As part of these services, each of these students must have an individualized education plan (IEP) developed by the student’s education team to ensure their specific educational needs are met. 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.

Quick Facts

  • There are 891 not-for-profit colleges and universities with special education programs.1
  • 100 schools offer a certificate in special education.1
  • 85 schools offer an associate’s degree in special education.1
  • 496 schools offer a bachelor’s degree in special education.1
  • 627 schools offer a master’s or advanced degree in special education.1

Special Education Degrees and Certification

Whether at a traditional brick-and-mortar university or an online school, a bachelor’s degree in special education may open the door to many job opportunities. If your goal is to be a special education teacher in a public K-12 school, you will need to pursue special education certification from your state’s board of education after you graduate with your bachelor’s. That means that your bachelor’s degree will need to be from a state-approved teacher preparation program. If your goal is to teach special education at a private school or in another setting, state certification may or may not be required.

Current teachers or prospective teachers who have a bachelor’s degree in another subject may start their career path with a master’s degree or postgraduate certificate in special education through an alternative route. They will also need special education certification or endorsement from their state before teaching in public K-12 schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), slightly more special education programs in the US are offered at the advanced (master’s or doctorate) level than at the bachelor’s level, but an abundance of undergraduate and graduate degrees are also available.1

While many specializations (also called concentrations, specialties, and emphases) may be available within special education, some common degree specializations include:

  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): Commonly used as an intervention for people with autism, ABA has a focus on increasing positive and healthy behaviors (communication, learning, dexterity, etc.) and decreasing harmful or unhealthy behaviors.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD): Prepares graduates to provide services for individuals with the neurological and developmental disorder called autism.
  • Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH): Prepares graduates to work with students with hearing impairments.
  • Dyslexia: Focuses on how to help those with dyslexia with reading and language development.
  • Early Childhood/PreK-12 Special Education: Prepares graduates to work with young learners who have disabilities.
  • Emotional or Behavioral Disorders (EBD): Graduates work with students who have a wide range of learning, emotional, and behavioral challenges.
  • High-Incidence Disabilities: Prepares students to work with people with autism spectrum disorders, communication disorders, learning disabilities, emotional disorders, and other common mild-to-moderate disabilities.
  • Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD): Graduates are prepared to support a wide range of students with intellectual disabilities, ASD, and genetic disorders such as cerebral palsy.
  • Low-Incidence Disabilities: Prepares graduates to work with students who have multiple or significant/severe disabilities, such as severe physical impairments or emotional disorders.
  • Secondary Special Education: Graduates will be prepared to work with high school-aged children with disabilities.
  • Visual Impairment/Low Vision and Blindness: Graduates work with learners who have visual impairments or blindness.

Top-Ranked Special Education Degree Programs

Teacher Certification Degree’s Best Online Master’s in Special Education Programs

  1. University of Virginia-Main Campus
  2. University of Florida
  3. University of Maryland-College Park
  4. North Carolina State University
  5. Texas A&M University-College Station
  6. James Madison University
  7. Binghamton University
  8. University of Delaware
  9. Michigan State University
  10. Indiana University-Bloomington

For more information on these programs, check out our top online master’s in special education page.

US News & World Report’s Best Graduate Special Education Programs 2023

  • Vanderbilt University (#1; on campus)
  • University of Kansas (#2; on campus or online)
  • University of Oregon (#3; on campus)
  • University of Florida (#4; on campus or online)
  • University of Texas-Austin (#5 tie; on campus)
  • University of Virginia (#5 tie; on campus or online)
  • University of Illinois—​Urbana-​Champaign (#7; on campus)
  • University of Minnesota—Twin Cities (#8; on campus)
  • University of Washington (#9; on campus)
  • University of Wisconsin—Madison (#10; on campus)2

Best Value Schools with On-Campus Special Education Programs

If you are interested in studying special education, you may find the table below useful. To help you find the best schools, we have researched non-profit colleges and universities offering special education programs in the US. To make our list, schools had to have a high undergraduate graduation rate (80% or greater) and a low undergraduate net price (below $20,000). We have also included other helpful information such as degrees offered, rankings from US News & World Report, and cost per graduate credit hour for reference. While our table displays in-state cost per credit hour, be sure to check with the school because most schools charge more for out-of-state students.

SchoolUndergrad Degree(s)Grad Degree(s)US News Undergrad Teaching Rank3US News National Rank4Grad Rate1Cost Per Grad Credit HourNet Price1
University of California-Los AngelesJoint Doctoral Program in Special Education with Cal State-LA#76 tie#2091%$480$15,002
University of FloridaUnified Early Childhood ProTeach;
M.Ed. Unified Elementary ProTeach—Dual Certification

Unified Early Childhood ProTeach;
M.Ed. Unified Elementary ProTeach—Dual Certification;
Master’s Live Well (Online);
M.Ed. Teach Well (Online);
EdS Teach Well (Online);
PhD Special Education;
EdD Special Education
#49 tie#34 tie90%$449$11,313
University of Wisconsin-MadisonBSE Special EducationMS Special Education;
PhD Special Education
#76 tie#4687%$807$14,169
University of GeorgiaBSEd Special Education (Online);
BSEd/M.Ed. Special Education
Certificate in Dyslexia (Online);
Endorsement Preschool Special Education;
MEd Special Education;
BSEd/MEd Special Education;
MAT Special Education;
MA Special Education;
PhD Special Education
#40 tie#50 tie86%$4,173$15,539
University of Virginia-Main CampusBS Education (BSED) Special EducationMAT Special Education;
Post-Graduate Master of Teaching (PGMT) Special Education
#23 tie#2894%$735$17,845
University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignBS Learning & Behavior Specialist I (LBSI);

EdS Infancy & Early Childhood Special Education;
EdS Learning & Behavior Specialist I (LBSI);
EdS Learning & Behavior Specialist II (LBSII) in Multiple Disabilities;
MS Infancy & Early Childhood Special Education;
MS Learning & Behavior Specialist I (LBSI);
MS Learning & Behavior Specialist II (LBSII) in Multiple Disabilities;
PhD Special Education
NR#48 tie84%$5,290$15,829
University of Maryland-College ParkBS Early Childhood: Early Childhood Special Education;
BS Elementary/Middle Special Education
Advanced Graduate Specialist (AGS) Special Education;
Graduate Certificate Special Education for General Education Teachers in Inclusive Classrooms;
MA Special Education;
M.Ed. Special Education w/ Certification;
M.Ed. Special Education (w/o Certification);
M.Ed. Special Education with Severe Disabilities Teacher Preparation Program;
M.Ed. Special Education Specialty Program (w/o Certification): Autism Spectrum Disorders and related Developmental Delays and Disabilities (Off Campus);
PhD Special Education
NR#64 tie86%$731$16,790
University of California-BerkeleyJoint Doctoral Program in Special Education (w/SFSU)#34 tie#22 tie91%$592$17,862

Best Value Schools with Online Special Education Programs

The table below shows the colleges and universities offering an online degree in special education at any level that offers the best value. To determine the schools that made our list, we considered the same criteria as above (80% or higher undergraduate graduation rate and below $20,000 undergraduate net price). We also display the cost per online graduate credit hour, using in-state rates as a proxy.

SchoolUndergrad Degree(s)Grad Degree(s)US News Undergrad Teaching Rank3US News National Rank4Grad Rate1Cost Per Grad Credit HourNet Price1
University of FloridaMaster’s Live Well;
Ed.S. Teach Well;
M.Ed. Teach Well
#49 tie#34 tie90%$449$11,313
Purdue University-Main CampusMSEd Special Education#23 tie#57 tie81%$560$11,898
North Carolina State University at RaleighMAT Special Education#61 tie#84 tie81%$221$14,771
University of GeorgiaBSEd Special EducationGrad Certificate Dyslexia#40 tie#50 tie86%$629$15,539
University of DelawareM.Ed. Exceptional Children and Youth;
Post-Master’s Course of Study Special Education (K-12);
Special Education Certification Course of Study
NR#91 tie81%$697$15,883

Special Education Degree Requirements and Coursework

Requirements for acceptance into a special education program typically include a minimum GPA, a specified number of credits, completion of prerequisites, a personal essay, qualifying exam scores, and letters of recommendation. In addition to coursework, teacher candidates in special education programs will also participate in school practicums and observations during their program. Some examples of common courses in the curriculum of a special education degree program include:

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

Select Special Education Degree Programs

Traditional Programs

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 (M.Ed.) 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 secondary education. Student teaching is also required. Program classes are held at the Tempe and Polytechnic campuses.

University of California-Berkeley

The University of California-Berkeley, in conjunction with San Francisco State University (SFSU), offers a Joint Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program in Special Education. All students select one area of specialization (human development; early childhood, language and literacy; mathematics, science, and technology; educational policy and administration; and other areas selected) in both special and general education. The joint doctoral program prepares graduates to become leaders in teaching, research, administration, and supervision, advocating for those with disabilities. The program is specifically aimed at people seeking to become leaders and researchers in the fields of special education and human development. Those who have proven success in working with individuals with disabilities are preferred. Graduates of the program work in schools, clinics, hospitals, and community agencies.

University of Washington

The University of Washington’s graduate program in special education allows students to earn a Master of Education (M.Ed.) 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 students with identified disabilities, 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 pre-kindergarten 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.

Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University’s special education department offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees in special education. The four-year undergraduate program is a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree that 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 (M.Ed.) 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.

Online and Hybrid Programs

Purdue University

Purdue University offers an online Master of Science in Education (MSEd) 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 Cincinnati

The University of Cincinnati (UC) is home to a fully online Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Special Education that requires 30 credit hours to complete. Three pathways are offered. The Path for Licensure and Reading Endorsement allows professionals who already hold a teaching license to prepare for an endorsement in mild/moderate interventions. The Supporting Students with Complex Needs pathway offers professional development to educators and others working with students with significant disabilities. The third pathway, Transition to Work Endorsement and Special Education Leadership, offers professionalization in working with adolescents and young adults transitioning from K-12 environments to the community. To be considered for admission, prospective students should have a bachelor’s degree with a minimum GPA of 3.0 and a current professional teaching license. UC also offers online master’s in education programs in areas including, but not limited to, Instructional Design and Technology; Educational Leadership; and Literacy and Second Language Studies.

University of Georgia

The University of Georgia offers a Bachelor of Science in Education (BSEd) in Special Education (General Curriculum) that can be completed traditionally–at the Athens and Griffin campuses–or fully online. It is the only BSEd program in Georgia that is offered 100% online. The focus on general curriculum means that graduates aim to work with students who have mild disabilities, including behavior disorders, learning disabilities, autism, Asperger’s, mild intellectual disabilities, or are otherwise health impaired. Along with the BSEd, graduates will be prepared to earn teacher certification in Georgia. Two strands are offered: a Literacy Strand and a High Incidence Disabilities Strand. The two-year curriculum is specially designed for students seeking flexibility in their studies and admits a cohort of students in the fall, who study and learn together for the duration of the coursework. All students will complete field experience in Georgia schools each semester, from the preschool to 12th grade levels. Courses include Behavior Management, Strategies for Teaching Reading to Individuals with Disabilities, and Advanced Instructional Methods for Individuals with Mild Disabilities.

University of Kansas

The University of Kansas’s Department of Special Education offers several online master’s degrees in special education, among them a Master of Science in Education (MSE) in Secondary Special Education and Transition and a Master of Science in Education (MSE) 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. Two other related online degrees are offered, a Master’s in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and an Online Graduate Certificate in Leadership in Special and Inclusive Education. 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 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.

Additional Resources

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. If you would like to learn more about earning your master’s in SPED, check out our online master’s in special education guide.

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.

Question: How many credits do I need for a master’s degree in special education?

Answer: Most special education master’s degrees are comprised of about 30 credit hours and can be completed in one or two years. The number of credits required for each degree varies, so be sure to check with your school of choice for details.

Question: What is the difference between a special education degree and an exceptional student education degree?

Answer: In general, there is no difference between the two degrees, as the terms “special” and “exceptional” to describe this type of education are most often used interchangeably. In other words, most teaching degrees in exceptional education also focus on how to teach students with disabilities–they just use the more modern, inclusive term “exceptional.” Many programs for teachers of special/exceptional learners include some coursework on how to teach gifted and talented students as well as those with disabilities, as both groups typically require a different approach to learning than the average student, and there is sometimes crossover between the two groups. In addition, on a state level, some states like Florida use the term “exceptional education” rather than special education to describe this specialty.

Question: Are gifted and talented students considered special education students?

Answer: At the national level, no. While special education students require federally-mandated special education services, this mandate does not extend to students who are identified as gifted. While some school systems may include students who are identified as gifted and talented under the special/exceptional learners umbrella since these students benefit from being taught differently than the average student, they are more commonly separate programs.

Question: What can I do with a degree in special education?

Answer: 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 who 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 may work 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.

Student Reviews

Note: Student Reviews are based on the experiences of a few individuals and it is unlikely that you will have similar results. Please review the “Data, Student Reviews and Other Information” section in our Terms of Use and Disclaimers.

University of Nevada-Las Vegas
4505 S Maryland Pkwy
Las Vegas, NV 89154
(702) 895-3011

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

1. National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator: https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
2. US News & World Report Best Graduate Special Education Programs: https://premium.usnews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-education-schools/special-needs-education-rankings
3. College Factual: https://www.collegefactual.com/
4. US News & World Report National University Rankings: https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities
5. US News & World Report Best Undergraduate Teaching National University Rankings: https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities/undergraduate-teaching