Special Education Degree
Note: This page provides overall information for special education degrees. For detailed master's degree information, please see our Master's in Special Education page.
Special education is a field in education that can cover a wide array of students, grades, and levels. Though special education is typically associated with children who have special needs as far as struggling with certain topics or disabilities, this is not completely true. Another area of special education is working with gifted and talented students at all ages.
Some special education classes are conducted in self contained classrooms with students varying in age and ability level. Most recently, special needs students have been moved into regular education classroom with special needs instructors to add any extra help that is needed. There are different schools of thought on this process, with some believing positive habits and behavior are gained from being in a regular education classroom, and others feeling that children with special needs could not get what is needed in a regular education classroom. This debate is long running.
Choosing special education as a major often leads to the ability to easily find a job; however, it takes a special person. Special education degrees with specialties are available online and on-campus at the bachelor's, master's, and doctorate levels.
Bachelor's Degree in Special Education
A Bachelor's Degree in Special Education can lead to a fulfilling career as a special education teacher once certified. This area typically has openings often, so jobs are readily available.
Deciding to attend college to receive a Bachelor's Degree in Special Education is an important step. Most bachelor's programs require proof of a high school diploma, though some will take a GED equivalent. Most require at least one letter of recommendation with a completed application. When working with children, a TB (tuberculosis) test will also be required. Different colleges and universities may have specific requirements which can usually be found on the college website.
A Bachelor's Degree in Special Education typically takes four years to complete, if attending two semesters a year full time. This can be shortened if classes are transferred or if courses are taken during the summer and winter sessions.
Choosing an Online Bachelor's in Special Education
When thinking about an online Bachelor's Degree in Special Education, you will want to pick a school that is legitimate, nationally recognized and reputable. To help you pick a good online program, review the following questions:
Is the Program Accredited?
Your degree may not be valid if the school you graduate from is not accredited - this goes for both online and on-campus programs. Accreditation for a special education degree program is an endorsement of quality conducted by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (formerly NCATE and TEAC).
How Long Has the Program Been Offered?
When looking into online schools, you will want to find out how long the special education program has been offered. If a distance learning program has been around year after year, it is usually a good sign of legitimacy. If a program has not been in service long enough to gain full accreditation, consider it a red flag. If the online program in not accredited by an official agency, your special education degree will not be valid.
What Technologies Will Be Used to Facilitate Online Learning?
Online schools use virtual learning platforms like Moodle or Canvas to facilitate instruction. These virtual classrooms are where students will access multimedia lectures, assignments, and communicate with peers and instructors. Some programs may be more user friendly than others, so it may be a good idea to research it before signing on.
What Resources Will I Have Access To?
Find out if the online program you are interested in gives students access to learning resources such as online research centers, scholarly articles, journals, mentorship programs, and internship programs. Some schools may also give online students access to services such as technology assistance and student advising.
What Skills and Topics Are Covered?
Reputable schools will be able to provide an online special education degree program's learning outcomes. Student learning outcomes are statements that describe the skills, knowledge, and attitudes students should have acquired by the time they complete the program. When considering an online Bachelor's Degree in Special Education, you will want to make sure the skills and knowledge you will obtain are in line with your future work.
Do You Have Job Placement Information for Students Who Recently Graduated from the Program?
Making connections with recent program graduates is a great way to establish career contacts. Find out what other individuals have done with their online Bachelor's Degree in Special Education. If given the chance to connect with alumni, ask for career advice and tips regarding online learning.
Is an Online Degree Right for You?
Earning a Bachelor's Degree in Special Education can be time consuming. Commuting to class every day or even just a few nights a week can take up hours of time. One way to save time and still further your education is through the use of online degree programs. A Bachelor's Degree in Special Education can be earned through multiple colleges and universities online. Though student teaching may still be required, the majority of courses can be taken from home on a computer. Review the following to see if an online degree is right for you:
Online degrees allow students to fit required classes into their busy schedules. This is ideal for adult students who need to keep up with work, family, and other obligations. Another benefit of earning a Bachelor's Degree in Special Education online is the luxury of not having to commute to class. You can study and fulfill class requirements from wherever is most convenient.
Online classes may allow you to complete a degree program faster. Many Bachelor's Degree in Special Education programs are accelerated, which puts students on the fast-track to the finish line. Due to the time span, these programs may also be more rigorous. It is important to think about this when considering online degree programs.
Accessibility and Convenience
Online education has become a very common and reputable way to earn a degree. With that said, students have a variety of options to choose from. Since physical attendance will most commonly not be required, students will be able to choose a program regardless of location and proximity to campus. This makes more opportunities available to students who do not live near campuses and are unable to relocate.
Tuition and Costs
An online Bachelor's Degree in Special Education may end up costing less since many fees associated with attending a traditional school are omitted:
- No costs having to do with parking, car maintenance, gas, commuting, or on-campus meals.
- No fees related to relocating and living on campus.
- Online students have the ability to keep up with a regular working schedule during the day, thus maintaining a source of income.
- Depending on the school, no out-of-state costs.
Bachelor's Program Course Topics
Although courses will vary from school to school, a variation of the following classes will likely be part of a Bachelor's Degree in Special Education program.
Behavioral Management and Intervention
A class in behavioral management and intervention will teach the future teacher how to handle common classroom issues through the use of reinforcement and other techniques. It is also likely that this class will cover specific strategies to use with students of different levels as special education students do not always respond in expected manners.
Instructional Planning and Presentation
Special Education students will require the use of a long term IEP or short term 504 plan. These plans must be written and followed, typically a year at a time. The plans must be implemented in the context of the base curriculum and standards which means planning is key. In addition, information must often be presented in a number of ways to help special needs students gain the needed information. Instructional Planning and Presentation will help prepare the future special education teacher for such a task.
Literacy for Children
Literacy for Children is a class that is often taught in all fields of education. Literacy and literacy skills open the door to all other subject areas, including mathematics. Often, those in special needs classes struggle with literacy. This class will not only help future teachers choose appropriate literary works, but use those in lesson plans to build basic skills.
Other Bachelor's Degree in Special Education Course Topics:
- Assess and develop language abilities in children and youth
- Conduct academic assessments
- Conduct behavior assessments
- Learn about the characteristics and common diagnoses of people with intellectual disabilities
- Learn about the characteristics and common diagnoses of people with learning disabilities
- Learn about the characteristics and common diagnoses of people emotional and behavioral disorders
- Survey of current issues and developments in special education
- Learn about the characteristics and common diagnoses of the intellectually gifted child
- Practice inclusive teaching strategies for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder
- Including directed learning in core subjects like language arts and math
- Create transition plans for students with special needs
- Create inclusive classroom practices and systems for students with mild intellectual disabilities
- Create inclusive classroom practices and systems for students with speech or language disorders, and for students who are d/Deaf, blind, or Deaf-blind
- Practice effective communication techniques for students who are d/Deaf
- Practice effective classroom structure and management for students who are blind or who experience low vision
- Create a positive and inclusive classroom environment for students with any type of exceptionality
- Promote the learning of students with any kind of exceptionality throughout the school
- Advocate on behalf of students with any kind of exceptionality throughout the school
- Promote practices that facilitate empowerment and self-advocacy in school and in the community
Master's Degree in Special Education
Pursuing a Master's Degree in Special Education offers unique endeavors for every graduate student to promote the learning of students with exceptionalities both in school and in their community. Upon completion of the degree, master's students can pursue work in the classroom, as an administrator, consultant, or researcher.
A Master's Degree in Special Education will typically require two years of four full time semesters to complete. Many master's degree programs have specific requirements that are based on their admission criteria. However, most master's programs require at least the following for a degree in Special Education:
- A Bachelor's degree from an accredited institution as accredited by the US Department of Education
- An official transcript with a GPA of a certain caliber
- An application fee with complete application
- A teaching license form or proof of licensure
- State licensing exam scores (passing for the state)
- GRE or GMAT scores (cutoffs may vary)
Choosing an Online Master's in Special Education
An online Master's Degree in Special Education is a good and reputable option for busy students - often those who are working or have families. Online Master's Degree in Special Education programs offer the following:
- Variety of specialized special education programs to choose from
- Flexible schedule
- Qualified and experienced instructors
- Rigorous special education curriculum
- No fees associated with commuting, parking, relocating, or housing
- Online students can still seek financial aid via FAFSA
Master's in Special Education Course Topics
Master's Degree in Special Education courses will vary from institution to institution. However, the following are common course topics for such program:
- Support families of children with exceptionalities in their educational endeavors
- Create valid, evidence based assessment tools for children and youth that have learning disabilities, behavior disorders, or mild intellectual disability (MID)
- Conduct Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) training with students that have Autism Spectrum Disorder or Pervasive Developmental Disorder (ASD-PDD)
- Create and implement evidence based behavior intervention programs
- Create and implement meaningful transition plans for major milestones (graduation, work to career) and minor milestones (new grade level, summer vacation)
- Learn the characteristics and development of intellectually gifted students
- Act as a resource to assist classroom teachers with implementation and troubleshooting of assistive technologies and devices in the mainstream classroom
- Work collaboratively to create family-centered practice for students with exceptionalities
Learn more about a Master's Degree in Special Education.
Doctorate Degree in Special Education
A doctoral program for special education typically requires a master's degree in a related field prior to admission. However, some programs will offer conditional admission while you earn master's level hours. A Doctorate in Special Education typically comes in two forms, an EdD or a PhD, with either form being available in a range of specializations. An EdD is typically designed for those who wish to stay in the traditional teaching situation, while the PhD is more research based in nature.
As this is a degree leading to a potential position within the school system, licensure/credentials will be required. It is of vital importance to attend an accredited college or university.
Earning a Doctorate Degree in Special Education allows the holder to go into the education field as a teacher, leader, administrator, or professor with an increased pay scale. In addition, many degree holders of this type can also help in the area of social services or as a juvenile corrections officer in a leadership position.
Doctorate Program Course Topics
Doctoral candidates who wish to obtain a PhD or EdD in Special Education want to improve the lives of children and youth with disabilities and exceptionalities. There are few such programs throughout the country, but all have a positive reputation for teaching, conducting groundbreaking research, establishing innovative practices, and developing educational methodology. The program path is unique to each candidate, however, many institutions have similar core elements like:
- Conduct field work and research into cross-disciplinary areas of special education
- Collaborate with faculty, other candidates, students and their families on important research
- Supervise undergraduate students' work and field placements
- Conduct educational research on intellectual and developmental disabilities
- Connect students and their families with the many available resources and programs
- Research and curriculum leadership for children and their families dealing with a wide range of cognitive, communication, social, adaptive behavior, or motor exceptionalities
- Create research-driven supports for students with serious literacy and numeracy deficits, as well as persistent behavior problems
- Research and leadership for students with an intellectual disability, autism, multiple disabilities, or other significant needs.
- Create evidence-based educational methodology for students with low vision and blindness
- Examination of faculty and leadership positions in colleges, universities, research institutes, or human service agencies
- Prepare and submit grant proposals to state government and the U.S. Department of Education
- Publish research and findings throughout the duration of the doctorate program
- Present findings at conferences
- Create strong professional portfolios to attain faculty and research positions
- Research behavior disorders in children and adolescents
- Examination of educational and behavioral supports for students with autism, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD)
- Examination and research into best practices for orientation and mobility for students who are blind/low-vision and the accessible classroom environment
- Consideration of cognition, language and literacy processes and acquisition for exceptional learners
- Survey and research for critical issues in special education
- Advanced communication skills for students with physical or communication impairments
Online Doctorate in Special Education
A doctorate is a huge undertaking by a full time student, but most doctoral students also work full time and have families to support. This makes gaining a degree online an attractive option for those who want to further their education, but cannot attend campus classes. Online education allows individuals to keep up with their current job and family obligations. Students can set their own schedules, like go to work during the day and attend virtual classes at night, or the other way around. Online degree programs offer the following:
- Variety of special education programs and specializations to choose from across the US
- Flexible schedule
- Rigorous doctoral curriculum
- Faster completion time via accelerated programs
- Increased opportunity and accessibility
- No costs associated with transportation, parking fees, room and board, or relocating
What Can I Do with a Degree in Special Education?
Those who choose to earn a degree in special education can hold a variety of jobs at different levels. Some are education related, while others focus on the social sciences area. A few possibilities are listed below:
Special Education Teacher
A special education teacher will work in an inclusion classroom or in a separate classroom with students with special needs. Depending on the area of specialization, a special education teacher may work with gifted students, mild, moderate, or severe students, student with behavioral disorders, or students with autism. Job outlook in this area is high as special education is a rapidly growing field. Average salary will vary by state and district as well as specialization.
Remedial Skills Instructor
Many community programs offer classes to adults who struggle with basic skills. These classes may be offered at a local library or community center and may include five to ten individuals or many more that are in need of basic skills training.
Curriculum specialist jobs are growing at a faster than average rate. A curriculum specialist is one that helps choose or design curriculum and then teaches educators how to best implement the chosen curriculum. Specific to special needs, this may be how to adapt curriculum to a given section of students. A curriculum specialist typically needs to hold a master's degree or higher to find employment.
Specialty Special Education Programs
Within the field of special education, you will find several areas for specialization including:
Special Education - Mild to Moderate
Getting a special education teaching degree in mild to moderate disabilities means that you will be teaching students with learning or behavioral difficulties which impede expected or normal academic achievement. In elementary, this means work with beginning or remedial skills in writing, reading, math, science, and social studies, as well as social behaviors. In secondary grades, these teachers will address basic skills in addition to preparing students to transition into vocations and secondary education. Mild to moderate teachers may spend part of the day in a regular education classroom or in a pull out program for the lower functioning students.
Special Education - Autism Spectrum Disorders
Getting a teaching degree, usually at the master's level in Autism Spectrum Disorders, means working with students with a highly variable level of functioning. Most autistic students will need instruction in social skills and appropriate behaviors in a given situations, but many will be highly functional academically. Students with autism and teachers of these students may need to be taught different strategies for learning various concepts. Low functioning students with autism may be in a separate classroom for at least part of the day, but higher functioning students with autism may fit well in mainstream classrooms with a simple pull-out program on occasion.
Special Education - Gifted and Talented
Getting a teaching degree in gifted and talented special education means working with students who are performing well above average overall. These students may vary in age and abilities, but are likely to be at the top of their respective classes. Most gifted and talented teachers, unless in a specialized school, will work in a pull out program at one or several schools. Students will be in mainstream classes for the majority of the day, but may be placed in a gifted class for at least one period a day or week as a challenge to build on their intellect.
Special Education - Severe
Getting a teaching degree in severe special needs means working with students who typically have a wide range of disabilities and/or health problems. Students may be nonverbal or immobile. These students will require functional academics and life skills instruction. This type of instruction could include communication, social, and behavioral skills in addition to daily living activities. Students with severe disabilities are most often taught in self-contained classrooms or specially designed schools, though some classes such as gym or music may be with a full inclusion class.
Special Education Leadership
Getting a degree as a special education leader will allow the holder to serve as an advocate and guide for both special education students and families. In addition, the special education leader can work with teachers to help implement lessons that are appropriate and functional for students with special needs. A special education leader is an overseer and guide, but could also be a teacher in the classroom.
Special Education Degree Scholarships
The number of special education teachers is expected to increase by more than 17% before 2018, which is faster than average for all occupations. Earning a Special Education degree can lead to an exceptionally rewarding career in a very high-demand arena. Special Education teachers assist students by creating individual education plans for students who have a spectrum of different needs. These teachers play a tremendous role in helping students meet their unique goals.
There are several scholarships and grants available to students working towards a degree in Special Education. The following are just a couple of them. Our Scholarships and Grants page will give you more information about other scholarships and grants available to you.
Alexis Kate Special Education Teachers Scholarship
The Alexis Kate Special Education Teachers Scholarship is granted annually for $500 through the Eden Autism Services. Applicants should be students of an accredited US college or university who are working on a undergraduate degree in special education. Applicants must be of sophomore or junior status.
ASL Honor Society Scholarship Program
The ASL Honor Society Scholarship program is through the American Sign Language Teachers Association. Each year, $1,250 is awarded to college students across the nation who are studying ASL, deaf studies, special education, or interpreter preparation.
Best Colleges for Special Education
We are happy to release our Teacher.org's Best Colleges for Special Education rankings. This list was compiled by scoring several areas including, relative size of the program, graduation rates, default rates, tuition affordability, and online education options availability. More information about each college listed is available by clicking on the web address provided. Over 400 colleges were analyzed and the top 20 were included in our Best Colleges Ranking.
For more information on education degree rankings, see our methodology page: https://www.teacher.org/college-ranking-methodology/.