Online Special Education Degree Programs
Students with special needs require teachers with special knowledge about how to support the education of those who have a wide range of abilities and challenges. It isn’t only about children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, it’s much, much more. The special education classroom may also include students with these types of disabilities, impairments or conditions, such as:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD)
- Speech or language impairments
- Intellectual disabilities
- Emotional and behavior disorders
- Visual or hearing impairments
- Physical disabilities caused by conditions such as cerebral palsy
Also, because students with these challenges may qualify for specific protections under federals laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, those who decide to pursue an education and career in this field are likely to need to become familiar with those laws.
A growing awareness nationwide of the many different types of disabilities that impact learning is expected to lead to an increase in demand for teachers who have taken the time to make that knowledge a part of their wheelhouse. A campus-based or online special education degree can teach you the fundamentals necessary to qualify for a rewarding career in the field.
Colleges and universities all over the country offer degree plans dedicated to training special education teachers. Take a look at this table of National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data on how many schools in each region of the U.S. offer special education degrees, either online or in a traditional setting:
|Region||No. of schools offering special education degrees||No. of schools with online special education degree programs|
|Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI)||103||10|
|Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO)||28||10|
|Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK)||74||24|
|Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD)||84||30|
|Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV)||211||54|
|Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI)||138||24|
|Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.)||169||22|
|New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME)||57||7|
|Total (all 50 states)||864||181|
Entry-level special education degrees
Special education teachers in private schools may not be subject to the same licensing requirements held in force for public school educators, but most positions in the field do require at least some training at the college or university level. Here's some basic info on what you can expect from undergraduate special education degrees online and on campus:
- Associate degrees - Two-year degrees in such expansive disciplines as education are typically designed as transitional plans for students who intend to go on to complete a full bachelor's degree. Most associate degrees for aspiring special education teachers tend to teach foundational concepts of education in a more general sense and reserve the focus on special education for the upper-division courses in a bachelor's program, although it is possible to find associate degrees that include introductions to special education concepts.
- Bachelor's degrees - Courses taught in special education bachelor's degrees can include such essential concepts as child development, educational observation and assessment, instructional design for special-needs individuals and effective communication with children and parents. State licensure is often a big part of working as an educator, and degrees offered in certain states may focus more heavily than others on compliance with standards and expectations enforced on the state licensing exam.
- Non-degree study - Some institutions offer an abbreviated panel of special education courses designed for potential career-changers, education graduates with a different specialization and part-time students working toward a degree. Aspiring educators are unlikely to qualify for a full-fledged teaching position with just an undergraduate special education certificate, but it may look good to employers looking for teaching assistants or classroom aides.
Education coursework tends to translate fairly well to the digital distance education environment, which has allowed online degrees in special education to become fairly common. The ability to take even some of your courses in the virtual classroom can be a great benefit if you have professional or personal responsibilities that demand your time and attention.
Advanced-degree special education programs
Research and scholarship on special-needs students is something of a cutting-edge field, with new discoveries and fresh approaches entering the discussion at a regular clip. Graduate degrees in special education can help you take in all the most recent developments in the field and, often, contribute some of your own insight to the scholarly landscape. Here's some detail on master's and doctoral degrees in special education:
- Master's degree programs - Special education master's degrees may be offered as Master of Arts (M.A.) degrees, Master of Science (M.S.) degrees, Master of Education (M.Ed.) degrees or, in some cases, a combination of the above. Coursework at this level dives deep into the theory and practice of special education, often includes substantial training in research methodologies and may feature a licensure option that aims to ensure that students are ready to apply immediately for the state license exam after graduation.
- Doctorate programs - Conducting independent scholarly research or taking on a leadership position in the special education field typically requires either a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) degree. Ph.D. graduates typically set their sights on academic positions, conducting studies and composing reports on their findings, while professionals with an Ed.D. more often tend toward positions in policy, high-order practice and organizational leadership.
- Graduate certificates - Non-degree work in special education is fairly prominent at the graduate level, perhaps moreso online than on campus, to help working teachers keep their knowledge and skills at the forefront of their field. Some certificates cover the basics of special education teaching, for those looking to break into the field for the first time, while others concentrate on ways to serve specific student populations such as those with sensory disabilities or on the autism spectrum.
Graduate degrees in special education seem to have a greater prevalence among online education schools than degrees at the bachelor's or associate level, which can translate to advantages for teachers who were able to find full-time employment with their undergraduate degree. The ability to schedule online courses around existing career responsibilities has contributed to a climate in which continued education may be more accessible than ever before.
Q&A with experts
Dr. Fran Peterman, dean of the Teachers College at Western Governors University
Why would you encourage someone to pursue a degree in special education?
Dr. Peterman: There is great demand for terrific special education teachers — both those who work in inclusive classrooms supporting an elementary or content area teacher and those who may be in their own classrooms. If you are a caring person with a commitment to helping all children learn, once certified, you can easily find a job in almost any district across the United States.
Is a bachelor's typically necessary or do some entry-level careers require just a certificate or associate degree?
Dr. Peterman: All teachers of record must have at least a bachelor's degree and have achieved teacher certification. There are certainly jobs for paraprofessionals who support certified teachers in inclusive and stand-alone special education classrooms. Generally, an associate's degree would suffice for such a position.
Any additional advice that might be illuminating to future teachers of special education students?
Dr. Peterman: Volunteer now for the Special Olympics or in a classroom near you to learn more about children with special needs and how important you can be in the lives of children, the families and communities by being a teacher of special education.
Dr. Julia Nyberg, professor in the graduate education program at Kaplan University
What are the most common degree levels for those interested in a special education career?
Dr. Nyberg: The most common type of special education degree is a combined degree and credential program. This type of credential will require a bachelor's or master's degree, depending on the state in which you reside.
What would have been helpful to know about in-classroom special education work when you were looking into your own degree plan?
Dr. Nyberg: If you would like to work directly with K-12 students, the best option is to seek a combined degree and credential program, or post-bachelor's program that offers a special education credential. While enrolled in the program, the best way to gain insight into the world of special education is through your clinical practice or volunteer assignments designated by your degree program.
What's something that would surprise most students to learn about working in the special education field?
Dr. Nyberg: The special education field can be very rewarding! Most students would be surprised to learn that pursuing special education may lead to legal and educational policy avenues within the education sector.
Types of special education careers
The skills learned in pursuit of special education degrees tend to be most applicable to the special education field itself, but there are some differences between the various employment situations within that field. Here's a quick table that puts some employment and salary numbers to those differences, using data published by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics:
|Occupation title||National mean annual salary
|Projected job growth
|Total U.S. employment
|Special education teacher, kindergarten and elementary school||$58,640||6 percent||195,780||Bachelor's degree|
|Special education teacher, middle school||$60,300||6 percent||91,050||Bachelor's degree|
|Special education teacher, preschool||$58,210||9 percent||29,230||Bachelor's degree|
|Special education teacher, high school||$62,180||6 percent||129,770||Bachelor's degree|
|Instructional coordinator||$64,870||7 percent||139,460||Master's degree|
Common misconceptions about special education degrees
It's fairly well understood that special education teachers work with children who have special needs, but the sort of things they learn on their degree path aren't exactly common knowledge. Here are a few of the misconceptions that some students have about campus-based and online special education degrees:
Misconception: Graduates with special education degrees can't choose the type of student they work with.
- Fact: The realities of the working world are such that you may end up working in a capacity other than the one that most closely matches your training, but it is possible to design your academic path in a way that sets you up for a certain work environment after graduation. If you want to work with young children, for example, a degree in early childhood education at the bachelor's level and a special education master's can suggest to employers that you're a good fit for the early grades.
Misconception: Special education degrees can only get you a teaching job.
- Fact: Many special education degree graduates do work in schools, as consultants to teachers and counselors or, less often, as classroom teachers themselves, but these positions are far from the only ones available. BLS data indicates that thousands of special education teachers in 2014 were collectively employed at vocational rehabilitation centers, psychiatric hospitals, government agencies and other non-scholastic environments.
Misconception: Special education teachers are so important that studying it can guarantee you a job.
- Fact: No matter who you are, where you live or what you study, there's not a single degree program on Earth that can guarantee you'll get hired after graduation. It's not that special education teachers aren't important — they are — it's just that employment factors at the regional, occupational and institutional level can be unpredictable enough to make claims of certainty irresponsible. You can, however, increase your chances of employment by finding a mentor, becoming involved with student-professional organizations and making use of your school's career services department.
How can I enroll in an online special education degree program?
If you're ready to take the next step into a campus-based or online special education degree program, it's wise to get in touch with a few different schools and get further information from a program representative or admissions counselor. Take a look through our listings below, find a few that strike your fancy and reach out to get started on the road to a rewarding special education career.
- College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed March 18, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
- School pages, accessed March 23, 2016: Associate in Arts Teaching Degree - Special Education, Triton College, http://www.triton.edu/CollegeCatalog/associate-in-arts-teaching-degreespecial-education.htm; Associate of Arts in Education (Non-licensure), Liberty University, http://www.liberty.edu/online/associate/education/; Early Childhood Education Associate's Degree - Special Needs Specialization, Rasmussen College, http://www.rasmussen.edu/degrees/education/special-needs/associates/; Special Education Bachelor's Degree, National Louis University, https://www.nl.edu/academics/educationbachelors/baspecialeducation/; Bachelor of Arts in Education, Notre Dame College Online, http://online.notredamecollege.edu/programs/bachelor-of-education/; Special education Certificate - Undergraduate, Biola University, http://www.biola.edu/special-education-certificate; Special Education, Fort Hays State University, http://www.fhsu.edu/virtualcollege/degrees/masters/special-education/; MA Special Education, New Mexico Highlands University, http://www.nmhu.edu/current-students/graduate/education/ma-special-education/; Special Education Online, Niagara University, http://www.niagara.edu/special-education-online; Online Master in Special Education Degree, Western Governors University, http://www.wgu.edu/education/master_science_special_education; MEd in Special Education, Southern New Hampshire University, http://www.snhu.edu/online-degrees/masters/med-in-special-education; Online Master of Science in Education in Special Education, Purdue University, http://online.purdue.edu/sped/masters-special-education; Special Education, PhD, University of Northern Colorado, http://www.unco.edu/grad/degrees/programs/specialed_phd.asp; Doctoral Degree Program in Special Education, West Virginia University, http://specialed.wvu.edu/home/doctoral_program; Doctorate in Special Education, The University of Arizona, https://www.coe.arizona.edu/dps/spec_doc; PhD in Special Education Leadership, Capella University, http://www.capella.edu/online-degrees/phd-special-education-leadership/; Ed.D. - Special Education, Regent University, http://www.regent.edu/acad/schedu/doctoral-degree-special-education/; Graduate Certificate in Special Education, Walden University, https://www.waldenu.edu/certificates/special-education; Special Education Graduate Certificates, East Carolina University, http://www.ecu.edu/cs-educ/sefr/sped/sped_grad_cert.cfm;
- Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed March 18, 2016: Special Education Teachers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Education-Training-and-Library/Special-education-teachers.htm; Instructional Coordinators, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/instructional-coordinators.htm; Postsecondary Teachers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Education-Training-and-Library/Postsecondary-teachers.htm;
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed March 18, 2016: May 2014 National Occupational and Wage Estimates, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm; Special Education Teachers, All Other, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes252059.htm