Special education is a teaching specialty area primarily focused on helping students in PreK-12 school systems achieve their full potential regardless of disability.
Special education teachers adapt curriculum to suit the learning needs of children with learning, intellectual, physical, emotional, and behavioral disabilities. They work closely with general education teachers, counselors, reading specialists, occupational therapists, and school psychologists to develop individualized educational programs (IEPs) for each student.
According to the BLS, there are 442,800 special education teachers employed in America’s elementary, middle, and high schools as well as childcare centers, residential facilities, and hospitals.
The demand for special education teachers is expected to grow steadily as more children are being diagnosed with disabilities and cognitive difficulties. The Census Bureau reports that 2.8 million school-aged children have a disability in the United States. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), all of these children are eligible for special education services from age 3 to 21. As a result, the employment of special education teachers is expected to grow steadily by six percent through 2022, which will create 26,600 new jobs. Teaching positions will be most abundant at the preschool, elementary, and high school levels.
Special education teachers have the rewarding job of making learning easier for students with disabilities to place them on the right track to a bright academic and vocational future. However, individuals interested in this career need to invest significant time and money in their own teacher training. Licensed special educators must have at least a bachelor’s degree, but some states mandate a master’s degree too. For those who don’t have the time or resources to spend years in a brick-and-mortar college classrooms, online degrees are the perfect alternative. Online special education degree programs are accessible via the Internet for working adults to study teaching methodologies at their own pace.
Ranking the Best Online Special Education Degrees
In creating our program ranking, we begin looking for special education programs that blended high-quality education with the flexibility of online learning. We focused in on universities accredited for meeting the standards of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) or Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). Extra brownie points were given to special education schools that received recognition from the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). Next, we started narrowing down our list based on rankings published through the U.S. News and World Report. Preference was granted for universities with high rankings for great online graduate education degrees.
It was our mission to give the best possible listing of online special education degree programs, so we focused on highly ranked schools giving plenty of concentrations. We kept universities that provided future special education teachers the chance to customize their education in certain disabilities or teaching modalities. Schools had to have at least two special education programs granted 100 percent online via the Internet. Other factors weighed in our program ranking were affordability, awards, student-faculty ratio, job placement rate, student support, civic engagement, financial aid, certification pass rates, and fieldwork opportunities. Finally, we narrowed down our list to the following top 10 online special education degree programs in the United States.
First chartered in 1865, the University of Kansas has a long history of academic excellence as the state’s premier flagship public research institution. Although KU has a main physical 1,100-acre urban campus atop Mount Oread in the lively college town of Lawrence, there’s also a highly developed virtual campus offered via KU Connect. Kansas educates more than 19,200 undergraduates and 7,700 post-graduates annually through its on-site and online programs. The U.S. News and World Report has ranked KU as the 115th best national university, 55th top public school, and 94th best college for veterans. Times Higher Education also placed the University of Kansas among the top 350 schools worldwide. According to the College Board, tuition at KU is 13 percent below the national average for affordability.
The KU School of Education has been accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) for nearly a century. Students have a high retention rate of 75 percent, which showcases their satisfaction with the high-quality education. The SOE has been recognized by the U.S. News and World Report for being the 17th best graduate education school with the 2nd best special education degrees in America. From its main office in the Joseph R. Pearson Hall, the KU School of Education provides on-campus and online options for future teachers, principals, counselors, psychologists, and therapists. Students have access to hands-on training with diverse youth at the TRIO and Beach Center on Disability.
Online students can pursue the Master’s in Special Education for engaging with students with mild to moderate high-incidence disabilities. There’s a Teacher Track for new educators to receive licensing and endorsement in special education or an Endorsement-Only Track. This 33-credit program consists of eight-week online sessions for completion in two years. KU students could also earn the 30-credit Online Master’s in Secondary Special Ed & Transition to work with young adults with disabilities who are transitioning into vocations. Either of these online degrees could be supplemented with the 13-credit Online Graduate Certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), which focuses on modifications for children on the spectrum.
Located on a main 759-acre urban campus in Athens, the University of Georgia is the nation’s oldest public land-grant and sea-grant research institution with a history dating back to 1785. Featuring a low student-faculty ratio of 18:1, UGA has been classified as a “More Selective” university with very high research activity by the prestigious Carnegie Foundation. UGA enrolls around 26,800 undergraduates and 8,300 post-graduates annually. Its 18 academic divisions are packed with more than 140 on-campus and online degree options. According to the U.S. News and World Report, UGA is the 61st best national university, 21st top public school, and 50th best college for veterans. The Princeton Review also named the University of Georgia among its “Top 10 Best Value Public Colleges.”
Since 1908, the UGA College of Education has been an integral leader in pioneering innovative educational research of international interest. Its more than 90 programs have been fully accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). Classes can be easily accessed in Athens, Griffin, Gwinnett County, or online from anywhere. The U.S. News and World Report ranks the COE as the 33rd best graduate school with six specializations in the country’s top 10. The University of Georgia also offers the 28th best online graduate education programs. At the UGA College of Education, diversity is emphasized, so students often complete student teaching abroad in locations like Ghana, Fiji, Scotland, and Taiwan. Aspiring teachers can also join the Student Council for Exceptional Children (SCEC).
Through the Online Learning Division, UGA students can complete their Bachelor of Science in Special Education (B.S.Ed.). Requiring just two campus visits, the two-year degree completion program is designed for educators with an associate’s degree who wish to become certified for PreK-12 special education. Practicum is arranged in a local school district and assignments are submitted via the Foliotek ePortfolio system. At the graduate level, UGA offers an Online M.Ed. in Educational Psychology, Gifted and Creative Education. The 37-credit program qualifies licensed special education teachers for Gifted In-Field Endorsement in Georgia. A blended hybrid format is also available for the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) for Special Education.
As one of the few public land-grant, sea-grant, and space-grant research institutes in the United States, Auburn University is an elite leader in polytechnic education. For over 150 years, Auburn has been located on a vast 1,841-acre urban campus in Alabama’s fastest-growing metropolitan area. The university’s more than 20,600 undergraduates and 5,200 post-graduates can select from over 130 degree programs delivered either on-campus or online. Auburn has been ranked as the 102nd best national university, 46th top public school, and 83rd best college for veterans by the U.S. News and World Report. AU was listed in the respected Peterson’s Guide to America’s “296 Most Competitive Colleges”. Auburn University also was named a best value in public education by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine.
With an extensive alumni base over 30,000 strong, the College of Education at Auburn has over a century of greatness in preparing competent, reflective school professionals. All of the COE’s bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs have been accredited through the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). The U.S. News and World Report has distinguished Auburn for housing the 76th best graduate education school with the 8th best online graduate education programs. The College of Education gives students the chance to engage in cutting-edge research at the Truman Pierce Institute. Special educators can benefit from working in the Auburn Transition Leadership Institute with young adults with disabilities.
Online degree seekers at Auburn University can pursue a Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Collaborative Teacher Special Education. The minimum 33-credit curriculum is offered to graduate students with or without teaching certification who wish to serve students with disabilities at the elementary (K-6) or secondary (6-12) level. For Alabama Class A licensing, online learners will complete a full-semester culminating internship in a local school. There’s also an Online Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Early Childhood Special Education that fulfills the competencies needed to serve disabled youth from birth through age 8. This program reflects all standards required by the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division for Early Childhood.
Enrolling more than 22,500 undergraduates and 5,000 post-graduates annually, West Virginia University is a large public land-grant and space-grant institution with high research activity. In addition to its main 913-acre urban campus in downtown Morgantown, WVU operates satellite locations in Montgomery, Keyser, Charleston, and online via the Internet. Across its 15 colleges, WVU students can select from over 190 degrees ranked highly by the U.S. News and World Report. In fact, West Virginia University was crowned America’s 175th best national university, 98th top public school, and 139th best college for military veterans. College Board recognized WVU for having the country’s sixth most affordable in-state tuition. 89 percent of admitted students receive financial aid at WVU too.
First founded by Jasper Newton Deahl in 1927, the College of Education and Human Services at West Virginia University has excelled in preparing students for effectively working in P-12 school systems. Teacher preparation programs have the stamp of approval by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). West Virginia University also is approved by the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). The U.S. News and World Report has ranked WUV as having the 104th best graduate education school and 86th best online graduate education degrees. On average, 95 percent of CEHS graduates pass the PRAXIS exams for teaching licensure their first try. Special education students can perform research through WVU’s International Center for Disability Information (ICDI).
West Virginia University offers an online special education degree for graduate students seeking initial teacher certification or added endorsement. The Online Master of Arts (M.A.) in Special Education program has six customizable specializations in Autism Spectrum Disorders, Early Childhood Special Education, Gifted Education, Low Vision/Blindness, Multi-Categorical Special Education, and Severe/Multiple Disabilities. All courses in the minimum 36-credit program can be completed in live, real-time or on-demand web sessions. Field practicum is conveniently arranged at an approved school in the home community. Advanced teachers could also pursue the fully online Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Special Education program. At least 72 credits are required to foster leadership ability for special education administration.
Originally part of the College of William & Mary, Old Dominion University received independence in 1930 as a public space-grant and sea-grant research institution. As one of the nation’s largest providers in online education, ODU enrolls more than 19,600 undergraduates and 5,000 post-graduates each year in its flexible degree offerings. Nearly one-third of the student body studies online through TeleTechNet. ODU is located on a main 251-acre urban campus in Norfolk along the Chesapeake Bay within Virginia’s Hampton Roads Area. Old Dominion University has been named the 141st best master’s-level institution by Washington Monthly for civic engagement. Times Higher Education has also placed ODU among the top 400 global universities worldwide.
With a unique emphasis on STEM teaching, the Darden College of Education at Old Dominion is a distinguished leader in preparing educators to meet the learning needs of diverse student populations in the 21st century. The U.S. News and World Report acclaimed ODU for offering the 110th best graduate education school and 42nd best online graduate education degrees. Darden was reaffirmed by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) in 2011. Old Dominion’s DCOE is highly regarded for its Military Career Transition Program, which provides initial teaching license to military members and spouses. The Commonwealth Special Education Endorsement Program (CSEEP) also was granted the Christa McAullife Award for Excellence in Teaching.
At Old Dominion, online learners can pursue a Master of Science in Education (M.S.Ed.) in Special Education with no campus residency requirements. The 30-credit program is designed for licensed educators seeking endorsement for teaching children with mild to moderate disabilities. Concentrations are offered in General Curriculum K-12, Adapted Curriculum K-12, Early Childhood Special Education, or Special Ed Research. Coursework can be easily supplemented with a 12-credit Online Autism Spectrum Disorders Certificate. Depending on previous coursework, certain teachers may benefit from receiving the Online Post-Baccalaureate Endorsement in Special Education without a master’s degree. All special education majors will be required to purchase a LiveText membership for the online degree.
With the state’s sixth largest student body of over 28,600 undergraduates and 5,800 post-graduates, Texas Tech University is a comprehensive public state-supported institution with high research activity. TTU sprawls over 1,839 urban acres on a Spanish Renaissance styled campus in Lubbock within the Llano Estacado. Along with six regional teaching sites, Texas Tech operates a Worldwide eLearning Center with a selection of over 50 online degree programs. The U.S. News and World Report ranked TTU as the 168th best national university, 91st top public school, and 134th best college for veterans. PayScale recognized Texas Tech among the top 20 in America for mid-career salary returns. TTU also was named 18th in graduate desirability for job recruiters in the Wall Street Journal.
Fully accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), the TTU College of Education houses all of the university’s educator preparation programs. It’s also approved by the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). According to the U.S. News and World Report, Texas Tech has the 115th best graduate education school and 107th best online graduate education programs nationwide. 97 percent of graduates pass Praxis teacher certification exams. The College of Education houses the Southwest’s largest collection of children’s literature with more than 6,000 age-appropriate books. It’s also internationally renowned for operating the Burkhart Center for Autism Research and Virginia Murray Sowell Center for Research in Sensory Disabilities.
Texas Tech University offers a popular Online Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Special Education program that can be completed in just 24 months. The 36-credit program offers seven areas of emphasis in Autism, Applied Behavior Analysis, Deaf Education, Educational Diagnostician, Generic Special Education, Orientation and Mobility, Transition Services, or Visual Impairment. Most courses are available online, but some may require one face-to-face seminar during the weekend or summer break. Online learners can select between completing a master’s thesis project or passing a comprehensive written exam. There’s also a unique Online Dual Sensory Impairment Certificate offered with 15 credits for teaching children who are deaf and blind.
Since being founded in 1889 as the Colorado State Normal School, the University of Northern Colorado has evolved into a comprehensive four-year public research institution with a long-lasting record of producing quality teachers. UNC is situated on a main 260-acre suburban residential campus in Greeley, but extended learning options are offered in Loveland, Denver, Colorado Springs, and online from anywhere. Over 158 majors and minors are offered. Northern Colorado enrolls over 9,700 undergrads and 2,300 post-graduates annually. Graduates from the university’s five colleges have a historic average job place rate of 96 percent within one year. Forbes magazine has ranked UNC as the 239th best research university in America and 107th top college in the West.
As the largest teacher provider for Colorado, the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at UNC is accredited through the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). The CEBS operates the Tointon Institute for Educational Change and Breshnahan-Halstead Center to provide unparalleled professional development for PreK-12 teachers, especially in urban classrooms. The U.S. News and World Report has honored UNC for having the 167th best graduate education school and 13th top online graduate teaching degrees. In 2007, the CEBS also was awarded the Christa McAuliffe Award for Exemplary Programs in Teacher Education. With a student-faculty ratio of 21:1, education majors can interact closely with accomplished professors who’ve published over 1,000 journal articles in the past five years.
The Master of Arts (M.A.) in Special Education program is delivered wholly online through the UNC Extended Campus over just two years. The flexible 34-credit curriculum is ideal for licensed teachers seeking advanced training without disrupting their career. Master’s students can select from five emphasis areas in Applied Behavior Analysis, Academic Coaching, Deaf and Hard of Hearing Education, Gifted and Talented Education, or Visual Impairment. ABA students will be qualified for credentials from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). There’s also a complementary Online Teaching Students with Autism (TSA) Graduate Certificate. For aspiring special education directors, the Educational Specialist (Ed.S.) in Special Education Administration can be obtained with eight terms online too.
Affiliated with the Society of Jesus, Saint Joseph’s University is a private non-profit Roman Catholic and Jesuit research institution first founded in 1851. Annually, SJU serves the academic needs of over 4,800 undergraduates and 3,500 post-graduates. From its main 114-acre urban campus in the Overbrook neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, SJU has created an Online Division for flexible distance education. Saint Joseph’s is regionally accredited to confer more than 120 majors. According to the U.S. News and World Report, SJU is the 15th best regional college in the North. Forbes magazine also distinguished Saint Joseph’s University as the 167th best private school nationwide. SJU has a high retention rate of 89 percent and a low student-faculty ratio of 13:1.
Within the College of Arts & Sciences, the Department of Education is approved by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). The Department has the mission of preparing exemplary teachers who are also engaged citizens and committed scholars. The U.S. News and World Report survey found that Saint Joseph’s excels in awarding the 78th best online graduate education degrees in America. SJU is well-known for its Alliance for Catholic Education program, which gives students the chance to serve as teachers in Philadelphia’s under-resourced Catholic schools. The Department of Education also houses the lauded Kinney Center for Autism Education & Support.
Saint Joseph’s offers an Online Master of Science (M.S.) in Special Education for obtaining Level 1 certification in Pennsylvania and many other states from a home or work computer. The 36-credit curriculum can be customized with an Autism Endorsement Concentration or Wilson Reading System Concentration in grades PreK-8 or 7-12. The online special education degree is uniquely built on the foundation of Response to Intervention (RTI) to boost achievement among students with mild to severe disabilities. It’s also possible for SJU students to earn the Online Special Education Certificate independently with just nine credits. Coursework will cover topics in diagnostic assessment, progress monitoring, literacy education, behavioral intervention, low-incidence disabilities, and inclusive classroom management.
Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains on a 589-acre rural campus in the valley of Cullowhee, Western Carolina University is a public co-educational teaching institution included within the University of North Carolina system. Since its inception in 1889, WCU has grown to enroll over 8,700 undergraduates and 1,500 post-graduates each year. The Carnegie Foundation classifies WCU as a master’s degree-granting university for community engagement. Western Carolina has been placed on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll with Distinction. WCU has also been ranked the 32nd best regional college, 13th top public school, and 27th best college for veterans in the South by the U.S. News and World Report.
The College of Education and Allied Professions at WCU is accredited through the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) to meet high quality standards. Along with classes in Cullowhee and at the Biltmore Park campus in Asheville, the College offers multiple online programs. The U.S. News and World Report has crowned the CEAP as the 149th best graduate education school in the United States. Through the Association of Teacher Educators, WCU was also granted the Distinguished Program in Teacher Education Award. The College follows the motto of “Inspire, Engage, Transform” to prepare teachers, counselors, psychologists, speech-language pathologists, and human service specialists. WCU has a unique Rural-Urban Exchange Program that gives students diverse hands-on learning.
For online learners who don’t already have an education degree, there’s an Online Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) for Special Education. Ranging from 39 to 45 semester hours, the program leads to initial A level teaching license and a graduate degree simultaneously. The degree is customizable with a General Curriculum or Adaptive Curriculum concentration. WCU students who already are licensed can receive the Online Master of Arts in Education (M.A.Ed.) for Special Education. Concentrations in the 30-credit accelerated program are in Behavioral Disorders, Gifted Creative and Innovative Education, Learning Disabilities, Intellectual Disabilities, or Severe/Profound Disabilities. There’s also an Academically or Intellectually Gifted (AIG) Add-On Licensure program offered online for K-12 special education.
With Texas’ third lowest acceptance rate, Stephen F. Austin State University is a selective four-year independent public state-supported teaching institution. On the homestead of its founding father Thomas Jefferson Rusk, SFA has a 406-acre urban campus in Nacogdoches within East Texas near the Louisiana border. An increasing number of its over 12,900 students are taking classes for one of the over 120 academic programs online. The U.S. News and World Report has placed SFA as the 87th best regional college and 35th top public school in the West. Forbes magazine honored Stephen F. Austin State as the 175th best college in the South with over 86 percent of students receiving financial aid.
In the Robert P. McKibben Building, the James I. Perkins College of Education (PCOE) is headquartered to provide SFA students with a vibrant, inclusive community for teacher preparation training. According to the U.S. News and World Report, SFA houses the 180th best graduate education school in America. All programs have been given the gold standard of excellence from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). The Early Childhood Laboratory School is also approved by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). 99 percent of SFA graduates pass initial teacher certification exams. The PCOE received the prestigious Star Award from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in 2008 for its innovative programs.
At the undergraduate level, online students have the ability to earn a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies (BSIS) with a concentration in EC-12 Special Education. This accelerated two-year completion program is designed for transfers and paraprofessionals who have completed at least 45 credits at a community college. Online graduate students at SFA can obtain a Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Special Education with or without initial teacher certification. Within this program recognized by the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), teachers can add on Educational Diagnostician Certification in Texas. Non-degree seeking students could also obtain the Online EC-12 or 7-12 Special Education Certification.
Helping Youth Transform Disabilities into Abilities
For successfully becoming a special education teacher, you’ll need patience, a big heart, and the right training. Many universities across the United States have created rigorous online programs for current and future special education teachers to jumpstart their career. Course materials are just a click away to study from the comfort of home or during lunch breaks at school. The majority of online special education programs also provide hands-on time working with disabled youth in a local school district. Graduating with an accredited special education degree will certify that you have the communication, critical thinking, teaching, and classroom management skills to creatively modify lesson plans to each child’s needs. Your education will provide a good return on investment since special education teachers earn an average yearly salary of $57,820 and plenty of intrinsic rewards. Use the above program ranking on the top 10 online special education degrees to help find your ideal fit.