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Online education offers many opportunities for ambitious learners seeking to advance their careers in special education. However, having so many programs to choose from can often lead to uncertainty. After all, how can you assess quality? Which specialization options are most suitable for your goals? And which programs are accredited? Intelligent.com understands these concerns, so we’ve curated a list of the top online master’s in special education programs currently providing these opportunities.

This comprehensive guide will explore what you can expect from these programs, delve into common curriculum elements, and examine state-level certification regulations. As we progress, we’ll provide an up-to-date career outlook for those pursuing these degrees, outline potential career paths, and offer valuable tips to help you select the program that aligns perfectly with your educational and professional goals.

What Can I Expect from an Online Master’s in Special Education Degree?

As a field, special education is dedicated to meeting the unique needs of students with disabilities. Pursuing a master’s in special education offers a specialized focus on this vital area of education, setting it apart from other education-related master’s degrees. This degree equips educators with the necessary knowledge and skills to address diverse learning needs, adapt curricula as needed, and provide individualized support to students with disabilities.

Within the field of special education, you’ll find a few different types of master’s degrees, including:

  • Master of Education (M.Ed.): This degree typically emphasizes practical teaching strategies, classroom management, and curriculum development tailored to special needs students.
  • Master of Arts (MA): This degree often focuses on the theoretical foundations of special education, research methodologies, and policy analysis, offering a broader perspective on the field.
  • Master of Science (M.Sc): This degree may delve into more data-driven and scientific approaches to understanding and addressing disabilities, emphasizing research and data analysis.

Choosing the correct type of master’s degree depends on your career goals and interests, whether you aim to become a classroom teacher, a researcher, or an advocate for policy change.

Common curriculum elements for master’s degrees in special education

While curriculum specifics can vary among institutions, here are some common curriculum elements you can expect from your master’s in education:

  • Core Special Education Courses: Regardless of the degree type, you’ll often start with foundational courses covering topics such as inclusive teaching strategies, assessment methods, and laws related to special education.
  • Research and Assessment: Master’s programs often incorporate coursework on research methodologies, data analysis, and assessment techniques to help you understand and address the unique needs of students with disabilities.
  • Inclusion and Diversity: Courses in inclusive education and cultural competence prepare educators to create supportive, diverse, and equitable classrooms.
  • Practicum or Fieldwork: Some programs may require in-person practicum experiences or student teaching placements, allowing you to apply your knowledge in real-world settings.

Aspiring educators can also often choose from a range of specializations, including:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Emotional and Behavioral Disorders
  • Assistive Technology

Whether you aspire to work with a particular disability category or focus on a specific aspect of special education, specialization options offer a path to expertise and meaningful contributions in this field.

State-level certification regulations

Certification requirements for educators, including those with a master’s in special education, are determined at the state level. Certifications may vary by state, with differing coursework, exams, and practical experience requirements. Therefore, the state in which you earn your degree can significantly impact your certification process and where you can work as a special education teacher.  However, some states offer reciprocity agreements, easing the certification process if moving between states.

Best Online Master’s in Special Education Degree Programs

Best Master's in Special Education Programs Badge
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Florida State University
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Ball State University
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USC Rossier School of Education
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Saint Joseph’s University
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UF College of Education
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Drexel University
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University of North Carolina
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Western Governors University
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Liberty University
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University of Kansas
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University of Arizona
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Indiana University
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West Virginia University
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University of North Dakota
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University of Georgia
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Michigan State University
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Purdue University
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Campbellsville University
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Clemson University
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Saint Mary's University of Minnesota
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Penn State World Campus
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Southern New Hampshire University
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Mississippi College
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Arizona State University
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University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
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University of West Alabama
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George Mason University
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University of Alaska Fairbanks
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Florida International University
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New Mexico State University
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Texas Tech University
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Concordia University at Chicago
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Kentucky State University
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University of Missouri
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Webster University
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University of Nebraska at Lincoln
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Nova Southeastern University
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University of Cincinnati
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Fresno Pacific University
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University of Arkansas
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Morningside College
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Emporia State University
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University of Kentucky
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Touro University
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The University of Alabama
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Northern Arizona University
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Northwestern State University of Louisiana
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Niagara University
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University of North Texas
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Minot State University

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How we rank schools

This list features some of the best online master’s degree programs in special education in the U.S. All are offered at nonprofit, accredited institutions, either public or private, with a high standard of academic quality for post-secondary institutions.

We evaluated each degree program on tuition costs, admission, retention and graduation rates, faculty, reputation, and student resources. Then, we calculated the Intelligent Score on a scale of 0 to 100. Read more about our ranking methodology.

Next, we compared our picks to a list of aggregated college rankings from reputable publications like the U.S. News & World Report, among others, to simplify a student’s college search. We pored through these rankings so students don’t have to.

What Can I Do With an Online Master’s in Special Education?

Career outlook

Graduates with a master’s in special education can expect a promising career outlook. Special Education Teachers are projected to be in steady demand over the next decade, with a median salary of $62,950. Those pursuing leadership roles like Special Education Coordinators see a median salary of $101,320, reflecting the demand for their program development and compliance expertise. Additionally, School Counselors, who provide vital support to students with disabilities, are projected to experience a 5% increase in demand over the next decade, with a median salary of $60,140.

Career paths

After earning a master’s in special education, graduates can pursue various impactful career paths, including the following:

  • Classroom Teaching: This is the most common path, where you can work in public or private schools, focusing on students with disabilities and adapting curriculum to meet their needs.
  • Educational Leadership: You can take on leadership roles in schools, districts, or organizations, overseeing special education programs, ensuring compliance, and supporting teachers.
  • Counseling: Some special education graduates choose to become school counselors, providing academic and emotional support to students with disabilities.

These diverse career options can empower graduates to make a profound difference in the lives of individuals with special needs.

Special Education Teacher

Special Education teachers provide focused instruction and support to students with disabilities. With a master’s in special education, educators gain advanced knowledge in specialized teaching strategies, assessment techniques, and legal requirements, enabling them to create inclusive and effective learning environments.

Special Education Coordinator

By earning a master’s in special education, graduates are prepared to take on leadership roles, like that of a Special Education Coordinator, to oversee and improve special education programs within schools or districts. This degree allows coordinators to advocate for the needs of students with disabilities, fostering an environment that promotes their academic and social growth on a larger scale.

School Counselor

A School Counselor with a master’s in special education specializes in providing comprehensive support to students with disabilities, addressing their academic, social, and emotional needs. This role involves collaborating with educators, families, and students to create individualized plans, offer counseling services, and facilitate a positive school experience.

Best States for Teaching Careers

Education career opportunities span all 50 states, although employment and annual salary vary widely.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation’s highest-paid teachers are in Washington, DC, with an annual median salary of $76,000. Meanwhile, the lowest annual median salary is in Mississippi, where teachers earn $46,240 per year.

The U.S. is currently experiencing a shortage of trained, qualified teachers, with some experts estimating as many as 55,000 open teaching positions in the country. The need is most acute in the South Atlantic and East South Central regions of the U.S.

State Annual median wage Employment per 1,000 jobs
Alabama $50,630 50.3
Alaska $61,660 63.1
Arizona $48,410 47.6
Arkansas $47,840 57.8
California $63,100 56.8
Colorado $50,180 52.9
Connecticut $63,680 73.5
Delaware $59,060 60.0
District of Columbia $76,000 43.3
Florida $49,790 42.9
Georgia $57,780 57.6
Hawaii $56,570 64.7
Idaho $47,200 55.8
Illinois $53,480 60.7
Indiana $47,880 50.0
Iowa $47,170 67.4
Kansas $47,650 64.2
Kentucky $50,240 50.0
Louisiana $49,090 57.8
Maine $49,120 64.2
Maryland $60,890 62.7
Massachusetts $64,390 64.3
Michigan $51,480 46.2
Minnesota $49,710 56.2
Mississippi $46,240 60.8
Missouri $47,940 55.0
Montana $47,630 58.4
Nebraska $50,290 58.3
Nevada $56,530 36.2
New Hampshire $51,390 63.4
New Jersey $62,640 68.4
New Mexico $55,210 60.1
New York $63,670 74.3
North Carolina $47,920 57.9
North Dakota $49,030 58.2
Ohio $60,470 58.0
Oklahoma $47,210 57.4
Oregon $60,720 53.0
Pennsylvania $60,930 56.6
Rhode Island $64,320 65.9
South Carolina $48,400 50.6
South Dakota $46,840 57.9
Tennessee $48,920 48.2
Texas $59,140 60.9
Utah $48,670 57.3
Vermont $49,720 87.8
Virgin Islands $47,790 66.3
Virginia $57,240 61.3
Washington $62,660 53.9
West Virginia $47,470 60.0
Wisconsin $49,580 55.1
Wyoming $49,930 72.6

**Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics 

How to Choose the Online Master’s in Special Education Degree That’s Right for You

Step 1: Choose your area of study

Many graduate special education programs offer students the opportunity to tailor their education to their unique interests and career goals. For those passionate about working with children on the autism spectrum, the autism specialization equips them with the tools needed to make a profound impact. Those interested in addressing learning difficulties might opt for the Learning Disabilities specialization. Meanwhile, a concentration in Behavioral Disorders is ideal for those who wish to concentrate on handling challenging behaviors.

It’s also important to consider your learning style and schedule when choosing an online program. Assess whether you prefer synchronous or asynchronous formats and whether you can commit to a full-time or a part-time schedule. These decisions affect your work-life balance, significantly determining your academic success.

Step 2: Research schools and programs

Now that you have clarified your intended specialization and preferred learning format, thorough research is essential to find the right master’s in special education program.

Accreditation should be the first checkpoint, as it ensures program quality, eligibility for federal funding, and employment opportunities in the future. During the research process, ask yourself questions like:

  • Does the program offer my desired specialization?
  • Is it offered online, and if so, is it synchronous or asynchronous?
  • What is the student-to-faculty ratio?
  • What resources, like libraries and research databases, are available for online students?

You can gather information by visiting school websites, attending virtual open houses, contacting program coordinators, reading student reviews, and seeking insights from current or former students.

Step 3: Prepare for applications and tests

Begin by reviewing each school’s specific requirements and deadlines. It’s wise to start the process early — gathering the necessary documents and writing an engaging personal statement that illustrates your qualifications and career goals. If the program requires the GRE, consider enrolling in a test prep program to enhance your scores.

Be sure to proofread all application materials carefully to ensure they are error-free and effectively convey your qualifications. By staying organized and dedicating time to each application, you will increase your chances of securing admission to the program of your choice.

Step 4: Select your program

Once your acceptance letters have arrived, it’s essential to prioritize each program’s alignment with your unique career goals. Consider how each program will prepare you for your desired career path — will this program help or hinder your professional growth? Don’t forget to evaluate tuition costs and financial aid options to be sure you’re making an informed financial decision. If you’re pursuing teaching, ensure that the program meets state-level certification requirements in your state.

Step 5: Determine how you’ll pay for your degree

First, explore scholarship and grant opportunities, which don’t require repayment and can significantly offset tuition costs. Many universities offer financial aid packages, so check if your chosen institution provides scholarships based on academic merit or financial need.

Consider federal student loans if scholarships and grants don’t cover all expenses. Look for low-interest options and explore loan forgiveness programs like Teacher Loan Forgiveness, which can reduce or eliminate your loan balance if you work in a low-income school. Public Service Loan Forgiveness is another option, forgiving loans after ten years of eligible payments for those in public service roles, which may include special education teachers.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Online Master’s in Special Education Degree Programs

Should I get a master's in special education degree in person or online?

The answer to this question depends on your individual circumstances and learning preferences. Online learning is often the best choice for working professionals or individuals with significant responsibilities as it allows for greater flexibility, enabling you to balance your education with other commitments. However, it requires substantial self-discipline and managing your time effectively.

On the other hand, in-person learning is typically better suited for traditional students who thrive in a physical classroom environment and value face-to-face interaction with their professors and peers.

Ultimately, the decision should align with your lifestyle, learning style, and personal circumstances. Assess your needs, responsibilities, and preferences to determine which learning mode — either online or in person — best supports your academic and career goals.

What are the admissions requirements for an online master's in special education degree?

Specific admissions requirements will vary depending on the institution, but here are some standard admissions requirements for an online master’s in special education degree:

  • Bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution
  • Prerequisite coursework in child development and psychology, education psychology, or behavior management
  • Prior teaching certifications, if applicable or advantageous

As is often the case with graduate programs, each school you apply to will have specific requirements. Reviewing the prerequisites of the schools you’re interested in to ensure eligibility is essential.

What is the average cost of an online master's in special education degree?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of a graduate degree was approximately $12,394 at public colleges and $26,394 for the 2020-2021 academic year. Tuition rates are typically lower at public institutions because they receive funding from state governments, while private universities rely more on tuition and donations.

Online students can save money by:

  • Choosing in-state public institutions
  • Taking advantage of employer tuition assistance programs
  • Applying for scholarships and grants
  • Considering part-time enrollment to manage costs while working

Additionally, some programs offer reduced online tuition fees, making education more affordable for distance learners.

How long does it take to complete an online master's in special education degree?

The duration to complete your graduate degree will vary depending on the following factors:

  • Delivery Format: Typically, full-time programs take around 18 months to two years, while part-time programs can extend to two and a half to three years.
  • Full-Time vs. Part-Time Enrollment: Full-time students often complete their degrees more quickly. In contrast, part-time students spread their coursework over a more extended period to accommodate other responsibilities.
  • Accelerated Programs: Some online programs offer accelerated options, allowing students to graduate in as little as 12 to 18 months. However, these programs may require a heavier courseload and a faster pace of study.

Ultimately, the exact timeline will depend on the specific program, your chosen course load, and your ability to balance coursework with other commitments.

How hard is an online master's in special education degree?

While these programs can be challenging due to their specialized content and academic demands, many students complete the program with dedication and support. Time management, effective study habits, and seeking assistance when needed can significantly contribute to your success in these programs.

Is an online master's in special education degree worth it?

Earning your online Master’s in Special Education is especially worth it for those seeking to advance their careers in this field. However, many individuals assess the potential Return on Investment (ROI) to better understand how their degree will be financially worth it in the future.

To assess the potential ROI for a specific program, you should consider:

  • Total program cost
  • Expected salary upon graduation
  • Opportunities for career advancement and pay increases
  • Loan repayment
  • Time to break-even

By conducting this analysis, you can make an informed decision about the potential ROI of your degree and whether it will align with your long-term career and financial goals.


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