Best Online Master’s Degrees in Special Education: 2016

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Advanced Programs, Pay and Career Paths in Special Education

An online master’s in special education prepares future teachers and administrators to educate and inspire children with disabilities. The United States is experiencing a critical shortage of special education teachers, so program graduates are needed to fill roles in schools, rehabilitation facilities, parent guidance centers and counseling programs. Learn about different programs and concentrations, and the career paths they can open up.

Online Master’s in Special Education Timeline

Getting in: The Application Process

Students applying for an online master’s in special education must have previously completed a bachelor’s degree. You may be required to already have teaching experience and/or a teaching certification. Other typical requirements include:

  • Application fee.

    Typically, a fee is required to initiate an application for admission and must be paid as part of the application process.

  • GRE or ALST scores.

    Applicants may be required to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or the Academic Literary Skills Test (ALST), depending on the program and school.

  • Undergraduate GPA.

    Schools may require a minimum undergraduate degree for applicants. It is usually a minimum of a 3.0. However, satisfying minimum GPA requirements is likely not sufficient for acceptance into highly-ranked schools – so students should research average GPA scores for each program’s applicants.

  • Transcripts (paper/electronic).

    Official bachelor’s degree transcripts must accompany the application.

  • Resume.

    The resume is candidates’ opportunity to share their expertise in education. It is a complete history of education, personal, volunteer and professional work experience.

  • Statement of intent.

    The statement of intent should address applicants’ purpose in pursuing a degree in special education and their academic and professional goals.

  • Original essay.

    Prospective students may be required to write a personal essay addressing their interest in pursuing a graduate degree in special education.

  • Academic Interview.

    Some programs require an interview with an academic advisor or admissions committee as part of the application process.

  • Letters of recommendation.

    Students should work with current or former supervisors, faculty members with whom they have studied, or staff from volunteer work to gather letters of recommendations.

  • Proof of financial support.

    Some schools may require proof of how potential students will finance their graduate education.

Search Online Master’s Degrees in Special Education

You’re thinking about continuing your education and completing a master’s in special education. Now what? It’s time to start researching all of the online program options. Use this convenient search tool to narrow down the options by location, degree level, school type, tuition rates and even student population. Use it to create a short list of schools.

Student Population:
School Type:
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Year 1

During the first year of a graduate-level program in special education, students focus on a set of core classes with some electives, all of which build upon their undergraduate education. Curriculum may include research methodologies, classroom management strategies, and standards for curriculum.

Year 2

After the first year, students take courses in their specialization as well as learning disabled endorsement classes. Curriculum will train prospective educators to plan, teach and assess special education students. Classes may have titles like Foundations in Special Education, Instruction for Learning-Disabled Students, Foundations of Learning Disabilities, and Assessment and Planning for Special Education Students. Some programs may offer special classes in disability-specific areas such as autism. Additionally, second-year students may be required to participate in a practicum or student teaching in the field.

Testing & Graduation Requirements

Schools have additional graduation requirements for students to complete before earning their degree, including:

  • Comprehensive exam.

    Students may be required to take a comprehensive final exam before or during the semester they intend to graduate to demonstrate overall mastery in special education.

  • Student teaching.

    Before graduation, students seeking initial licensure must complete a student teaching requirement in which they work with special education kids and develop lesson plans. Online students should ask their academic advisor for help coordinating a student teaching experience at a local school.

  • Thesis or project.

    Some programs may require a thesis or project as part of the graduation requirements. A thesis is typically an empirical or conceptual study that poses questions about some aspect of learning, teaching methodology, or curriculum and then answers these either by collecting and analyzing data or by synthesizing and critiquing prior work.

  • Minimum GPA.

    Some programs require students to earn a 3.0 GPA or better to graduate with a master’s in special education.

  • Minimum grades.

    Students may be required to pass most classes with a “C” or better.

  • Degree requirements timeline.

    Some colleges or universities require that all coursework be taken within a certain number of years, usually five to seven.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia require special education teachers to be licensed. The state board of education or a licensure advisory committee usually grants licenses, and licensure requirements vary by state.

Many states offer general special education licenses across a variety of disability categories, while others license several different specialties within special education. In some states, special education teachers receive a general education credential to teach kindergarten through grade 12, then earn an additional certification on top of their license in a specialty area, such as learning disabilities or behavioral disorders.

Career Paths & Salary Potential With a Master’s in Special Education

The exact amount one can earn with a master’s in special education depends on career path and other factors. However, gaining a master’s in special education generally not only leads to pay increases but also opens doors to other careers in education, including positions as school counselors, instructional coordinators and administrators. Students who specialize in the concentrations below may find themselves in any number of careers.

Concentrations
Applied Behavior Analysis

Behavior analysis focuses on how learning takes place. Students will use the principles of learning theory to apply interventions that improve socially significant behaviors. They will also learn how to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behavior.

Career:
Behavior Analyst
Behavior Analyst

Applied behavior analysis is a growing discipline with a presence in both education and psychology. Students who become behavior analysts typically work with individuals and caregivers in homes, clinics and schools to affect socially significant behavior change.

Child Development Specialist
Child Development Specialist

These educators typically focus on teaching children aged five and under in a variety of settings, including daycare centers, civic organizations, preschools and elementary schools. Child development specialists evaluate students for developmental delays, promote the acquisition of skills necessary for children to be successful in preparing for school, and develop plans to help and encourage children in overcoming delays.

Special Education Cognitive Coach
Special Education Cognitive Coach

Cognitive coaches work with children with special needs to develop lessons plans that motivate them to reach their potential. They do this by keeping data on each child and employing behavior management techniques. They also model and teach evidence-based instructional strategies to teachers, support staff and paraprofessionals.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

The term “spectrum” refers to a wide range of symptoms, skills and levels of impairment that children with ASD can have. Some children are mildly impaired by their symptoms, while others are severely disabled. Students in this study concentration will benefit from classes in behavior, psychology and research.

Career:
Autism Spectrum Disorder Specialist
Autism Spectrum Disorder Specialist

These specialists are behavioral modification counselors who provide therapeutic, educational or medical services to adults and children with neurobehavioral disorders on the autism spectrum. Specialists manage a caseload of multiple clients, some of whom may be experiencing stressful situations. Depending on their professional qualifications, autism spectrum disorder specialists can work in schools, healthcare settings, public and private agencies, and private practice.

Behavior Analyst
Behavior Analyst

Applied behavior analysis is a growing discipline with a presence in both education and psychology. Students who become behavior analysts typically work with individuals and caregivers in homes, clinics and schools to affect socially significant behavior change.

Emotional or Behavioral Disorders Specialist
Emotional or Behavioral Disorders Specialist

Special education teachers who specialize in emotional or behavioral disorders work with students who exhibit a wide range of characteristics, including but not limited to aggressive behaviors, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, depression, and anxiety or conduct disorders. They perform assessments to determine specific mental health issues and use that information to recommend a course of treatment.

Child Development Specialist
Child Development Specialist

These educators typically focus on teaching children aged five and under in a variety of settings, including daycare centers, civic organizations, preschools and elementary schools. Child development specialists evaluate students for developmental delays, promote the acquisition of skills necessary for children to be successful in preparing for school, and develop plans to help and encourage children in overcoming delays.

Child Development

This concentration focuses on the biological, psychological and emotional changes that occur in human beings between birth and the end of adolescence, as individuals progress from dependency to increasing autonomy.

Career:
Child Development Specialist
Child Development Specialist

These educators typically focus on teaching children aged five and under in a variety of settings, including daycare centers, civic organizations, preschools and elementary schools. Child development specialists evaluate students for developmental delays, promote the acquisition of skills necessary for children to be successful in preparing for school, and develop plans to help and encourage children in overcoming delays.

Elementary School Special Ed Teacher
Elementary School Special Ed Teacher

Primary-level special education teachers work in schools with children who have cognitive, emotional or physical disabilities. Teachers help students transition into mainstream classes, evaluate students, assist students with hygiene or mobility, and improve their basic functionality in schools.

Behavior Analyst
Behavior Analyst

Applied behavior analysis is a growing discipline with a presence in both education and psychology. Students who become behavior analysts typically work with individuals and caregivers in homes, clinics and schools to affect socially significant behavior change.

Emotional or Behavioral Disorders Specialist
Emotional or Behavioral Disorders Specialist

Special education teachers who specialize in emotional or behavioral disorders work with students who exhibit a wide range of characteristics, including but not limited to aggressive behaviors, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, depression, and anxiety or conduct disorders. They perform assessments to determine specific mental health issues and use that information to recommend a course of treatment.

Special Education Cognitive Coach
Special Education Cognitive Coach

Cognitive coaches work with children with special needs to develop lessons plans that motivate them to reach their potential. They do this by keeping data on each child and employing behavior management techniques. They also model and teach evidence-based instructional strategies to teachers, support staff and paraprofessionals.

High-Incidence Disabilities

Students with these common learning, speech and language disabilities/disorders require highly trained, dedicated teachers. Students in this concentration may take classes in assessment and research methodology, attain a reading endorsement, and complete an internship or practicum.

Career:
ESE Teacher for High-Incidence Disabilities
ESE Teacher for High-Incidence Disabilities

Special education teachers who work with students in high-incidence disability areas (learning disabilities, behavioral disorders and speech-language disorders) may work in either an inclusive or resource environment. Sometimes these teachers will co-teach with a general education teacher, allowing students with disabilities to stay in the general education classroom. They may also teach students with disabilities in a one on-one setting.

Elementary School Special Ed Teacher
Elementary School Special Ed Teacher

Primary-level special education teachers work in schools with children who have cognitive, emotional or physical disabilities. Teachers help students transition into mainstream classes, evaluate students, assist students with hygiene or mobility, and improve their basic functionality in schools.

Middle School Special Ed Teacher
Middle School Special Ed Teacher

These teachers assist middle school children with specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, emotional disturbances, multiple disabilities, hearing impairments, orthopedic impairments, visual impairments, autism, or combined deafness and blindness. Educators in these positions use multiple teaching methods to promote learning, including intensive individualized instruction, problem-solving assignments, and small-group work.

Special Education Cognitive Coach
Special Education Cognitive Coach

Cognitive coaches work with children with special needs to develop lessons plans that motivate them to reach their potential. They do this by keeping data on each child and employing behavior management techniques. They also model and teach evidence-based instructional strategies to teachers, support staff and paraprofessionals.

Secondary School Special Ed Teacher
Secondary School Special Ed Teacher

High school special education teachers instruct teenagers with a wide range of disabilities. They teach socially acceptable behavior and employ techniques such as behavior modification and positive reinforcement. Teachers build relationships with parents, administrators, specialists and social workers to develop individual educational plans that promote educational, physical and social development.

Low-Incidence Disabilities

In this concentration, potential teachers work with children who have at least one severe disability. Educators will benefit from coursework in development, behavior analysis and classroom management.

Career:
ESE Teacher for Low-Incidence Disabilities
ESE Teacher for Low-Incidence Disabilities

In these positions, teachers work with children with comparatively rare disabilities such as blindness or deafness. Such students depend on teachers to help them develop communication skills and work on basic literacy and functionality. Teachers modify the curriculum to fit individual students’ needs.

Elementary School Special Ed Teacher
Elementary School Special Ed Teacher

Primary-level special education teachers work in schools with children who have cognitive, emotional or physical disabilities. Teachers help students transition into mainstream classes, evaluate students, assist students with hygiene or mobility, and improve their basic functionality in schools.

Secondary School Special Ed Teacher
Secondary School Special Ed Teacher

High school special education teachers instruct teenagers with a wide range of disabilities. They teach socially acceptable behavior and employ techniques such as behavior modification and positive reinforcement. Teachers build relationships with parents, administrators, specialists and social workers to develop individual educational plans that promote educational, physical and social development.

Middle School Special Ed Teacher
Middle School Special Ed Teacher

These teachers assist middle school children with specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, emotional disturbances, multiple disabilities, hearing impairments, orthopedic impairments, visual impairments, autism, or combined deafness and blindness. Educators in these positions use multiple teaching methods to promote learning, including intensive individualized instruction, problem-solving assignments, and small-group work.

Potential Salary Increases with a Master’s Degree

Special education teachers can expect to make up to 15 percent more if they earn an online master’s in special education. According to 2014 salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, special education teachers in general earn $54,570 a year. But Indeed.com, which tracks earnings data, showed that same year that educators with a master’s degree in special education earned $63,000 on average, with secondary school teachers typically earning the most.

Potential Growth 6%
Salary Potential $54,570

Additional Resources & Links

There are many organizations, associations and resources for special education teachers. Here are a few that will help you as you decide to pursue a master’s in special education as well as after you graduate. You will find a community of like-minded educators ready to share their experience as well as disability-focused organizations, such as Autism Speaks, working to research and advocate for students with special needs.

  • Autism Speaks

    The world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, Autism Speaks is dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention and treatment of autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.

  • Coordinated Campaign for Learning Disabilities

    The CCLD is at the forefront of special education awareness, research and parental support. They specialize in early detection and intervention.

  • Council for Exceptional Children

    The CEC is the largest international professional organization dedicated to improving the educational success of individuals with disabilities and/or gifts and talents.

  • International Association of Special Education

    The vision of the International Association of Special Education (IASE) is to improve the quality of life and service delivery for all individuals with special needs.

  • Kappa Delta Pi

    Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education was founded in 1911 to foster excellence in education and promote fellowship among those dedicated to teaching.

  • National Association for Special Education Teachers

    NASET is a national membership organization dedicated to meeting the needs of special education teachers and those preparing to become special education teachers.

  • National Center for Special Education Research

    NCSER sponsors a comprehensive program of special education research designed to expand the knowledge and understanding of infants, toddlers and children with disabilities.

  • Office of Special Education Programs

    The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) is committed to improving results and outcomes for people of all ages with disabilities. OSERS supports programs that serve millions of children, youth and adults with disabilities.

  • Special Education News

    Special Education News is an online newspaper covering topics in special education.

Best Online Master’s in Special Education Degrees

Continuing your education can mean big things for your career and the students you will impact. With so many options for an online master’s in special education, it can be overwhelming to choose a program. One way is to research reputable rankings that offer a comprehensive look an online special education master’s degrees.

Check out our rankings of the Best Online Master’s in Special Education for 2015-2016 — and learn more about our methodology here.

RANK COLLEGE SCORE TEACHER/STUDENT RATIO COST GRADUATION RATE
1 University of Nebraska at Kearney 100.00 15:1 56%
2 Minot State University 94.75 13:1 40%
3 University of North Carolina at Greensboro 94.50 17:1 56%
4 Washington State University 94.25 15:1 67%
5 University of Idaho 93.50 17:1 58%
5 University of Florida 93.50 21:1 88%
7 University of Utah 93.50 17:1 62%
8 Ball State University 93.25 15:1 59%
9 George Washington University 93.00 12:1 79%
9 George Mason University 93.00 16:1 67%
9 Clemson University 93.00 16:1 82%
12 Fitchburg State University 92.50 15:1 57%
12 Asbury University 92.50 12:1 68%
14 Indiana University-Bloomington 91.75 17:1 78%
15 Albany State University 91.50 16:1 40%
16 University of Alaska Fairbanks 91.25 14:1 32%
16 Carlow University 91.25 11:1 60%
16 Auburn University 91.25 17:1 71%
19 Fort Hays State University 90.50 17:1 43%
19 Drexel University 90.50 10:1 67%
21 Michigan State University 90.00 17:1 79%
22 Saint Joseph’s University 89.50 13:1 73%
23 University of Nebraska at Omaha 89.25 16:1 45%
23 Florida State University 89.25 26:1 79%
25 Niagara University 89.00 13:1 64%
26 West Chester University of Pennsylvania 88.75 18:1 67%
26 Delta State University 88.75 13:1 32%
28 University of Maine 88.25 16:1 60%
28 Concordia University-Wisconsin 88.25 13:1 61%
30 University of North Carolina at Charlotte 88.00 19:1 55%
31 University of Southern Mississippi 87.50 17:1 48%
31 University of Dayton 87.50 15:1 76%
31 Rowan University 87.50 17:1 67%
34 University of St Thomas 87.25 15:1 72%
34 Monmouth University 87.25 14:1 67%
36 University of Central Florida 86.75 31:1 70%
37 Harding University 86.50 16:1 63%
38 University of Alaska Southeast 86.25 15:1 17%
38 Eastern Kentucky University 86.25 15:1 42%
40 Spring Arbor University 86.00 12:1 54%
41 University of Kansas 85.50 17:1 60%
41 Pittsburg State University 85.50 19:1 50%
43 Kentucky State University 85.25 12:1 20%
43 Chaminade University of Honolulu 85.25 11:1 49%
45 University of Arkansas 84.75 19:1 62%
45 Texas A & M University-College Station 84.75 20:1 79%
45 Western New Mexico University 84.75 16:1 21%
45 University of Northern Colorado 84.75 17:1 46%
49 Indiana Wesleyan University 84.50 16:1 63%