The Best Online Master’s Degree Programs in Special Education

Explore top-rated, flexible special education master’s programs online that give you the skills and qualifications to teach students with learning and behavioral disabilities.

The flexibility and affordability of online special education master’s programs are helping to open the door for more caring individuals to become special ed teachers, while also enabling working teachers to gain certifications and endorsements in this field. Given the serious shortage of trained special educators in public and private schools today, this in-demand career holds the potential for a rewarding career helping those with special needs advance and excel in their lives.

This guide will help you get started on your school search by highlighting the best online special education master’s programs currently available, while also answering key questions about cost, coursework, accreditation, and career opportunities after graduation.

College Spotlights: Best Special Education Master’s Programs Online in 2021

Three of the best online master’s in special education degree programs are spotlighted below to help you know what to expect from a quality program. Selection criteria includes accreditation, affordability, curriculum, study convenience, faculty quality, and availability of student support services. These spotlights preview our full special education master’s online program rankings for 2021 available later this year.

Eastern Michigan University

The online Master of Arts in teaching in special education degree from Eastern Michigan University provides current teachers with the knowledge and skills required to work with children across a range of special education needs. Students complete 16 credit hours of core coursework plus 11 or 12 credit hours within one of four concentrations: emotional impairment, cognitive impairment, learning disabilities, and physical and other health impairment. Students currently possessing a SPED endorsement also complete a 4-credit hour supervised in-person practicums with disabled students in local schools and institutions. Students without a SPED endorsement complete an additional 12 credit hours of coursework.

Admissions requirements include a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution earned with a minimum cumulative 2.7 GPA, two references, and a teaching certificate. Tuition is $512 per credit hour for both in-state and out-of-state residents. The program can be completed in a few as 18 months, and six starts dates are available yearly.

Purdue University

purdue-university-logo

Purdue University’s online Master of Science in education in special education program prepares graduates to work with children having mild intervention, high incidence disabilities. These include mild intellectual disability, emotional/behavioral disability, learning disabilities, and high functioning autism.

Program concentrations lead to licensure in five areas: initial mild only, initial mild and intense, additional mild only, additional intense only, and additional mild and intense. All licensure concentrations include a practicum. Additionally, except for the initial mild and the initial mild and intensive concentrations, which include an in-person teaching experience, all licensure concentrations require an initial teaching license for admission. A non-licensure option is also available.

The M.S.Ed. in special education’s curriculum aligns with the Educative Teacher Performance Assessment. and prepares graduates for Indiana licensure. Indiana also has reciprocity with 42 states, meaning that Indiana qualifications are accepted by those states in their own licensure or certification processes. Current total per-credit cost (tuition and fees) is $447.85 for Indiana residents and $768.80 for non-residents. Total credits range from 31 to 45 depending on concentration.

University of Arkansas

Two options are available for the University of Arkansas’ online Master of Education in special education degree program. The first allows students with a current teaching license to obtain course credits needed for a special education endorsement through the Arkansas Department of Education while earning their master’s degree. The second option, initial licensure in SPED, allows students without a teaching license to earn their master’s while also completing the coursework required for initial special education licensure in Arkansas. Students can also embed additional coursework that leads to endorsements as dyslexia therapists, SPED educational examiners, SPED education resource room specialties, and a graduate certificate in autism spectrum disorders.

All didactic coursework in UA’s M.Ed. in special education program is completed 100% online. However, in-person practicum and teaching experiences are required. Total credit hour and practicum/teaching requirements vary by option and added endorsement. Admission requirements include a bachelor’s degree, three reference letters, a current CV or resume, and statement of purpose. A GRE, Praxis Core Exam, or other approved standardized core knowledge test is also required.

Advantages of Earning Your Master’s in Special Education Online

Earning a master’s in special education degree, especially in a quality online program, brings several benefits. Here are three of the biggest.

  1. A challenging, varied, and satisfying career

    Working as a teacher is not easy in any environment. It’s particularly challenging when combined with the psychological, emotional, behavioral, and physical issues of special needs students. However, you will enjoy the genuine respect and gratitude of students, parents, and colleagues, along with the satisfaction of making a real, positive, and lasting impact in students’ lives.

  2. Career advancement

    Advancement in the education profession often means moving into administrative jobs, and an education-related master’s degree is almost always a prerequisite for these positions. With a special education master’s degree, you are well-positioned to move into positions like special education program coordinators and special education directors.

  3. Convenience

    Master’s in special education online programs provide maximum convenience and flexibility to busy students, particularly those working as teachers or in other education-related positions. With asynchronous formats, you can access and complete coursework at times that best fit your demanding work and life schedule.

What You’ll Learn in a Master’s in Special Education Online Program

All states require special education teachers to have some postsecondary education in the field and, at least in public schools, to obtain appropriate state certification to teach a specific grade level. Specific education and licensure requirements, however, vary among states. As a result, the curriculums for online master’s in special education degrees also vary, sometimes substantially, from program to program. Having a detailed understanding of both the licensure requirements in your state and whether your program will qualify you for that licensure before you enroll is crucial.

Expect the curriculum of your online special education master’s program to include core courses similar to the five described below, along with concentration and endorsement area coursework. Most students also complete in-person practicums, teaching experiences, or both, depending on whether they are seeking teaching licensures and/or certifications in specific endorsement areas.

Popular Courses

  • Assistive Technology in Special Education

    This course overviews current instructional and assistive technologies and their applications in both general special education practice and for addressing the needs of students with specific learning disabilities. A range of technologies and applications are covered, including educational software, adapted microcomputers, digital media, voice input/output, and alternative input and output methods.

  • Classroom Management

    Students in this course gain an understanding of the basic principles of Applied Behavior Analysis and their implementation across a Positive Behavior Support Model. Students develop competencies related to behavior management through a review of theory, curriculum, and instructional delivery and research-based classroom management practices.

  • Evidence-based Educational Research

    This is an introductory course in evidence-based educational research and evaluation methodologies. Topics include the four major research approaches, conducting effective literature reviews, researching study design and analysis, and planning and writing successful research proposals.

  • Special Education Law and Policy

    This course reviews the legal rights of students and their families as they relate to the field of special education. Students also develop an understanding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act. Topics include the federal statutes and regulations concerning assessment and evaluation procedures, mediation, due process, and discipline; individual education plans (IEPs); least restrictive environment (LRE); and free appropriate education (FAPE).

  • Families and Schools – Communication and Collaboration

    This course is an in-depth study of family-school partnerships in special education, including the communication, collaboration, and interaction processes among children, their families, teachers, schools, and the community. Students gain knowledge regarding the educational, community, and social needs of families and how special education professionals can address them.

Specialization Tracks

Behavior analysis is a specific strategy that, in the context of special education, is used to treat many behavior problems related to mental health, anxiety, addiction, developmental disabilities, and juvenile delinquency. Students gain the evaluation, development, and implementation techniques needed to help special education students achieve positive behavioral change. Students also are prepared for the BCBA exam to become board certified behavior analysts.

  • Applied Behavior Analysis

    Behavior analysis is a specific strategy that, in the context of special education, is used to treat many behavior problems related to mental health, anxiety, addiction, developmental disabilities, and juvenile delinquency. Students gain the evaluation, development, and implementation techniques needed to help special education students achieve positive behavioral change. Students also are prepared for the BCBA exam to become board certified behavior analysts.

  • Autism Spectrum Disorders

    This concentration focuses on research-based strategies, proper assessment, and behavior modification for students of all ages diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Areas covered include initial diagnosis and assessment, intervention, and instructional methodologies; alternative and augmentative socialization and communication strategies; and applied behavior analysis approaches.

  • Cognitive Impairment

    Students selecting this concentration are introduced to the different fields of cognitive impairment (mild, moderate, and severe) and the various historical, educational, political, and medical systems affecting them. Other topics include the assessment, curriculum, teaching, and classroom management methods and techniques for working with cognitively impaired students.

  • Emotional Impairment

    Emotional impairment concerns behavioral problems that adversely affect a student’s education. Students choosing this concentration learn about theories of the etiology of emotional impairment and the teaching methods and techniques applied to address emotional impairment issues in the education setting.

  • Learning Disabilities

    Not to be confused with cognitive impairment, learning disabilities are disorders affecting a person’s ability to properly direct their attention, coordinate movements, understand written and spoken language, and do math calculations. Coursework in this concentration introduces students to relevant learning disability theory and the development of integrated curriculums, instructional methods, and decision-making strategies to address learning issues in the classroom.

Accreditation for Online Special Education Master’s Degrees

Accreditation assures degree programs and the schools offering them meet standards of academic quality. For special education master’s programs online, look for two forms of accreditation. The first is institutional accreditation concerns the institution as a whole and is awarded by various regional and national accrediting agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

The second is programmatic accreditation, which deals with individual degree programs and education departments. The primary programmatic accreditation organization for special education master’s programs is the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, which administers both CAEP and NCATE accreditation for education preparation providers.

Confirm accreditation before you enroll. In most cases, current accreditation information is available on program websites. You can also check the Department of Education and CAEP webpages.

What You Can Do with a Master’s in Special Education

A special education master’s degree online is ideal if you are either intending a career as a special education teacher or currently working as a teacher and seeking to advance your career into the special education field. While classroom teaching is the most common career choice for special education master’s graduates, excellent job opportunities also exist in program administration, social work, and consulting.

Five of the most popular careers for master’s in special education degree holders are described below. We’ve also included current estimated annual salary figures.

Director of Special Education

A director of special education (DSE) manages a school district’s entire special education program. The DSE oversees program budgets, develops special education services and curriculums, hires and supervises program staff, and ensures program compliance with all applicable government regulations and district policies.

10th Percentile Median Annual Pay 90th Percentile
$50,000 $72,000 $108,000

Source: PayScale, 2021

Intervention Specialist

Intervention specialists work both inside and outside the classroom. Typical school-related job duties include advising teachers, providing academic assessments, and developing individualized study plans for students. Outside the classroom, intervention specialists provide valuable support and resources to pre-school-aged children and their families.

10th Percentile Median Annual Pay 90th Percentile
$30,000 $41,000 $60,000

Source: PayScale, 2019

Kindergarten and Elementary School Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers in kindergarten and elementary school classrooms focus on helping students become accustomed to and thrive in the school environment. They assess the unique educational and personal needs of each student, and they plan and assign lessons meeting those needs.

10th Percentile Median Annual Pay 90th Percentile
$40,560 $60,460 $97,210

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019

Middle School Special Education Teacher

Middle school special education teachers work with sixth to eighth graders who have physical and/or mental disabilities within classrooms specifically for them. Teachers focus on preparing students for the successful transition into secondary-level special education programs and, in some cases, regular high school classroom settings.

10th Percentile Median Annual Pay 90th Percentile
$41,370 $61,440 $98,610

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019

Secondary School Special Education Teacher

Secondary special education teachers typically work with high school students having mild to moderate physical and/or mental disabilities, most often in classrooms specifically for those students. The focus of secondary special education is to meet the individual needs of each student to maximize their educational development and prepare them for life after school and, possibly, postsecondary academics.

10th Percentile Median Annual Pay 90th Percentile
$41,170 $61,710 $98,890

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019

Costs and Financial Aid for Online Master’s Degrees in Special Education

Pursuing a special education master’s degree is an expensive undertaking. Fortunately, there are many financial aid resources to help pay for your degree. The most common is the federal student loan. Student loans are also available from state government programs and private lenders. Other funding sources include scholarships and grants (both private and school-sponsored), graduate fellowships and assistantships, and work study programs. Teachers should also contact their school districts/employers about tuition assistance programs.

What Your Online Master’s in Special Education Could Cost

School Name No. of Credits Cost/Credit Total Tuition Cost

California University of Pennsylvania

30

$516 (resident);
$557 (non-resident)

$15,480 (resident);
$16,710 (non-resident)

Spring Arbor University

36 – 37

$600

$21,600 – $22,200

University of West Alabama

34

$429

$14,586

FAQs About Earning Your Special Education Master’s Online

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

Below are admissions requirements like those for most master’s in special education online programs. Specific admissions requirements vary by program, however, so review them each carefully.

  • A bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university. An undergraduate major in an education-related subject is generally not required.
  • A minimum cumulative GPA (typically 2.7 to 3.0) on previous college-level coursework is required and evidenced through official college transcripts. Applicants not meeting the state minimum GPA figure may be admitted on a conditional basis and by meeting certain additional requirements.
  • Proof of current teacher certification is required unless the program includes coursework designed to prepare students for initial teaching licensure.
  • MAT or GRE test scores may or may not be required. Programs requiring them often waive the requirement for applicants with current teacher certification or a previously-earned graduate degree or who meet a stated minimum GPA on previous college coursework.
  • Other common application requirements include professional references or letters of recommendation and statements of purpose.

How long will it take to finish my master’s in special education online?

Program lengths vary depending on a variety of factors, the biggest being if a program leads to teaching licensure. Most online master’s in special education students complete their degree programs in 1½ to 2 years of part-time study. Exceptions include the M.Ed. in special education program from the University of West Alabama with an estimated program length of as little as one year and Southern New Hampshire University’s master’s in special education, which can be completed in as few as 15 months.

Can I earn a master’s in special education 100% online or do I need to visit campus?

While most of these programs feature didactic coursework that is accessed and completed entirely online, most also require some in-person participation in the form of practicums and/or teaching experiences. The extent of these in-person requirements varies significantly by program depending on whether you are pursuing teaching licensure and/or endorsement qualification. However, students in programs not leading to either teaching licensure or endorsement qualification can complete all of their program’s requirements online.

Does an online master’s in special education prepare you for initial teaching certification?

Most online special education master’s programs provide working teachers with advanced knowledge and training in a specific area of the special education field. Because of this, teaching licensure is often a prerequisite for admission.

However, there are a good number of online programs designed to prepare graduates for initial teacher certification. Two examples are the Initial Licensure in SPED program from the University of Arkansas and the MEd in Special Education with Licensure program from Grand Canyon University.