Special education teachers have one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs an educator can have. A master's degree in special education can help you learn what it takes join their ranks at a high level. A bachelor's degree may be sufficient to begin your career in special education, but earning a master's can help you refine and improve your teaching skills or prepare for a move into administration or policymaking.

What is special education exactly? The official definition put forward by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that special education is instruction designed to meet the diverse learning needs of children with disabilities, which covers it in broad strokes. The finer details of the duties of the special education profession have a wide range of nuance, and earning a master's in special education online can help you better understand this complex and essential profession.

On this page, we run down the best U.S. colleges and universities for special education degrees, provide an overview of a typical master's in special education degree program and provide a variety of information about the special education job market and ways that you can make an impact after graduation.

Frequently Asked Questions

Depending on the college or university they choose, special education students may be able to complete an education master's degree online without making any in-person campus visits. However, students who choose certain program concentrations or specialties may have to visit campus for intensive instruction sessions. Furthermore, students seeking licensure or certification may be required to complete an internship or student teaching assignment as part of their master's program. Internships are often conducted at schools and other learning sites off campus, but the student's presence is typically required.

Data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that working professionals with master's degrees earned more money and enjoyed lower unemployment rates than those who stopped their education at the bachelor's level, showing a nearly $13,000 difference in average annual salary. Master's degrees can also open up more employment opportunities, particularly in the field of education. Whether or not a master's in special education is worth the investment can depend on what you put into the process, but the numbers are encouraging.
Accreditation is a measure of quality assurance in college and university programs, designed to show that their instruction, services and facilities meet or exceed a nationally accepted standard. Programs that educate teachers, including special education teachers, are accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), using the standards set by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). Check with your advisor or a program administrator at your chosen school to find out about the accreditation status of any degree you might be seeking.


Master's in Special Education Program Overview

One common master level degree in special education is the Master of Education (M.Ed.) degree, which helps students dive deeply into the complex learning needs of children with disabilities and develop strategies for implementing policies and programs that respect those needs. Other types of degrees available include Master of Arts (M.A.) or Master of Science (M.S.) programs in special education.

It's generally the case that a M.Ed. curriculum is angled more toward school administration and curriculum development, while M.A. and M.S. plans are more commonly oriented toward high-level classroom teaching skills. Each individual program sets its own curriculum, however, so check with your advisors for details specific to your school.

Earning an Online Master's Degree in Special Education

How long does an online master's in special education program take?

The number of credits required to complete special education master's programs both online can vary substantially from one institution to another. Many programs consist of around 30 credit hours, which typically translate to roughly two years of traditional full-time study, but those that offer deeper or more specialized instruction may require 40 credit hours or more.

The length of your master's in special education program can also depend on how you choose to pursue the degree. Studying part-time can ease the burden that continuing your education places on your existing schedule, but overall program length tends to be longer. Some institutions offer accelerated schedules that may allow you to complete your degree in as little as 12 or 15 months.

What are the requirements to start an online master's degree in special education?

To gain acceptance into a M.Ed. program, students must first earn a bachelor's degree. It's not typically required that the bachelor's degree be in education, but programs that admit students without formal collegiate instruction in education may ask you to complete a series of prerequisite courses before you can officially enroll.

Some online special education degree programs do not require candidates to have a teaching license and credentials prior to signing up, while others may list official credentials among their admissions requirements. Those who don't require a teaching license may allow students to gain necessary teaching experience and earn their license while in the process of completing their program.

Why earn a master's online special education degree?

Opportunities for advancement in the education profession generally require advanced degrees. Top administrators in schools and school systems often continue their education to the master's or doctoral level, and the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) shows that one in five special education teachers at the elementary level hold master's degrees.

Earning your M.Ed. or other advanced degree online can help you maintain your existing work and family responsibilities while you do what it takes to qualify for top-tier positions in your field. Many special education master's programs offered online use an asynchronous delivery method for their lessons and lectures, allowing you to earn your degree on your own time.

Degree Timeline

Early study

The first one or two semesters of most online special education master's degree programs include introductions to advanced concepts like educational research, classroom behavior analysis and the sensitive legal and ethical issues of special education.

Choose a specialization and take elective courses

If your program offers specialization tracks, you typically begin concentrated study of your chosen subject in the second year of your program, once the early introductory courses are completed -- as early as the second semester in some cases.

Thesis/capstone projects

Most master's degree programs in special education culminate in a final project in which students aim to show that they have the skills to apply the knowledge they've learned in school. These projects tend to require intensive research and are completed with the help of an advisor.


Some programs, especially those that focus on classroom teaching, may include a practicum section in their final semester. During practicum, students work alongside certified teachers at different grade levels to gain real-world perspective on special education.

Master's in Special Education Concentrations

Your program may offer the option to concentrate your studies in a specific area of the special education field. Choosing a concentration can help sharpen your skills in a valuable niche and increase your chances of landing a job in the specialized area you choose to study.

Here's a little detail about some of the concentrations that might be available to you:

  • Autism spectrum disorders. Educating children and young adults who have autism comes with its own unique set of challenges and opportunities. Students in this concentration focus on understanding community, school and agency perspectives on autism and developing effective strategies for learners.
  • Learning disorders. Concentrating your education on the wide variety of learning disorders present in the special education landscape can give you the tools you need to work with the specific ways each disorder expresses itself in students, either at the classroom level or in terms of program and policy development.
  • Applied behavior analysis. Examining the principles of learning and behavior and learning how to apply them in education settings is one of the modern ways that teachers and administrators can help students with developmental disabilities or learning and emotional disorders.

Career Outlook

What Can You Do with a Master's in Special Education?

Special education teacher. The right master's degree in special education can teach you the advanced classroom teaching skills you need to truly make a positive impact on your students. Master's-level special education teachers use their knowledge to accurately assess the diverse learning styles in their classrooms and adapt general education lessons to suit their students.

Special education counselor. Students in special education environments can thrive when they have access to a school counselor who understands the unique challenges of learning disabilities and emotional disorders. Graduates with a focus in special education may have an advantage when applying for certain counselor positions.

Special education administrator. Educational administration can be a complex and difficult task in any district or institution, and special education programs may benefit especially from skilled management and policymaking. If you're a special education teacher looking to move into an administrative role, a master's degree is a great way to make sure you're qualified.

School principal. The right principal can make a big difference in the working and learning environment for students and teachers, and schools that work with a high percentage of special education students need educational professionals who have the flexible skillset necessary to interact with and coordinate activities for students with diverse needs.

Professor of special education. You may also choose to join the ranks of the highly educated special education professionals who take on the vital task of teaching the skills of the field to the next generation of teachers and administrators. A master's degree may qualify you to teach undergraduate college courses at institutions around the country.

Special Education Salaries by State

State NameAverage SalaryAnnual Job OpeningsProjected Job Growth Potential
Rhode Island$76,330604.8%
District of Columbia$68,2503017.8%
Source: 2019 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2018-28 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

Financial Aid for a Master's in Special Education

Paying for college can be tough, but there are several programs in place to help students like you set aside some of the costs of their continued education. Take a look at the table below for information on a few potential sources of aid.

Source: Scholarship directory data is copyrighted material which is reproduced on this website by permission of CollegeXpress, a division of Carnegie Dartlet. Copyright © 2020 by CollegeXpress.

Master's in Special Education Certifications

Certification is essential for teachers in all fields, and special education is no different. Teaching certifications are provided at the state level, with individual State Boards of Education setting most of the requirements, and additional skills-based credentials may be available as well. Here's some detail on a few certifications you might pursue:

Special Education Teacher Certification

All special education teachers must hold this certification, which demonstrates that you have the important foundational skills of the discipline and are capable of providing quality education to students dealing with a range of developmental and emotional issues.

Requirements: A bachelor's degree, as well as strong organization skills, patience and a fluent understanding of the needs of special education students. Additional state requirements may apply.

Exam Format: Varies by state.

How long does the certification last?: Varies by state.

Early Childhood Special Education Teacher Certification

Some states may require that special education teachers who plan to work with very young children earn an additional certification that focuses on the understanding of special education principles as they're applied to the early childhood classroom.

Requirements: A bachelor's degree and existing special education teacher certification are commonly required. Specific requirements are set by individual State Boards of Education.

Exam Format: Varies by state.

How long does the certification last?: Varies by state.

Speech-Language Pathology Certification

Communication disorders are a sensitive area in education, and special education professionals with a detailed knowledge of speech disabilities can become certified to address issues of this nature that arise in their classrooms.

Requirements: A supervised clinical fellowship and a master's or doctoral degree from a program that emphasizes speech-language development and pathology. Additional state requirements may apply.

Exam Format: The national Praxis Examination for Speech-Language Pathology, offered by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) features a series of multiple choice questions with a passing score of 162 on a scale of 100-200.

How long does the certification last?: No formal expiration date is listed for the certification, but ASHA members must renew their membership each year.

Art Teacher Certification

Art classes can have tremendous value for special education students, and teachers who know how to apply proven methods of art instruction to the neurodiverse environment of a special education classroom can provide this value to their communities.

Requirements: A bachelor's degree, as well as creativity and a passion for nurturing it in others. Additional state requirements may apply.

Exam Format: Varies by state.

How long does the certification last?: Varies by state.

Professional Associations for Master's in Special Education

Joining a professional association can bring a wide range of benefits to your career, including opportunities to learn from senior members of your field and access to resources for teachers and administrators. Here's a short list of professional associations in special education:

Membership in NASET features benefits like continuing education and professional development courses, subscription to a research-based journal of special education and a range of exclusive member discounts.
Founded in 1922, this longstanding association of educators offers three levels of membership and provides a 20% discount on membership rates to currently enrolled special education students.
Special education teachers who have an autism focus to their work can join this organization to help provide comfort and essential information to families and have a voice in autism advocacy.
Teachers enjoy reduced membership rates to this worldwide association, which connects members to a network of researchers, professionals, parents and other teachers committed to helping people with dyslexia.