How to Get a Master’s Degree in Special Education

One of the greatest challenges for educators is to surmount the myth that children with disabilities cannot be served, and that their needs exceed the ability of the school district to help them. In truth, qualified special education teachers have the tools and vision to assess these children, design instructional materials, and employ teaching strategies that dramatically improve student learning and social skills. To flourish at the master’s degree level, special education teachers-in-training may be challenged to research and incorporate the methodologies that build the necessary skill sets demanded in the modern classroom.

A master’s degree in education with a specialization in special education may take between two and three years to complete. For those students who are already teaching or assisting in the classroom, an online master’s in special education may provide flexibility and convenience. If you choose to earn a master’s degree online, you can keep your work and family commitments without relocating to a campus-based graduate program. Use this comprehensive planning guide to help you determine which kind of master’s degree in special education is right for you. When you’ve completed these steps, you may know where and how to apply.

An Overview of the Master’s Degree in Special Education

The master’s degree in special education is a two- or three-year program that prepares students who may already hold a bachelor’s degree with practical teaching methodologies, research skills, and practical classroom experience. Programs are designed for those with a long-term view of working in the nation’s classrooms as special education curriculum developers or district administrators–or for those who want to remain at the university or other research organizations as special education scholars.

All fifty states require that special education teachers and administrators be licensed. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 created educational assistance for schools serving 6.8 million students with disabilities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts a 17 percent increase in new jobs for special education teachers through 2018.

Special education teachers may focus on working with preschool, K-12 education, adolescents, and adults. You may provide individualized learning or work with small groups, performing assessments, or work directly with a specialized sector of students with learning disabilities, emotional issues, orthopedic impairment, language or speech disabilities, deafness, or blindness.

Those choosing to remain in an academic track may choose to continue their education, conduct surveys or research in teaching methodology, or publish scholarly articles on special education.

Give yourself some time in determining the appropriate master’s program to reach your career goals. Begin by researching the campus-based and online master’s degrees, the course requirements, prerequisites, and locations, then narrow the list as you go. You can earn a master’s degree online or on campus.

Application Process for Master’s Degree Programs in Special Education

There are more than 1,150 teacher education programs in the country, with both campus-based and online master’s in education programs. However, not all of these programs offer specialized majors in special education. To help you be successful in your search, this guide offers detailed advice, helping you to first take an overview of the programs, assisting as you build an inventory of prospective schools based on your career aspirations, and then showing you how to narrow your search to a final short list of campus-based or distance graduate education programs that offer the special education curriculum for you to advance in your field.

How to Select a Master’s Program in Special Education

Moving forward in your search, you may be surprised to find out more about your goals and professional orientation than before you began. As you narrow your field of prospective graduate programs in special education, you may learn more about the curriculum that best suits your career, where and when you want to attend school, and how to prepare the short list of colleges where you really want to apply for admission.

Step 1: Evaluate Special Education Offerings from a Larger List of Master’s Degree Programs

Objective: Establish your must-have requirements for a graduate school education from a broad list of campus-based and online master’s egree in special education programs. Use online directories, Web sites of special education career associations, and formal published guides to take your first, general pass.

Must-have requirements for your master’s program in special education. Establish and stick to your absolute minimum requirements for earning the right degree–for you. You can begin to narrow your choices by evaluating your current work and family commitments as well as career objectives with the location of the best program that meets your needs. Considerations should include a review of:

  • Campus-based or online education formats. Campus-based programs may be a good choice if you’re set on your location, can move to the school, or already live nearby. Online master’s degree programs in special education may be well-suited for those who hold jobs they must maintain or who must fulfill family obligations.
  • Accreditation. Formal accreditation of your prospective degree programs should also be a determining factor. Accreditation is the independent evaluation of college and university programs that assures a level of quality respected by your potential employers as well as by other institutions where you may choose to continue your graduate learning. If your school does not hold the high academic standards attested by formal accreditation, you may lose transfer credits or fail to qualify for education loans and scholarships. For more on accreditation, view the guide.
  • Academic-track programs can offer on-campus connections with academic mentors, faculty, research libraries, classroom teaching experience, and school fellowships. While many online programs offer academic advising and library access, campus-based facilities may be better suited for students who want to enter research or a post-secondary teaching career.
  • Professional-track programs may allow you to earn a master’s degree online and may be ideal for working teachers or teaching assistants who need to balance work and family while concentrating on curriculum development, a special needs classroom, or district administrative professions.
  • Hybrids. Some colleges and universities combine campus-based and online learning in hybrid programs that offer the convenience and flexibility of distance graduate education with on-campus seminars and student teaching.

Location, location, location. As you evaluate the academic and career training potential of various master’s degree programs, ask yourself if you can afford to leave your current job or family to attend an on-campus program, or whether online grad schools may fit the bill.

Building Your Initial List: Available Resources

Step 2: Narrow Your List of Master’s Degree Programs in Special Education

Objective: Take your first list of schools and weigh the benefits of program offerings, admissions requirements, specializations in the field, faculty members, accreditation, and courses in special education. Eliminate any that stray from your career interests.

Focus on your career goals. Do you feel called to the classroom? Do daily interactions with special needs students and helping them succeed appeal to you? Would you ultimately like to help with testing, creating special education curricula, or advising on the school or district level? Or, do you plan to continue in graduate school, conducting research, or publishing on special education and pedagogy? You may also explore other major fields in education.

Specializations in special education. Your career goals may shift over your working life. For now, you should focus on the nearest prize, a degree that may help you enter special education in the way that interests you most. Remember that both campus-based and online master’s degree programs may offer degrees within the different classifications, so you should evaluate each program or contact school districts where you intend to serve, asking about degree requirements. Online master’s degrees in special education may include the following nomenclature:

  • Master of Arts (MA) in Education–Special Education
  • Master of Science (MS)–Special Education Teaching
  • MA or Master of Education (MEd)–Special Education (non-licensure)
  • MEd and Educational Specialist with a Focus in Mental Health
  • MEd–Special Ed (Eligible for IR/Credential)
  • MEd–Special Ed for Certified Special Educators
  • MA in Teaching–Special Education
  • MEd in Teaching and Learning–Special Education

College and faculty. While evaluating master’s in special education programs, look over the college’s degree programs and list of faculty members. Are there authorities or faculty in special education that you’ve heard of or had recommended to you? Look over faculty credentials; they may also give you ideas.


  • Visit college Web sites: It’s a good idea to visit prospective campus-based and online graduate degree program Web sites to read up on their programs.
  • Submit information requests: Search for schools by using the general form that may match you to universities based on your profile, or simply submit a request for information form directly to colleges that offer Online Special Education Degree Programs. Click the “Get More Info” buttons.
  • Contact special education organizations. Visit Web sites of the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services as well as the Department of Education Web site in the state where you reside or plan to teach. Examine the specific career profiles in special education at The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC).

Step 3: Discovering Your Best Options for an Online Master’s Degree in Special Education

Objective: Having completed a general sweep of available programs, you should next narrow the list only to programs that meet your must-have requirements. Recognize the differences in educational focus, class delivery, and time to completion. Consider the following factors:

  • Program history and reputation. How long has the school offered the special education master’s degree? What percentage of students graduate, and do they find jobs? How does the school rank academically with other programs?
  • Facilities. Does the program offer on-campus or online research facilities, academic advising, classroom training, or internships? Does the master’s degree program embrace contemporary tools and technology?
  • Funding. Is the college qualified to offer you loans, scholarships, grants, teaching stipends, or other financial aid? Can you afford to live on or near campus or commute, or is it preferable to earn a master’s degree online?
  • Career assistance. Are there ongoing networking, career advising, and career placement programs? Does the education department have active contact with professional special education organizations?

Resources to Help Narrow the Field

  • Rank the programs. Evaluate special education master’s degree program rankings with the U.S. News & World Report’s impartial survey of schools.
  • Phone, e-mail, or chat with admissions counselors. Most programs offer direct contact with an admissions counselor. Ask about program length, financial aid, admission requirements, and career placement services. If you plan to earn a master’s degree online, contacting the school may introduce you to the interface.
  • Log on to’s Education Advisor. The interactive Ask the Professor section presents answers to common questions on a range of educational topics about majors and master’s degree programs.
  • Visit the campus. If you’re considering a campus-based program, you should visit and speak directly with faculty, advisors, and current students to get a lay of the land.

Applying to a Special Education Master’s Degree Program

You may now have a solid short list of master’s programs that seem to be a great fit. Your next step is to start applying, but be sure you have satisfied entry requirements for the top programs on your list and completed the necessary exams.

  • The GRE exam. If your programs of choice ask you to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) as a qualifying evaluation tool, do it right away. For details, visit the Educational Testing Service.
  • Prerequisites. Master’s degree programs in special education may require a completed bachelor’s degree or related classroom experience. Online courses may help you satisfy some of the prerequisites.
  • Recommendations. If your schools require recommendations from former instructors or educational professionals you have worked with, you should start asking for these letters as early as possible. It’s also a good idea to keep signed copies for multiple submissions.
  • Other requirements. Compose a vita or resume of teaching experience, volunteer work, research, or publications, and collect your transcripts.

Your Career in Special Education

Whether you plan to serve in the classroom or by contributing to research on special education, students across the country may benefit from your expertise and training. With your help, children and adults with learning disabilities may learn to overcome their barriers to education and reach their goals.


  • The Council for Exceptional Children, Career Profiles in Special Education
  • Educational Testing Service, About the GRE General Test
  • The National Association of Special Education Teachers, Practical Resources for Special Education Professionals
  • U.S. Department of Education: Office of Postsecondary Education, Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs
  • U.S. News & World Report, “Best Education Programs, Ranked in 2009”
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