Special Education Graduate Degree Programs

Special education graduate programs offer learners the opportunity to refine their knowledge base and skills for working with students who may have a variety of learning, mental, emotional and physical disabilities. Graduate programs in special education differ. They may prepare graduates for state licensure, serve as professional development for those already licensed[i] or groom future administrators or researchers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the payoff for earning a graduate degree in special education is substantial; special ed teachers with a master’s degree earned 24% above educators holding a Bachelor’s degree in the year 2013.[ii] Whether you are looking to gain new insights to apply to an existing career or seek initial licensure and certification, working towards a special education graduate degree is worth considering!

Special Education Graduate Programs

Special Education Graduate Programs: Essentials

Special Education graduate programs are offered as graduate certificates, master’s and doctorate degrees in general special education or concentration areas such as early childhood, autism spectrum disorders, behavioral, speech and language disabilities. Prerequisites vary but commonly require a Bachelor’s degree to enroll in a Master’s program and either a Bachelor’s or a Master’s degree to enroll in a doctorate program.


Of the 754,000 master’s degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions in 2013-14, 20% were awarded in the field of education. Of the 177600 doctor’s degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, 6% were awarded in the field of education.[iii]

Special Education Graduate Programs appeal to different students:

  • New educators who seek initial licensing
  • New educators who seek additional license credential
  • Experienced educators seeking license renewal
  • Experienced educators seeking additional license credential
  • Individuals who seek potential careers as university scholars and teachers
  • Individuals who seek potential leadership positions

Study Special Education at the Graduate Level

Taking your education to its next level with a special education graduate degree can mean different things depending on the type of program you are in. Some degree programs may involve more than coursework and could entail a supervised practicum in addition to classroom learning. Special education graduate students may study topics such as[iv]:

  • How to develop an individualized education plan (IEP)
  • How to collaborate with parents, administrators, testing specialists, social workers and others
  • Instructional methods and techniques (phonetics, multisensory learning, repetition)
  • Understanding regulations
  • Record keeping
  • How to adapt curriculum to meet the needs of the special education student(s)
  • How to use adaptive communication technology
  • How to teach functional and/or social skills
  • Methodology and theory
  • Research methodology

Special Education Teacher: Licensing, Education Level

Licensing requirements for special education teachers varies by state. Special ed. teachers in the public school systems are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree and state-issued certification of license. In some states, in order to be fully certified special education teachers to complete a master’s degree in special education[v]. Furthermore, in order to maintain their license, teachers may have to complete annual professional development classes or, if they do not have one, a master’s degree to maintain their license.[vi]


“Many states offer general licenses in special education that allow teachers to work with students with a variety of disabilities. Others offer licenses or endorsements based on a disability-specific category, such as autism or behavior disorders.”[vii]

Types of Special Education Graduate Programs

Knowing whether you want to research, work in administration, teach, develop curriculums or work as a school counselor can help determine your academic path in terms of special education graduate degree programs. Keep in mind that program lengths and course curriculums vary for certificates, masters and doctorate special education degree programs, so there is no substitution for speaking with a prospective education school directly.

Graduate Certificate Special Education

Typically, a graduate certificate in special education requires students to have a bachelor’s degree and may have other prerequisites. Certificates tend to be shorter term than a full degree, and may entail about 18 credits.[viii] Graduate certificate in special education programs may offer add on credentials and/or keep one’s options open; sometimes credits may be transferred to a master’s degree if that is something you can think about for a later date.

Special Education Masters Programs

Special education master’s programs are varied, and education schools may offer Master of Science (MS), Master of Arts (MA), Master of Education (MEd.) in Special Education and/or Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) & Special Education. The average program length is about 2-years of full time study, which could entail 32 to 36 credits. The type of master’s degree you choose will depend on whether you have a valid teaching license, whether you are looking for preliminary certification and a master’s degree or whether you are coming into special education with an undergraduate degree in a related field such as a bachelor's in human services or education (but not specifically special education). Often you can select a specific concentration area such as:

  • Academic and behavioral support
  • Applied behavior analysis (ABA)
  • Autism
  • Mild/moderate disabilities
  • Pre-K – 8years
  • Learning disabilities

Popular Special Education Masters Programs


Degree Awarded


Master of Education in Special Education specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)



Master of Education in Special Education (with licensure)



Master of Education in Teaching Special Education



Master of Science in Education in Special Education



Master of Arts in Education & Human Development



Master of Arts in Special Education



Master of Arts in Learning Disabilities



PhD Programs Special Education

Doctor of Education and PhD degree programs in special education might prepare students for scholarship, research and academia. Doctoral programs typically involve individualized research, and may consist of about 60 credits beyond the master’s degree, which could entail about 5 years of full time study.[ix] Students may also choose the option of a Doctor of Education (Ed.D) which may be geared to administration and leadership. Some possible concentration areas could include:

  • Educational policy
  • Higher Education
  • Educational leadership
  • Special education

Campus or Online Special Education Graduate Program?

Special education graduate programs are offered in different formats; campus (residential), online, and hybrid (partially online). Some graduate schools offer several options, while others may not. If you have a preference, use it in your search to refine the results. You can also search for special education doctorate or master’s programs by location; study abroad or look into a city or state within the U.S. depending on your needs.


There are two types of accreditation: institutional and programmatic (professional). Universities and colleges with graduate special education programs may be accredited regionally. You can check the list of accredited institutions on the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) websites. Additionally, you can look for accreditation by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE)[x] which has been consolidated into the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP)[xi].

GradSchools.com offers 33 Special Education Degree Programs

Look for special education graduate programs that meet your learning, geographical, academic and professional needs by choosing the degree level and browsing sponsored listings within that category. Some of your options might include: Master of Education in Special Education, Master of Science in Special Education, Master of Arts in Special Education, Doctor of Education in Learning and Instruction, and many others. Don’t forget to use the ‘request info’ settings to contact your prospective graduate schools for full program details, admission procedures and above all, to stay on top of application deadlines!

Sources: [i] ls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/special-education-teachers.htm |[ii] bls.gov/careeroutlook/2015/article/should-i-get-a-masters-degree.htm#Education |[iii] ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_ctb.asp |[iv] onetonline.org/link/summary/25-2052.00 |[v] bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/special-education-teachers.htm |[vi] bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/special-education-teachers.htm |[vii] bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/special-education-teachers.htm |[viii] program lengths and number of courses vary |[ix] program lengths and number of courses vary |[x] ncate.org |[xi] caepnet.org/ |

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