Special Education Careers

The 7 Best Special Education Degree Programs

All educators have the ability to affect the lives of children. But with my passion in special education, I know what happens when a teacher focuses on the unique needs of a child with a diagnosis. Educators who dedicate their lives to special education create bonds with families and students that can have an impact for decades.

While working in a large Washington state school district as a Special Education Teacher, Special Education Program Specialist, and an Autism Specialist, I was able to experience and see up close the incredible work special education professionals do on a daily basis. For someone interested in this area of education, consider working toward a degree specifically for special education. 

Multiple colleges and universities offer degree programs in special education. Finding just the right one for you takes a bit of research. But do not worry! I have you covered. Here are the top seven special education degree programs to guide you toward your new career helping these AMAZING children. There will be hard days, but you’ll love every one of them!

Online Vs. In-Person Degrees

Deciding whether you want to go completely online or attend classes in-person when working toward a special education degree is a key decision. It really depends on what fits your life. 

Online classes are convenient, as you can take classes from your home whenever they fit into your schedule. For those of us with young kids at home, the ability to take online classes is invaluable. If you’re already working as a teacher, online classes may be the only option to fit your schedule.

Some of us just have better results when attending classes in-person, though. That face-to-face interaction with professors and fellow students may give you the best chance at success. Our list contains schools that offer both online degree and in-person degree options. 

Ultimately, you may find that the best option for your current stage in life is a local college, rather than traveling to the options on our list. Ask some of the special education professionals in your local school district for advice on which local college they’d recommend for your pursuit of a special education degree.

The Top 7 Best Special Education Degree Programs

  1. University of Georgia – Best for an Accelerated Master’s Degree
  2. University of Kansas – Best for Online Special Education Programs
  3. Vanderbilt University – Best for Multiple Areas of Specialty
  4. University of Illinois – Best for a Research-Based Doctorate Program
  5. University of Minnesota – Best for Obtaining Teaching Licenses and Professional Certificates
  6. University of Florida – Best for Graduate Program Special Education Options
  7. Wayne State College – Best for an Inexpensive Special Education Degree

#1. University of Georgia – Best for an Accelerated Master’s Degree

The University of Georgia offers a strong focus on special education, including the ability for eligible students to obtain a master’s degree in special education through an accelerated time frame. 

Through Georgia’s Double Dawgs program, those interested in becoming special education teachers can obtain a master’s degree at the same time they’re working on an undergraduate degree. This results in a five-year program that’s faster than obtaining separate undergraduate and advanced degrees back to back.

Students would apply to the Double Dawgs program in the middle of their second year in school.

For those residents of Georgia looking to receive an online degree in special education, the school has a two-year program available. The transfer students applying to this program must have at least 60 transferable credits in hand, along with a GPA of at least 2.80. 

To complete this two-year program, students would need to commit to 15 credit hours per semester. For those students who cannot commit to such a heavy course load, which is completely understandable, the school does offer an alternative three-year program.

#2. University of Kansas – Best for Online Special Education Programs

Although Kansas offers both in-person and online special education programs, its online offerings are especially impressive. This is ideal for the non-traditional student.

One of Kansas’ most popular programs is its autism spectrum disorder (ASD) graduate program. Kansas offers an online master’s degree in ASD, as well as a program aimed at achieving an online graduate certificate in ASD.

For those interested in learning more about advocating for kids with special education needs, Kansas has an online graduate certificate program that provides leadership skills in special education.

Additionally, Kansas has online programs aimed at helping teachers obtain master’s degrees in secondary special education and in working with kids with high incidence disabilities.

The in-person offerings at the University of Kansas related to special education include:

  • Early childhood unified graduate program
  • Elementary education unified undergraduate program
  • Low incidence disabilities graduate program
  • Ph.D. in special education program
  • Unified early childhood undergraduate program

#3. Vanderbilt University – Best for Multiple Areas of Specialty

Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education is well-known for its outstanding general education programs, and it ranks highly in special education areas of study too.

At Vanderbilt, those interested in a particular area of emphasis in special education will have many choices. The school offers special education degrees that have an emphasis on mild and moderate disabilities, multiple and severe disabilities, or visual impairment.

Additionally, the programs allow for a focus on children with a wide range of ages or with certain disability levels. Those pursuing the special education degree can focus on areas including:

  • Autism
  • Developmental delays
  • Behavior disorders
  • Emotional disorders
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Visual impairment

For those looking to combine a special education degree with another type of teaching degree, such as in child development, Vanderbilt has this capability too. Vanderbilt offers:

  • A special education undergraduate degree program
  • A special education master’s degree program
  • A special education Ph.D. program

We do have to note that the cost to attend Vanderbilt is higher than the other choices on our list with an average tuition cost of more than $2,000 per credit hour.

#4. University of Illinois – Best for a Research-Based Doctorate Program

For those seeking an advanced special education degree, the University of Illinois has an impressive doctorate program. These advanced students can develop their own individualized course of study for the program. They can pursue their exact areas of interest through advanced research.

This method of study offers graduate-level students a wide range of advantages, including:

  • Significant research opportunities
  • University teaching assignments
  • Tailoring the program to their interests
  • Serving the field of special education

For undergraduates and those seeking master’s degrees, Illinois offers programs that specialize in learning and behavioral disorders. Those who complete this program will have a teaching license in Illinois.

For those seeking an online opportunity, the University of Illinois offers a part-time program for current special education teachers looking to obtain a master’s degree. This program works to help these teachers gain advanced skills for helping students with multiple disabilities.

#5. University of Minnesota – Best for Obtaining Teaching Licenses and Professional Certificates

Through the University of Minnesota’s various programs, those working as teachers and special education teachers can gain specific skills for helping special education students. Minnesota offers quite a few licensing opportunities and professional certificates that focus on a particular aspect of special education. Some of the areas of focus include:

  • Academic behavior strategist license
  • ASD certificate
  • Deaf and hard of hearing license
  • Early childhood special education license
  • Emotional and behavior disorders license

Minnesota’s ASD certificate is a fully online program. It helps those who want to begin working with students with autism in a school setting. 

Those participating in this program will need to be working toward or hold a graduate or undergraduate degree in teaching. They then can add this certificate to that degree. 

For those who are unsure whether they want to commit to a master’s degree program in special education, Minnesota offers special education classes that teachers can take without committing to the full degree program. These classes aim to give teachers an overview of special education.

Should the teacher later decide to undertake a master’s degree program at Minnesota or somewhere else, these credits nearly always will transfer.

Additionally, Minnesota offers undergraduate degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorate degrees that focus on special education. Minnesota’s Doctor of Philosophy degree provides doctorate students with research skills they need to shape the future of the special education field.

#6. University of Florida – Best for Graduate Program Special Education Options

For current teachers who want to gain additional skills in a variety of focus areas related to special education, the University of Florida has multiple options. 

Those special education graduate degree candidates who prefer hands-on experience and learning have this opportunity at Florida. This university has multiple in-person opportunities for those interested in seeking undergraduate and advanced degrees in special education.

Florida also has online options for working toward a graduate degree in special education. This is helpful for non-traditional students who are working or taking care of a family while going to school.

Some of the options Florida has available include:

  • Doctoral program: Florida has an in-person Doctor of Philosophy program and an online Doctor of Education program related to special education. 
  • Live Well program: This is a fully online master’s degree program aimed at helping candidates gain a greater understanding of disabilities. This program works for both special education teachers and those working with disabled individuals outside the school system.
  • ProTeach program: This program has offerings with an emphasis on either early childhood education or elementary education. One option includes a five-year dual-certification program.
  • Teach Well program: For those who already have a teaching degree, this program is a fully online graduate program, providing an advanced degree in special education. This program works well for current special education teachers who need more education or for other teachers looking to migrate to becoming a special education professional.

The University of Florida has opportunities for students looking to gain a minor in studies related to special education, as well as teaching certificates related to special education.

#7. Wayne State College – Best for an Inexpensive Special Education Degree

Wayne State in Nebraska owns multiple awards related to being one of the most affordable colleges in the state of Nebraska and throughout the country. It has a strong teacher’s college, including a well-regarded special education program.

Undergraduates at Wayne State have the option of obtaining a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree in any of the following areas:

  • Special education generalist (kindergarten through 6th grade)
  • Special education generalist (7th grade through 12th grade)
  • Special education for kindergarten through 12th grade

Included with all of these special education degrees are classes focusing on helping with engaging all learners. They also focus on social development, behavioral development, and emotional development for students with disabilities.

Wayne State also has a special education master’s degree that involves a fully online program. This setup is perfect for the teacher who’s already working with special education but wants to obtain an advanced degree. 

For those who already hold a teaching degree but who do not have certification in special education, Wayne State has an online non-degree program that allows these teachers to add a special education subject endorsement. 

In addition to providing an affordable in-person tuition price, Wayne State has a flat rate for online tuition, rather than charging more for residents from outside the state of Nebraska. Students from anywhere can take advantage of Wayne State’s low price per credit hour with online classes.

How Do I Decide Which Special Education Degree Program Is the Best for Me?

As you prepare to determine the best path forward for obtaining your special education degree, think about what you want to accomplish. Not every program is the same, as some have an emphasis in a certain area that may appeal to you.

Here are some ideas to help you determine how to move forward with your journey toward a special education degree.

Area of Specialization

Some degrees will have an emphasis in a certain area of special education. You may find that you want to focus on children with certain needs. Some of the most common areas of specialization to consider include the following.

  • Applied behavior analysis, which focuses on generating healthy behaviors for students with autism, such as improved communication.
  • Emotional disorders, which focus on helping students with multiple types of emotional and behavioral disorders to overcome their challenges in learning.
  • Hard of hearing, which focuses on helping students with communication when they have hearing impairments, including working with sign language.
  • Intellectual and developmental disabilities, which gives teachers the tools they need to help with students who have a wide range of disabilities.
  • Visual impairment, which focuses on helping students who are blind or who have visual impairment, including working with Braille.

We fully admit that our list is not all-encompassing! If you have an interest in an area of emphasis that we didn’t list, consult with a few of your favorite universities. You’ll find that those running these special education programs will be more than happy to speak with you and help you find the perfect course of action.

Type of Degree Needed

Before seeking a special education degree program, it’s important to understand what you actually need to begin working in special education in your local school district. 

  • Bachelor’s Degree: Those who don’t yet have a college degree will need to earn a bachelor’s degree. This can be a teaching degree with an emphasis in special education or a special education degree.
  • Certificate: Some states will want the special education instructor to obtain a teaching degree with special education certification added onto it. This certification may not be necessary for those who have a special education teaching degree.
  • Advanced Degree: Someone who’s already working as a teacher with a degree may want to seek a master’s degree or doctorate in special education. 
  • Non-Teaching Degree: Those with a college degree who are looking to make a career change to become a special education teacher can consider the Transition to Teaching program. Each state has its own policies for qualification for this program. The candidate may first need to receive a teaching certification before trying for a special education certification.

Private schools in your area may have different requirements than public schools when it comes to special education degree or certification requirements.

Length of Time Required

For those who are attending college for the first time while seeking a special education degree, the process typically will take four to five years. However, if you have some college credits already, certain schools may be able to speed up the process for you.

If you need certification in special education because you already have a teaching degree, you may be able to finish this process within a few months.

Those participating in a Transition to Teaching program may need a year or two to complete its requirements.


We understand that dozens of great schools exist that can provide the special education degree you’re seeking. Through our research and professional experience in this area, we came up with our favorite seven schools. 

For those seeking a master’s degree as quickly as possible, Georgia has one of the best programs. But we also find Kansas’ multiple online special education program offerings to be highly advantageous for the non-traditional student. We’re sure you’ll be able to find just the right offering to fit your needs!

  1. University of Georgia – Best for an Accelerated Master’s Degree
  2. University of Kansas – Best for Online Special Education Programs
  3. Vanderbilt University – Best for Multiple Areas of Specialty
  4. University of Illinois – Best for a Research-Based Doctorate Program
  5. University of Minnesota – Best for Obtaining Teaching Licenses and Professional Certificates
  6. University of Florida – Best for Graduate Program Special Education Options
  7. Wayne State College – Best for an Inexpensive Special Education Degree

Here’s a guide I wrote on How To Become a Special Education Teacher. Check it out!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

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