Master’s in Special Education Degree Guide

Making the decision to become a special education teacher is a commitment to helping students realize their fullest potential. For the many students who receive special education services, fulfilling that commitment requires expertise in the instructional strategies tailored to their unique needs, and that is what a master’s degree in special education provides. 

Special education teachers with master’s degrees are in increasingly high demand and can earn significantly higher salaries than their colleagues with bachelor’s degrees. They are also positioned to easily transition into positions outside of the school setting. Potential non-education roles include diagnosticians and testers, counselors, case managers, and policy makers.

What is a Master’s Degree in Special Education?

Special education refers to teaching students using methodologies that are tailored to their challenges, exceptional needs or learning disabilities. Special education professionals provide early intervention to infants and toddlers identified as having disabilities or developmental delays and also work with eligible school age. The most effective instructional strategies require training and expertise that most general education teachers are unequipped to provide.

A master’s degree in special education generally takes two years to complete and arms teachers with the expertise, skills and training they need to help special needs students learn and thrive. It also expands their opportunities for advancement, careers outside of the classroom, and higher compensation.

Should I Get a Master’s in Special Education if I Have a Bachelor’s in Special Education?

Many high-quality undergraduate teaching programs allow special education majors to focus on students with special needs. Though having a bachelor’s degree in special education opens the door to teaching this specific demographic, a master’s degree offers higher-level education focused on research, skill development, and leadership.

What Can I Do with A Master’s in Special Education Degree?

After graduating with a master’s degree in special education, you will not only be eligible for higher compensation as a teacher but will also find yourself qualified to move outside of the classroom into other meaningful, rewarding career paths. Special education teachers with master’s degrees provide invaluable guidance to countless agencies and organizations that are dedicated to meeting the needs of individuals with disabilities, including:

  • School boards
  • Government agencies
  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Private corporations

Having a master’s degree in special education can open the door to becoming a diagnostician or case manager, a consultant or program coordinator. Graduates also work in early childhood education, elementary education, and secondary education.

How Much Do Special Education Master’s Graduates Make?

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, earning a master’s degree provides first-year teachers with $2,760 more in than teachers who have only earned a bachelor’s degree. This pay differential grows with experience, topping out at an average of $7,358 more per year by the time a teacher reaches the maximum number of years of experience within their district’s pay scale.

Some school districts offer incentives that recognize a master’s degree as equivalent to several years of experience, while others offer compensation for higher education credits earned, whether they result in a degree or not. The larger the school district, the greater the difference tends to be. For example, the most experienced teachers with masters degrees earn $36,716 more than bachelors-degreed teachers with the same level of experience in the Montgomery County Public School District in Maryland. 

Master’s in Special Education Degree Salaries and Career Outlook

A master’s in special education program provides graduates with the skills and knowledge needed to reach the children who require the most attention and help. That need goes far beyond the classroom, and so do the career opportunities. Here are a few of the positions that this degree makes possible, along with salary and job projections provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

CareerSalaryProjected Job Growth (2019-2029)About the Position
Special Education Teacher$61,0303%Provides education tailored to meet the unique demands of students with special needs in a wide range of school environments, at all age levels.
Elementary, Middle, and High School Principal$96,4004%Oversees students in elementary, middle and high schools, providing direction of school operations and activities, oversight of budgets and curriculums, guidance and organization of staff, and engagement with community.
Instructional Coordinator$66,2906%Instructional coordinators are tasked with designing, implementing and improving a school’s curriculum and educational programs.
Source: BLS

Earning a Master’s in Special Education

Though every program is different, a master’s degree in special education generally addresses the most effective methods of teaching to the abilities of children with learning disabilities or cognitive or emotional delays. The programs are offered in person, online, and as hybrids between the two.

How Long Does A Special Education Graduate Program Take?

Students who pursue a master’s degree in special education should expect to spend 1-2 years on coursework completing roughly 30-to-36 credit hours made up of both classwork and, in some cases, a capstone project, practicum, or thesis. Specific program lengths vary upon whether students choose a full time or part time program, whether they opt for an online degree or in-person setting, and their educational background prior to the master’s program.

If an applicant to a program has not previously taught and/or does not have an undergraduate degree in education or a teaching certification, they may also be required to complete prerequisite classes. Alternatively, those who have already attained a certain level of experience and have teaching certifications may be able to accelerate their degree completion, particularly if they select an online program.

Courses in Special Education Programs

Though each master’s in special education program will have its own curriculum and curriculum based upon the priorities of its administration and its particular concentration, students considering a master’s in special education degree can anticipate taking classes similar to those listed below:

  • Introduction to the Exceptional Child
  • Specific Learning Disabilities: Identification, Instruction and Assessment (LD)
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
  • Emotional and Behavioral Disorder Identification, Management, and Assessment (EBD)
  • Understanding and Teaching Students with Intellectual Disabilities (ID)
  • Assessment/Program Planning and Evaluation for Children with Special Needs    
  • Special Education Law          
  • Reading Disorders: Assessment, Planning, and Instruction
  • Research in Special Education
  • Educating Young Children with Special Needs        
  • Working with Gifted and Talented Students 
  • Designing & Utilizing Assistive Learning Technologies

Skills Learned in a Special Education Program

Master’s in special education programs prepare graduates to help students with special needs achieve and succeed. This is learned through both coursework and research, and results in graduates attaining invaluable skills, including:

  • Recognizing and addressing challenging behaviors in applied settings and situations
  • Lesson delivery across the autism spectrum
  • Behavior modification in special needs students
  • Help children develop social, emotional and behavioral wellness skills
  • Deliver multi-sensory reading education to students with language-based learning disabilities
  • Working collaboratively and creatively with others to deliver quality education to special education students

Master of Special Education Licensure and Certification

There are several different types of credentials required to teach. Every state requires that educators have at least bachelor’s degree and hold a teaching license from their state, and some states now require that teachers pursue and attain a master’s degree within five years of starting their teaching career.

Any graduate of a master’s in special education program who has not previously been licensed will be well prepared to meet the student teaching standards their state requires. In addition to licensure, certifications are awarded following completion of both an educational curriculum and a certain level of hands-on teaching practice. These certifications may be for:

  • Specific grade levels such as elementary or high school
  • Secondary education
  • Special education
  • Specific subject areas

There is also a national certification board, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, that awards certifications to teachers that meet their standards. Certification is voluntary but ensure that an individual teacher has met the high and rigorous standards set by the organization. The agency offers a special “Exceptional Needs Standard” ideal for those who have earned a master’s degree in special education.

Choosing the Best Special Education Degree

Once you’ve made the decision to pursue a master’s degree in special education, your next step is to find your educational home: the program where you will focus your efforts and attention for the next two years. This decision is based on multiple factors, some of which will be subjective and others objective.

In addition to weighing each program’s concentration’s, curriculum, faculty, and reputation, you also need to think about whether you prefer to attend classes in person or online, what the costs of the program are, whether financial aid is possible, and potential specializations. There is no single best program — there is only the program that’s best for you.

Online Master of Special Education vs. On-Campus Degrees

Just a few years ago, the idea of earning a graduate degree online was unheard of. But today, accredited colleges and universities offer high-quality programs in both online and in-person formats, and some of the best programs in the country are exclusively available online.

Because online education has progressed to the point where academic quality meets that of in-person classes, potential students can now make their decision based on what is best for them as individuals. When choosing, you should consider the following factors:

  • Online education offers more flexibility and the ability to continue your personal and career responsibilities.
  • In-person education offers more hands-on opportunities and more face-to-face engagement with your cohort.
  • Online education is frequently less expensive, especially because you can learn at home rather than having to pay to commute, park, eat on or near campus, and potentially have to live on or near campus.

Many master’s in special education programs require that their students who are not currently teaching fulfill a minimum number of hours of in-person teaching experience in a special needs setting. If you are not currently a teacher and you’re considering an online program, make sure you understand each program’s requirements for in-person study and experience.

Master of Science or Arts in Teaching (MST or MAT) Vs Master of Education (M.Ed.)

When investigating the various special education master’s programs available, you will find that each curriculum has its own particular focus. In addition to differences in concentration/specialization, students must also pick between a master of science or arts in teaching (MAT or MST) degree or a master of education (M.Ed.) degree. Though the distinction may sound like a matter of semantics, each has its own focus and facilitates a different career outcome. 

While both programs take approximately two years to complete, they diverge significantly when it comes to the content of the material presented. Students who choose to pursue a master of science or arts in teaching often plan on becoming better, more effective teachers. They want to learn new methods to educate their students and better understand their students’ needs and how best they can learn. These degrees make graduates better teachers.

By contrast, graduate degree candidates who opt for a master’s in education learn more about leadership and how the educational system works to serve students. Their work focuses as much on issues of ethics and collaboration as on understanding the learning differences of students requiring special education. This knowledge certainly serves to make them better teachers should they chose to remain in the classroom, but also prepares them for careers outside of the classroom.

Accreditation

Whether you choose an online program or one that is taught in person in a classroom setting, it is essential that you choose a school that has received the standardized endorsement of educational quality known as accreditation. Accreditation is controlled by the U.S. Department of Education, and applicants to unaccredited schools are not eligible for federal student aid.

Financial aid eligibility is far from the only reason to seek a school that has received accreditation. Accredited graduate schools are recognized as having achieved a high level of quality as assed by external peer review.

Educational Preparation Programs, including those that teach graduate studies in special education, are not only subject to accreditation by Council for Higher Education Association approved regional accreditors as other graduate schools, but also to professional accreditation specific to their subject matter. Programs offering undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees in education are subject to certification by the Council for the Accreditation of the Educator Preparation (CAEP).

Applying to Master’s in Special Education Degree Programs

Whether you’ve already been teaching students or you’ve decided to go straight from undergraduate school to a graduate program, applying for admission to a master’s in special education program requires meticulous attention to the selection of the program that most closely matches your goals and needs, the collection of required application material, and the submission of all needed documents to meet each school’s deadlines.

Admission Requirements for Special Education Master’s Programs

Each of the accredited programs that offer master’s degrees in special education has its own specific admission requirements, but there are commonalities among all of them that candidates for admission can expect. These include:

  • Completed application form with associated fees
  • Bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution of higher learning with a minimum GPA of 3.0
  • Official transcripts of undergraduate work
  • A record of teaching
  • Satisfactory writing skills demonstrated through a personal essay
  • Valid teaching certificate
  • Current resume

How to Pay for A Graduate Special Education Degree

Attending graduate school and earning a master’s degree in special education is an investment in your future and the future of the students who will benefit from your enhanced knowledge. But the eventual outcome doesn’t mean that paying for it will be easy. As indicated earlier, you can anticipate that graduate school will cost thousands and thousands of dollars, so it’s important that you know the resources available to help you pay. These include tuition reimbursement from your employer, scholarships and grants, and loans.

  • Tuition reimbursement – Many employers, and most school districts, provide partial or full reimbursement for graduate school
  • Scholarships and grants – These are provided by a wide range of sources, including private and public organizations and individual colleges and universities, and are awarded based on merit. They do not need tp be repaid.
  • Loans – Graduate students can apply for financial aid from the federal government. These loans are applied for via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

How Much Does a Master’s in Special Education Degree Cost?

The cost to attend a graduate program in special education varies greatly, with tuition costs ranging from under $10,000 to almost $70,000. Tuition is based on factors including:

  • The program’s reputation
  • The quality of the faculty
  • Whether the curriculum is taught online or in-person
  • Whether the student is pursuing the degree on a full-time basis or part-time basis
  • Whether the degree is offered by a private college or public university
  • Whether the student is from in-state or from out-of-state

When choosing a program to attend, students should weigh their priorities against the elements that add or subtract to costs. Keep in mind that by choosing an online program, students avoid the additional fees attributable to room and board.

Special Education Career Resources

If you are considering pursuing a degree in special education or would like more information on the support and resources available to those who have chosen a career in educating those with special needs, the following organizations offer a wealth of assistance.

FAQ

What can you do with a master’s in special education?

With a master’s degree in special education, you will be qualified to teach special education students as well as to be a leader in the creation, implementation and management of their education.

Is a master’s in special education worth it?

Earning your master’s degree in special education will not only add to your earning potential, it will also provide you with advanced leadership skills and improve your opportunities for advancement.

How much can you make with a master’s in special education?

The average income for a teacher with a master’s in special education is over $61,000, and other positions for which you will be qualified pay even higher salaries.

How long does it take to earn a master’s in special education?

It takes approximately two years to complete a master’s in special education program.