Master’s in Special Education Programs Guide

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Growing up and attending school can be challenging regardless of who you are, but for some it may be particularly difficult if they are not receiving the extra care and attention they need.

Believe it or not, but the field of special education is relatively new, with only a history of about 50 years. After the United States was founded in the late 1700s, rights for students with special needs did not exist, and many children were denied education. The first advocacy groups were made up of parents whose children had been discriminated against. It wasn’t until the 1970s when many legal landmarks allowed the beginning of special education programs to be nationalized. Although the field of special education has a long way to go, the many successes and improvements over the years are thanks to dedicated educators and parents who wanted to make a difference.

A master’s in special education degree is the perfect degree for future advocates and educators who believe that all students should receive a quality education, regardless of difference in learning needs. This is an advanced degree ideal for students who already have some knowledge of teaching and experience in working with children. These programs are designed to not only increase knowledge of different needs, but to help create passionate and empathetic leaders.

What type of master’s in special education should you get?

Although the most common degree in this field is the master of education degree, throughout this ranking you will see schools that offer a master's of science or a master's of arts degree instead. What are the differences?

An ME.d is primarily for already licensed teachers who want to move up in their career or obtain additional licensure in a specialized area. A master's degree may be for students who have a background in education, but may not necessarily have the teaching credential. Finally, a master's of science degree is more research-based, meaning a thesis will most likely be required. A master's of science is ideal for those wishing to get their PhD or pursue a more research/policy-related career in education.

Interested in getting your master’s in special education degree online? Check out our picks of the Best Online Master’s in Special Education.

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How much money do people make with a degree in special education?

According to PayScale, those who hold an ME.d in special education make an average salary of $53,000. Those who work as a special education teacher at a preschool, kindergarten, or elementary school make slightly less than teachers in middle or high school. Directors of special education programs or institutions make an average salary of $72,679. The top ten percent in this field, regardless of specific job title, earned an average salary of $90,260.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that careers in special education are expected to experience a growth of six percent from 2012 to 2022. Due to better screening and knowledge of students with different learning needs, special education jobs have slowly been increasing as the years go by. As demand increases, salaries can also expect to rise. Location, years of experience, and type of school or institution (i.e. public, private, government-funded) are all factors that affect salary.

What can you do with a degree in special education?

Most Master’s degrees in this field prepare graduates to work in elementary or secondary schools with students who have physical or mental disabilities. In most programs, students will either choose the “Generalist Specialization” meaning that they will learn about all students from K-12, or will only choose one group such as K-6. Some programs even have concentrations in specific disabilities, such as autism.

In working with these students, job titles include but are not limited to teacher, aid, counselor, program advisor, or administrative worker. Special education workers work full-time and receive benefits like any other teacher or faculty member of a school. Graduates of this degree will be prepared to work with a variety of students from different cultural backgrounds.


What are the requirements for a degree in special education?

When applying to these programs, students should check to see if a teaching credential is required. While some programs do require it, others may only require a Bachelor’s degree in education; these degrees usually pave the way for students to obtain state licensure. Students should submit transcripts, letters of recommendations, and any graduate test scores that are required.

During the program, students will most likely need to complete a practicum or internship. These are supervised programs designed to expose students to what a future career would look like serving special needs children. Placements are usually local and have partnerships with the college or university. For more research-focused programs, a capstone or thesis will be required before graduation.

Best Master's in Special Education Degrees

See our rankings methodology page.

  1. Vanderbilt University

    Nashville, TN




    Vanderbilt University is a private research university that is located in Nashville, Tennessee. The school was founded thanks to a generous donation by Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. The school underwent several changes since its founding in 1873, originally beginning as a male-only school. Today Vanderbilt is consistently ranked among the top 20 best universities in the nation by the U.S. News & World Report. The Master’s in Special Education degree is also nationally ranked as one of the best of its kind.

    Program Features

    For those who want a career improving the lives of children and youth who are differently-abled, an MEd in Special Education offered at Vanderbilt may be the program for you.

    • Fully-funded grants available from the U.S. Department of Education
    • Associated with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, a national research center for intellectual and developmental disabilities
    • Leads to the Office of Teacher Licensure


    100 percent of graduates from this program were employed or receiving further education within four months of graduation.

  2. Johns Hopkins University

    Baltimore, MD




    Johns Hopkins University is one of the nation’s leading research universities. Founded by a 19th century philanthropist, Hopkins believed in improving public health and education. The school was opened in 1875, with Daniel Coit Gilman as its first president, who believed that teaching and research go hand in hand. With over 140 years of history, JHU has not strayed from its mission. The Johns Hopkins School of Education, which offers its Master’s in Special Education degree, is ranked the #15 best graduate school of education in the world by the 2017 Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

    Program Features

    Whether you are an experienced or aspiring teacher, the MS in Special Education degree at JHU will give you the skills you need:

    • Certification option
    • Two Program Areas: Mild/Moderate Disabilities, Severe Disabilities
    • Two supervised internships


    Graduates are eligible for Maryland State Certification, which they will then be able to be employed as special educators in 47 states.

  3. University of Texas at Austin

    Austin, TX




    The University of Texas at Austin was established when the state’s Congress wanted to create an institution to meet the state’s higher education needs. Classes began in 1883, with only 221 students. Today, UT Austin is a renown research university, with over 51,000 students. It is repeatedly ranked for its teaching and affordability, being the #8 best on Kiplinger’s 2017 Best-Value Public Colleges ranking. UT Austin’s College of Education is also consistently ranked among the top five public graduate schools according to the U.S. News & World Report.

    Program Features

    UT Austin’s Master’s program with a concentration in Early Childhood Special Education prepares graduates to be scholars in the field.

    • Med, Med with Report, and MA degree available
    • Prepares graduates to be Board Certified Behavior Analysts
    • Two Tracks: Behavior Analyst Certification, Classroom Practitioner Track


    This program is designed to be completed over one calendar year of full-time enrollment (fall, spring, and summer sessions).

  4. University of Georgia

    Athens, GA




    As the #13 best public university in the country for 2019, the University of Georgia is a top research institution that is committed to teaching and serving students of a historically marginalized background. UGA was established in 1801, but was incorporated by an act of the General assembly in 1785. Today, it has seventeen colleges and schools, with the College of Education tracing its history back to 1908. The college is dedicated to providing students with hands-on experiences for their careers, with almost 3,500 activities held in the 2016-2017 school year.

    Program Features

    UGA offers an extensive Master’s program in Special Education, with several different degree types and concentrations to choose from.

    • MEd Specializations: Adapted Curriculum and Autism, Birth Through Kindergarten/Preschool Special Education, General Curriculum
    • Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) degrees offered with same specializations as the MEd
    • MA in Education with a specialization in Special Education


    While all degree types overlap in learning content, an MEd degree is more suitable for those going into research or education policy. An MAT is primarily for teachers to gain licensure. Lastly, this MA is a standard degree that goes over education principles in general with a focus in Special Education.

  5. Unviersity of San Diego

    San Diego, CA




    The University of San Diego is a private Catholic research institution that was founded in 1949. It is a nationally ranked university with more than 7,800 students. With its roots in the Catholic faith, students are encouraged to learn more about their heritage while pursuing their studies. However, students of all faiths are welcomed and included. USD is currently ranked as the #6 most beautiful campus in the nation according the Princeton Review.

    Program Features

    USD’s Master’s in Education degree is designed to teach students how to work with students who have mild to moderate disabilities from kindergarten to age 22.

    • Nationally recognized by the Council for Exceptional Children
    • Completion Time: 2 years
    • Degrees: MEd in Dual Elementary and Ed Specialist, Med in Secondary and Ed Specialist


    Teaching candidates can choose either a multiple (elementary) or single (secondary) subject credential plus the education specialist credential.

  6. University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

    Minneapolis, MN




    The University of Minnesota is a public research university with its main campus located in the Twin Cities. Its diverse student body encourages a well-rounded educational experience. With amazing research opportunities, UMN is the #8 public research university in the nation, spending more than $900 million annually. It is also a vital part of the state’s economy, being the sixth largest employer. It is estimated UMN generates an annual economic impact of $8.6 billion.

    Program Features

    Through UMN’s MA in Special Education program, students will build their career as an educator and researcher.

    • 32 credit-hours
    • Graduate fellowships available
    • Sample Courses: Mathematical Cognition, Professional Ethics for Counselors and Psychologists, Education of the Gifted and Talented


    In 2018, the U.S. News & World Report ranked this program the #5 best special education graduate program in the country.

  7. Ohio State University

    Columbus, OH




    The Ohio State University located in Columbus has been a place for academic achievement and innovation for 148 years. As one of the largest and best public universities in the nation, OSU offers an affordable, high-quality education. The College of Education and Human Ecology, which was founded over 100 years ago, aspires to create new teachers and leaders in their field. There are currently over $1.5 million scholarships available in this college that benefit students every year.

    Program Features

    OSU’s MA in Educational Studies, Special Education degree program is for those who wish to advance in their careers.

    • Research-based program
    • Sample Specializations: Mild-to-Moderate Intervention Specialist, Applied Behavior Analysis, Early Childhood Intervention Specialist
    • Field experience required


    Many graduates become behavior specialists, certified teacher, or continue on to their PhD.

  8. Boston University

    Boston, MA




    Boston University is a private research university with over 33,000 students enrolled. Its diverse enrollment boasts a student body from over 130 countries. BU is a global university, with partnerships around the world. Not only does the school send people overseas to study abroad and conduct research, but its curriculum is designed to create a global consciousness among its students. In 2017, the U.S. News & World Report ranked BU among the top 50 best universities in the globe.

    Program Features

    BU’s MEd in Special Education degree prepares students for a career that is in high-demand right now.

    • Sample Specializations: Teacher of Students with Moderate Disabilities, Special Education Administration, General Special Education
    • Program leads to the Massachusetts Department of Education licensure
    • Required field experience


    This program offers one-on-one mentorship, where a faculty member will help students choose a specific set of courses to match his/her career goals.

  9. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

    Champaign, IL




    The University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign is a land-grant institution that has become a leader in research, teaching, and public engagement. It was founded in 1867 and is located in the twin cities of Urbana and Champaign. The university has 15 colleges, with their Master’s in Special Education being offered in the College of Education. Urbana – Champaign is currently the #13 best ranked public university in the country according to the U.S. News & World Report’s 2018-2019 rankings.

    Program Features

    Urbana – Champaign’s Infancy & Early Childhood Special Education degree is for those who wish to work with young children with disabilities and their families.

    • MEd or MS degree
    • Free tuition and fees for families who make under $61,000
    • Sample Courses: Economics of Education, School and Community Experience, Sociology of Education


    While the MS does require research and a thesis, the MEd does not and is more hands-on focused.

  10. University of Oregon

    Eugene, OR




    The University of Oregon is a renown public institution that is known for research and teaching. It is located in the beautiful city of Eugene. It is the #1 public university in the state and is ranked as a Tier 1 research institution. At UO, faculty are also engaged in research and other learning activities while they teach. In 2015-2016, the university was awarded with $114.5 million worth of competitive research funds, making a huge impact on the state’s economy and innovation.

    Program Features

    At UO, students can earn either an MS, MEd, or MA in Special Education.

    • Minimum 45 credit-hours
    • Made for current teachers
    • Capstone project or thesis


    Candidates interested in the MA degree must be proficient in another language. Candidates getting the MEd must already have a teaching license and one-year teaching experience.

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