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special education, phD in special ed, spec ed, doctorate degree, doctoralSpecial Education or Special Needs Education is an important focus area in the field of education. It is the practice making sure that students that have additional needs to succeed academically are having those needs met and are being given equal access to education. Special education is vital because you have to meet people where they are in order to raise them up. If that is something you are passionate about, you may be considering specializing further in this area. The best way to do so is to pursue a terminal degree in the field of special education.

The PhD in Special Education

College Professor, Ed D, EdD, PhD in EducationAcademic jobs are projected to grow at a rate of 13% over the next ten years by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is close to double the national average rate. Any time that a field is booming, it is bound to become more competitive. Institutions are going to be looking for those candidates that are most qualified. The highest academic honor awarded in America is one way to show that you are that candidate.

Another benefit of choosing to earn your doctorate in special education is that you will be an expert in the field. You can pursue a career in research, and that research can be used to influence policy change, program development, and more. You could also go on to teach classes at the university level with this type of degree. Whatever your career goals may be, this is a degree that will help you achieve them. You will be prepared for leadership or administrative roles, as well as related jobs in the public or private sector.

Special Education Doctorates Online

Less than 10% of teachers hold doctorates, and almost every state is suffering from a lack of qualified candidates in the special education sector. A PhD in Special Education is a degree that would prepare you to fill one of those roles and help combat this shortage. You may feel that you don’t have enough money or time but earning an online doctorate in special education could be the solution.

Online Degree, Ed D, Online Doctorate DegreeOnline programs tend to be more affordable, they are just as eligible for grants and scholarships, and you won’t have to worry about relocating. The flexible program structure allows them to easily fit into the busy lifestyle of someone who has a career, a family, or other responsibilities. For those of you who are interested in earning an online special education degree, we did the research and created this ranking to help you find the best online special education degrees. All of the schools were ranked according to the following:


To create this ranking, we started by collecting a list of all of the schools that are based in the United States, hold proper accreditation, and offer online doctoral programs in special education. We included programs that are fully and partially online. Once we had our initial pool of institutions, we assigned each of them a score based on the following three factors:

  • Freshman Retention Rate (⅓ of final score),
  • Graduation Rate (⅓ of final score), and
  • Affordability (⅓ of final score)

After each school was scored, we ranked them based on the score that they received. If two schools received the same score, the alphabetical ordering of their names was used to break the tie. The data that was used to rank each school and talk about the programs presented throughout this article was collected from the schools’ websites whenever it was available. When we were unable to get the information we needed, we also used the databases of the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. News & World Report,, and CollegeData.

Cost information is represented by the residential cost of attendance as estimated by CollegeData. Please keep in mind that this is an estimate and most students don’t pay the ‘sticker price’ for college.

OnlineCollegePlan prides itself on transparency and providing you with the most accurate and helpful information and resources. In light of that, we want to point out that no institution is ever given preferential treatment for any reason. However, some schools that would otherwise be present have been omitted either due to insufficient data or per their own request.

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  1. MERIT: 274
    View Profile Average Cost: $21,131

    University of Florida
    The University of Florida’s program is an online Doctor of Education in Special Education. All students work with an advisor to select an area of specialization. Some examples that the university provides are autism, dyslexia, or disability in society. The program consists of a minimum of 60 credits, but in some cases, more may be required.

    This online doctorate in special education was designed as a part-time program for those of you who are already working full-time jobs. The typical student graduates in four years. All of the coursework can be completed online. The only times you will be required to attend the campus are for qualifying exams and defending your dissertation.

    You will be eligible for financial aid if you become a student of this online EdD in Special Education degree program. There are three components to the curriculum which are the Special Education Core, Research Methodology, and your Area of Specialization courses. In addition to the classes that explore relevant topics in special education, you will also take a class in Grant Writing.

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  2. MERIT: 232
    View Profile Average Cost: $24,377

    Slippery Rock University offers a Doctor in Special Education. SRU understand the shortage in special education, and they have created an interdisciplinary program that covers special education, content learning, and leadership. This is a 60 credit program; the curriculum is broken up into a Research core, Content and Leadership core, Special Education core, and Dissertation core. You’ll progress through in a cohort model, and you can finish in just three years.

    One thing that sets this degree program apart is the customizability within the cores. You have the option to take the classes that you want to in special education as well as content and leadership. You can choose from special education topics like classroom intervention, learning disabilities, neuropsychiatric disorders, and more. Your options in Content and Leadership are just as diverse, spanning subjects like advocacy, instructional design, legal issues, and more.

    The curriculum is flexible as it is, but the fact that this degree is a distance education program makes it that much better for the working professional with set aspirations and interests. You want to take your career to the next level, and this degree gives you everything you need to do so. Classes are entirely online except for during the summer semester. At that time, meetings are held on weekends.

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  3. MERIT: 225
    View Profile Average Cost: $24,280

    Ball State University offers a Doctor of Education with an Emphasis in Special Education. The degree has several different tracks to choose from, so you can tailor your studies to your career goals. Those options are Applied Behavior Analysis and Autism; Teaching and Learning – Low Incidence; Teaching and Learning – High Incidence; Teaching and Learning – Emotional and Behavioral Disorders and; Systems, Teaching, and Learning (Response to Intervention/Multi-Tier System of Supports). You can also choose General Special Education for a more broad degree.

    The courses are presented in what Ball State calls a blended format. This is a 60-credit program, and the majority of it can be completed online with a few face-to-face requirements. The program website does not detail what these requirements are. However, it does say that as many as thirty credits from your master’s degree may be eligible to apply to your degree.

    This online doctorate in special education is multifaceted in the sense that it prepares its graduates for work in research, education, administration, curriculum, or even entrepreneurship.

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  4. MERIT: 222
    View Profile Average Cost: $21,300

    The University of Idaho offers easily what is the most unique degree in this ranking, and we’d go as far to say one of the most unique degrees in special education in the country. You can pursue a Doctor of Philosophy in Education: Autism Spectrum Disorders & Related Disabilities. The program is made up of between 84 and 87 credits and can be completed in a flexible primarily-online format.

    This is a highly-structure and research-oriented degree program that still manages to accommodate full-time or part-time students, online or on campus. Another aspect of the program that makes it unique is that it is geared towards those who want to work in higher education. Disabilities are often forgotten as students age out of the programs that helped them through their formative years. The research professional you become through this program could help that change.

    Students will have opportunities for immersions, internships, doctoral seminars, and will also be able to choose courses that they want to take out of the different parts of the curriculum. Students of this online PhD in Special Education have ample opportunity to research and gain practical experience. Some stand out topics that the curriculum covers are Behavior Analysis, Grant Writing, and Assistive Technology.

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  5. MERIT: 214
    View Profile Average Cost: $30,028

    Regent University
    The Doctor of Philosophy in Special Education at Regent University was ranked among the best online graduate programs in the state of Virginia for the year 2018 according to U.S. News & World Report. The university boasts that almost a thousand graduates of the program have been Teachers of the Year at their individual institutions. There are eight start dates throughout the year to choose from when you’re ready to get started.

    The online special education degree that Regent provides is competitively priced at just $775 per credit regardless of residency; while this is higher than the national average, it is significantly lower than a lot of programs of study at this level. In addition to that, the 100% online classes are condensed down into eight-week sessions, which helps you get where you’re going at a faster pace.

    There is a minimum of 75 credits required for graduation. The only campus meetings that you will be required to attend are four days in length, and they occur over the summer, which is perfect for busy teachers. You will take classes like Bioethics in Special Education, Educational Statistics, and Regression & Correlation, as well as having ample opportunities to pursue your own research and explore your interests.

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  6. MERIT: 204
    View Profile Average Cost: $24,949

    The University of Northern Colorado is home to an online PhD in Special Education that consists of 72 to 83 credits. There are start dates in the summer, fall, and spring. This program is only open to those who have completed a masters degree. One thing that makes this program stand out is that there is no work experience required for admission whereas many programs require two years or more.

    There are six main themes that the curriculum explores and those are theory, pedagogy, research methodology, evidence-based practice, public policy and advocacy, and collaboration. You can also choose an area of particular interest; the university lists more than ten different ones, and you can also work with an advisor to create a plan that works for you. The degree plan has a doctoral core that is made up of mostly exceptionalities coursework and has classes in grant writing.

    This program requires you to complete an externship. Working with an advisor, it is likely that you will be able to find a location close to you that is suitable to do your externship. Depending on your job, you may be able to do it at the place you are already employed. It also culminates in a comprehensive exam and a dissertation.

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  7. MERIT: 200
    View Profile Average Cost: $69,392

    Drexel​ ​University’s​ Doctorate​ ​of​ ​Education​ ​degree​ ​program​ ​in​ ​Educational Leadership​ ​and​ ​Management​ with a concentration in Special Education Leadership was crafted to prepare students for leadership and supervisory roles in the education system. Students can pursue this degree on either a full-time or part-time basis according to their lifestyle; it consists of a minimum of 60 credits for graduation.

    There are three-year and five-year plans of study to complete this EdD in Special Education online. You can take the entire program online or in a hybrid format if you so choose. The hybrid option includes night classes on Fridays and Saturdays a few times per quarter. You will take core classes in education, business, and research. You will also have to complete a doctoral dissertation as part of this degree plan.

    The Special Education concentration builds on that core curriculum with classes that will broaden your understanding in curriculum, law and policy, development, and more. A significant component of the special education online doctorate is internships. While that may seem counterintuitive to a distance degree, you can complete those internships at an approved location anywhere in the country.

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  8. MERIT: 199
    View Profile Average Cost: $40,560

    Hampton University
    Hampton University’s distance education initiative is called Hampton Online, and that is where you will find its Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Management with a specialization in Special Education. This is an accelerated program that consists of 66 credits. Courses are only nine weeks in length. Hampton boasts that this degree only takes two and a half years to complete. It also only costs $695 per credit.

    The program admits students in a cohort once per year, and it is open to those who hold a masters degree. In order to be considered for this competitive program, you will also need at least five years of professional experience in the field. There are two on-campus requirements over summer that last for two weeks each. You will also have to appear in person to defend your dissertation.

    All doctoral students in education, regardless of concentration, take the core curriculum and the research core. This will cover research methods, an internship, and the sweeping themes of Leadership and Management; and Sociopolitical and Cultural Contexts of Education. The tailored Special Education track is very research-centric. Students will learn about data interpretation, evidence-based intervention, and policy change.

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  9. MERIT: 196
    View Profile Average Cost: $41,112

    Christian Counseling
    Liberty University provides students with an online Doctor of Education in Curriculum and Instruction – Special Education degree program that offers students an unparalleled combination of flexibility and academic quality. This degree program equips you with research and administration skills and helps you to have a better understanding of learning theory. Everything you learn will come together to help propel you into the career you want in teaching or overseeing a special needs program.

    The program consists of 60 credits in total, and you can transfer in up to 15 credits. This is an online special education degree that you can complete in just three years of full-time study. Of course, if your career or lifestyle doesn’t allow you to study full-time, there are part-time options for students like you. Liberty University also has several start dates throughout the year.

    Some of the courses you’ll take in the special education program are Behavior Management and Organization and Design of Gifted Education Programs. Not many programs offer courses in advanced special education, so it certainly stands out. Classes are presented asynchronously, and you never have to attend campus. You can earn your EdD in Special Education 100% online. Liberty University does give students the option to participate in on-campus intensive if they’re interested.

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  10. MERIT: 195
    View Profile Average Cost: $31,659

    2 City-logo
    The City University of Seattle offers an online Doctor of Education in Leadership. There is no specific concentration area in special education. Instead, there is a Specialized Study concentration in which you can collaborate with an advisor to design a program that perfectly fits into the puzzle as you build the career you want. This is a fully-online program that consists of 90 credits.

    The core curriculum has classes that build your skills in strategic thinking, cultural competence, ethics, and more. With the Specialized Study option, you can supplement that with courses in special education that the university offers. Some of the classes offered are Special Education and Special Programs, Leadership for Student Support Services, Cultural and Linguistic Diversity in Special Education, Student Teaching in Special Education, and many others. You’ll need to work with an advisor to determine what classes with meet degree requirements.

    CityU also boasts a competitive tuition rate. On top of its affordability, the program gives you a fast track to graduation. Students can transfer in up to 12 credits, and students in good standing may have the opportunity to challenge 12 credits in their concentration. If you choose to study at a full-time pace, you could graduate in roughly two and a half years.

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  11. MERIT: 193
    View Profile Average Cost: $49,216

    Gwynedd Mercy University has an online and accelerated executive Doctor of Education program in Education Leadership. Some of the degree focus areas have residencies, but those of you who choose the Leadership in Special Education track will never have to commute to campus. Practicum is still required as part of the program if you’re interested in getting certified as a supervisor of special education.

    The program is presented in a cohort model, and class sizes are kept small, so you still have the opportunity to network but in a close enough setting to make meaningful connections with your colleagues. You will take just one class at a time, and they are shortened down to five-week or seven-week sessions depending on the course. This is a 54-credit program that you will be able to finish in under three years.

    In addition to conducting research and getting field experience, you will take classes that help you gain a multidisciplinary understanding of special education leadership. Some of the courses you’re required to take are Cross-Cultural Perspectives and Educational Leadership; Equity, Equality and Equal Opportunity and; Neuroscience of Learning.

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  12. MERIT: 191
    View Profile Average Cost: $20,088

    Valdosta State-logo
    Valdosta State University offers a different type of degree, and that is the Education Specialist degree. We chose to include the program as part of the ranking because it is a terminal degree. In order to be eligible to enroll, you must have a masters degree. Those of you with more than 20 hours of study at the masters level are considered, but this is an exception to the rule. You must also be certified as a teacher in special education or a related field.

    There are several majors offered, but we are focusing on the major in Special Education, which will build on knowledge and experience that you already have to help you grow in your career. It is geared towards those who are seeking leadership roles or other advanced positions in the field. The online EdS program is a total of 27 credits and doesn’t require any campus visits.

    This program offers students three start dates throughout the year. Online students are also eligible for financial aid when they’re enrolled in this particular program.

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  13. MERIT: 187
    View Profile Average Cost: $30,702

    The University of Colorado Denver has, and that is a Doctor of Education in Leadership for Educational Equity, with a concentration in Early Childhood Special Education/Early Childhood Education. The program is designed to help students build leadership skills and create educational strategies to serve all children, but especially those with disabilities.

    This is a degree that would most likely suit those with administrative aspirations the best, whether that was in a district, agency, program, or at a specific school. This is a 54-credit program; the curriculum is broken down into different categories, which are Equity and Diversity, Leadership and Learning, Research Methods, and finally, your specific concentration area.

    There are a three-year full-time option and a five-year part-time option for completing this program of study. The three-year track is presented in a cohort model whereas the five-year is for those who want to have more time. The five-year plan will see you studying with several cohorts as you progress; you will also be taking classes year-round. The class delivery as UC Denver has unparalleled flexibility, making this program easy to fit into your life.

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  14. MERIT: 186
    View Profile Average Cost: $50,333

    7 Nova-logo
    Nova Southeastern University offers a Doctor of Education with a concentration in Special Education. U.S. News & World Report has ranked NSU as having some of the best online graduate programs in the country in their rankings from last year. This degree option is unique because it doesn’t require you to have any teaching experience in order to be considered for acceptance.

    The university says that this is a good program for those students who want to explore the benefits of earning something other than a PhD, human service professionals, mental and healthcare providers, and more. A faculty member acts as your personal advisor to help you design a program of study that is perfect for what you want to do in your professional life. There is a minimum of 54 credits, and there is a great deal of choice what classes you take to earn them.

    There is a summer institute that will require you to attend the campus in Fort Lauderdale. The conference typically only lasts two to three days; all of the other coursework for this program can be completed entirely online.

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  15. MERIT: 180
    View Profile Average Cost: $44,426

    Concordia University has several campuses throughout the country, and the Chicago branch of the school offers two online options that you may be interested in. There are both a Doctor of Education and a PhD program in Special Education that you can take online. The EdD consists of 61 credits, and the PhD is 67. These programs culminate in a dissertation and a comprehensive exam.

    This doctoral program can be completed entirely online with no intensives on campus. A lot of the courses are the same for both programs, like Research-Based Decision Making; Special Education Law and Policy; Assistive Technology for Students with Disabilities and; Principles of Applied Behavior Analysis. The big differences are in the research courses because the EdD is a more practicum-based degree whereas the PhD is focused heavily on research.

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What Do Special Education Teachers Do?

Special Education teachers work with students with a broad range of different disabilities and levels of functionality in such a way that they can make education accessible to everyone. The students that they work with may have mental or physical disabilities; special education teachers may operate in a traditional classroom setting or in smaller groups or a one on one environment depending on the needs of the children that they teach. There are also a different set of responsibilities that go beyond teaching that those in this position have.

Some of those additional responsibilities include assessing the skills of the students that they work with to determine what they need, adjust lesson plans to make sure they meet the needs of their students, and more. Most people just think of disabilities when discussing special education, but these teachers are trained to help every student with special needs. For instance, advanced students also require an Individualized Education Plan. Special needs teachers keep up with those as well.

Special education teachers also mentor other teachers as they prepare for their careers. These teachers need to keep in contact with administrators, parents, counselors, and other people who are responsible for the care of the student. There is a lot of variation in this career.

What Do You Major in for Special Education?

Apart from the personal qualities, it takes to become a great special education teacher, and you do need to get an education of your own to get started. There are typically not majors in special education at the bachelor’s level. You do need to start with a bachelors degree. Usually, you can get a bachelors degree in education with a concentration in special education. So, education itself is a good major to start with. Special education is obviously an incredible major if your school offers it. Other options you could explore at child development or child psychology.

phd in spec ed, special education doctoral program, online doctorateIf you are able to major in special education at the bachelors level, you’re likely to encounter classes such as Behavior Support, Child Assessment, Communication, Disabled Student Instruction, and Educational Psychology. If they aren’t included as part of your program already, you can seek out the classes that you need as electives. The best way to make sure that you can get the career you want is to find an education degree, or preferably, a special education degree program that you like, and then work with an advisor to make it fit your needs.

Is a Special Education Degree Right for Me?

Deciding if a degree program is right for you is something that only you can do. Special education teachers are in high demand. This means that there are not as many special education teachers as there needs to be. You could use that to your advantage and prepare yourself for this career and then hit the ground running. Something to consider is that teaching is never an easy job and teaching special education can be a little more difficult for some people. You should ask yourself if you have some of the necessary qualities to fit into this job: patience, calmness, creativity, organization, and other similar traits.

You should also consider some of the classes that you’ll take and the skills you’ll acquire throughout your course of study and see if they are in line with your professional goals. Here are some of the courses you’ll encounter:

  • Early Childhood Special Education
  • Evidence-Based Methods for Teaching Students with Disabilities
  • Assessment for Instruction
  • Technologies for Students with Disabilities

As you progress in your studies, you will get deeper into the concepts of special education, and you will have the opportunity to specialize in a certain area of special education that you’re drawn to. If that sounds like something that will help you on your career path, then a special education degree is right for you.

What Certification Do I Need To Be a Special Education Teacher?

To become a teacher at all you have to hold at least a bachelor’s degree and then go through the state licensure requirements to teach. In order to be a special education teacher, you need a special education degree. Most states require you to hold at least a master’s degree. Masters degrees can be held in special education or in a particular area. There are 13 disability categories that you could specialize in and those are:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Deafness
  • special education, spec ed, phd, doctorate degree, doctoral studentEmotional Disturbance
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech/Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness

Each category has different specialties within it and will have different coursework and career trajectories. To teach general special education for grade preschool through twelfth, and to add additional certifications to focus your teaching in one area, you must pass a general content knowledge exam. This exam covers each category in a general sense, ensures that teachers are familiar with the content, assessment strategies and tools, IEP design and implementation, maintaining a safe classroom, and more. To focus your teaching in a particular area, there are additional courses and exams required.

Why Get a PhD in Special Education?

A PhD is the highest academic honor that one can earn in any field. Earning your PhD in Special Education is something that can benefit you in several ways, not to mention the sense of accomplishment and pride you should feel upon choosing to do so. Special education teachers work with children from all kinds of backgrounds, and that can make this a challenging career path. You can use the experience that you’ve gained in teaching to inform what you would study at the doctorate level.

You can build on the foundation of your experience to deepen your knowledge in things you care about, through research especially. You will also take classes that address current issues and topics in special education, cognitive psychology, multicultural education, special education policy, and more.

With a PhD, you will be eligible for a higher salary in a teaching role, of course. But you will also be able to use your degree to expand your career horizons. You could get a career in educational policy, a special needs facility, teaching at the university level to prepare future teachers, and so much more. A PhD in Special Education is a great way to decide exactly where you want to go with your career and hit the ground running.