Online Doctorate Degree in Special Education

Why Pursue a Doctorate in Special Education?

Special education professionals teach students with a variety of mental, physical, behavioral, and emotional issues. While this work can often be challenging, it can also be quite personally and financially rewarding. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for special education teachers in 2018 was $59,780, considerably higher than the median salary for all other occupations. Postsecondary education teachers can earn even more, with a median salary of $64,020.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for special education teachers in 2018 was $59,780, considerably higher than the median salary for all other occupations.

A doctorate in special education can prepare you to lead special education programs and secure high-paying job opportunities. Doctoral programs equip educators with the skills necessary to succeed in academia and educational leadership roles. They often feature coursework in areas like research theory and methods, specialized instruction for exceptional learners, and school-wide intervention models. These programs also typically involve a capstone project or research-based dissertation.

If you are a current educator looking to advance in your career or teach special education at the college level, you should consider earning a doctorate in special education online. Distance programs combine the resources and rigor of the classroom experience with the flexibility of learning from your own home on your own schedule.

Types of Special Education Degrees

There are two kinds of doctorate-level special education degrees: the doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) and the doctor of education (Ed.D.). While the programs are often very similar, the Ph.D. focuses on research, while the Ed.D. emphasizes practice.

Ph.D. programs typically prepare students for roles in academia. They offer coursework in research methodology, quantitative and qualitative analysis, and doctoral writing in order to prepare students for a research-based dissertation. Students must write and defend their dissertation in order to graduate.

Ed.D. programs, conversely, usually prepare students for leadership roles in school districts, state agencies, and other educational organizations. These programs feature coursework in subjects like the principles of management, leadership theory and models, and special education advocacy and law. While some of these programs also have a dissertation component, others require students to synthesize their learning through a field-based capstone project.

Most full-time students earn their Ed.D. or Ph.D. in special education in four to seven years. Because work on a dissertation is largely self-paced, students in programs with a dissertation requirement may take longer to earn their degree than those with just a capstone requirement.

Choosing an Online Doctorate in Special Education Program

There are many factors to consider when choosing a doctorate program in special education. For example, how much does a program cost, and how much financial aid will you receive? On top of tuition, make sure to account for other expenses like books, course materials, student fees, and room and board.

How long will it take you to graduate? You can complete required coursework for a doctorate degree in as few as three years, but completing a dissertation can take several additional years. Do you want to specialize in a particular area? You may plan to work exclusively with students dealing with physical disabilities, but not all programs provide training in this area.

Does your program offer hybrid or fully online options? You may be able to keep your job as you pursue an online doctorate in special education, but balancing your studies with professional obligations requires exceptional time management and organizational skills.

Where is your school or program located? If you are an online student, this is less of a concern. However, some colleges and universities have on-campus requirements even for distance learners. If you need to complete a field-based capstone project, you may have to commute to campus or find a host site close to you.

Accreditation ensures that schools meet certain educational requirements and adequately prepare their graduates for jobs in the field.

And finally, has your program received accreditation? Accreditation ensures that schools meet certain educational requirements and adequately prepare their graduates for jobs in the field. It is critically important to select a program that has been accredited by a regional, national, or specialized accrediting agency working in the field of education. Many Ph.D. in special education programs hold accreditation from the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.

Entry Requirements

To apply for a special education doctorate, you need at least a bachelor's degree in special education or a related field. Most programs require a master's degree, but some schools allow you to earn your master's as you advance through your doctoral studies. Accredited colleges and universities only accept degrees from other accredited institutions.

Additional admission requirements vary from program to program. For example, some programs may require you to have an undergraduate or graduate GPA of at least 3.0, and more prestigious graduate schools may require even better academic performance. Some programs require a certain score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), while others do not require students to submit standardized test scores of any kind.

Because doctoral programs in special education prepare educational leaders and scholars, admissions officers may prefer candidates who have classroom experience. Most schools do not require candidates to have more than two or three years of experience. Finally, if you are not a native English speaker, you may need to take an exam like the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Most schools charge a relatively modest application fee.

Directory of Accredited Doctorate in Special Education Programs

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Special Education Licensure and Certifications

All public school teachers, including special education teachers, must earn a license or certification for the state where they work. Teachers at private schools do not need a license, but employers may prefer candidates with a state-issued credential and a degree in special education. Earning a Ph.D. in special education online can help you meet licensing requirements if you do not already hold certification. State teaching licenses do not automatically transfer across state lines. However, many states maintain reciprocity agreements to make the transfer process easier.

To receive certification as a public school teacher, you must have at least a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution. Some states require teachers to earn a degree specifically in special education before they can work with students with special needs. Other states simply require aspiring special education teachers to take a few courses in this area.

States typically require prospective teachers to complete some kind of student teaching experience as part of their undergraduate or graduate education. However, an increasing number of states now offer alternative pathways to licensure, which allow individuals with just a bachelor's degree and no teaching experience to receive a conditional teaching certificate. Conditionally licensed teachers must work under the close supervision of a mentor teacher, usually for two to three years.

In most states, teachers must also pass a certification exam and a background check. Some states administer exams specifically for special education teachers, while others require special education teachers to earn an endorsement within their first three years of service.

Finally, special education teachers can also pursue optional certification to demonstrate their expertise in a particular area. For example, teachers may receive a certification in educating children with autism. These certificates can improve teachers' job prospects and increase their salaries.

What Can I Do With a Doctorate in Special Education?

Professionals who earn a doctorate in special education online may take on a number of roles. They may work directly with students as special education teachers or lead programs for exceptional learners across an entire district. Alternatively, they may prepare the next generation of special education professionals by teaching at a college or university. The table below describes five potential jobs in special education and their median salaries.

Director of Special Education

Special education directors ensure the success and well-being of the students in their programs. They hire and train staff, design instructional plans, manage budgets, and work closely with parents and educational administrators. Most directors hold an advanced degree such as a Ph.D. in special education.

Median Salary: $73,601

Intervention Specialist

Intervention specialists create, implement, and assess individualized plans of instruction for their students. They may work exclusively with exceptional learners or accompany a special needs student in an integrated classroom setting. Many specialists focus on serving children with a particular disability or issue.

Median Salary: $40,260

Behavior Analyst

Using the principles of applied behavior analysis, these professionals help students overcome mental, social, or emotional disabilities. They may also collaborate with teachers, parents, and administrators to better understand and manage student behavior in the classroom and at home. Behavior analysts typically must have an advanced degree in special education or a related field.

Median Salary: $58,037

Special Education Teacher (Kindergarten and Elementary School)

Special education teachers at the elementary school level play a critical role in evaluating students' unique skills. They create individualized plans to support students' academic and social development. Early childhood teachers need broad content knowledge, exceptional instructional skills, and a great deal of patience.

Median Salary: $59,390

Special Education Teacher (Secondary School)

Special education teachers at the secondary school level build off of the work of their colleagues in earlier grades. While they continue to assess student needs and implement support plans, these teachers place more of an emphasis on helping their students advance from grade to grade and prepare for life after school.

Median Salary: $60,600

Paying for Your Online Doctorate in Special Education

Doctorate in special education online programs can be expensive. Fortunately, governments and private organizations offer many sources of financial aid for students who plan to work with exceptional learners. Additionally, many schools offer payment plans that allow students to pay gradually rather than all at once.

Financial Aid

The first step towards paying for your online doctorate in special education is completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Filling out the FAFSA qualifies you for many forms of financial support, including student loans, grants, and work-study opportunities. Federal grants, including the Pell Grant, provide free money to students who demonstrate financial need. Students do not need to pay back grants, and can use these funds for any education-related expense.

By contrast, students must pay back all federal student loans. Because graduate students are not eligible for subsidized loans, you may only use an unsubsidized loan to pay for your doctoral degree in special education. These loans are open to all students regardless of financial need. Although you may defer payments on these loans while you are in school or directly after graduation, you must eventually pay back the entirety of the loan and any accrued interest. Your school determines the amount of money you can borrow based on the total cost of attendance. After the school uses this funding to cover your tuition, you can use remaining funds for books, course materials, and room and board.

Work-Study Programs

The federal government provides part-time jobs to certain undergraduate and graduate students. To qualify, you must demonstrate financial need through the FAFSA. Students typically work jobs on or close to campus. Participants earn at least minimum wage, but may earn more depending on the work performed and skill set required. While there is no minimum work requirement, the government assigns each student a maximum annual award, which limits the total number of hours they may work. You do not need to pay back any of the money you earn through a work-study position, and you may use it however you would like.

Tuition Reimbursement Programs

To encourage employees to pursue postsecondary education, some companies and organizations offer tuition reimbursement programs. Through these programs, you can gain funding for tuition and other fees you incur while earning a professional certificate or degree. Many employers restrict these benefits to a degree in an area of study that closely relates to your current position. Check with your employer to see if they offer tuition reimbursement and whether you are eligible.

Grants, Fellowships, and Scholarships

Private grants, fellowships, and scholarships also provide free money to help finance your education. You do not need to pay back any of this money, though you may need to meet certain educational, service, or reporting requirements in order to maintain funding throughout your graduate studies. Organizations usually award grants based on financial need, and award fellowships and scholarships based on academic achievement and community service. When researching scholarship and grant opportunities, try to identify programs that match your background and career goals.

Scholarships for Online Doctorate in Special Education Degrees

Shon Shadrick Memorial Scholarship $5,000

Who Can Apply: This program is open to students who are majoring in special education and have at least a 2.5 GPA. View Scholarship

Katie MacDonald Memorial Scholarships $2,500

Who Can Apply: Applicants must pursue an undergraduate or graduate degree in a field related to mental or physical disabilities. View Scholarship

Organization for Autism Research Grant Program $2,000

Who Can Apply: To apply, you must be a doctoral student conducting research related to autism. View Scholarship

The Applegate-Jackson-Parks Future Teacher Scholarship $1,000

Who Can Apply: Applicants must be graduate or undergraduate education majors with a demonstrated interest in labor relations. View Scholarship

Delta Gamma Foundation's Florence Margaret Harvey Memorial Scholarship $1,000

Who Can Apply: This scholarship is available to undergraduate and graduate students studying rehabilitation or education for blind or visually impaired persons. View Scholarship

Resources for Online Doctorate in Special Education Students

  • U.S. Department of Education The Department of Education provides informational resources and financial support to future special education teachers and administrators. Financial aid options include the TEACH Grant and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
  • National Association of Special Education Teachers NASET represents special education professionals across the country. The association offers a variety of resources specifically for current and aspiring special education teachers, including an overview of how to receive board certification.
  • National Center for Learning Disabilities NCLD's mission is to improve the lives of individuals with learning and attention issues. The center conducts research on special education policy, advocates for people with learning disabilities, and provides instructional guides to special education teachers.
  • Council for Exceptional Children CEC is another professional association for educators working with exceptional learners. Members can access professional development webinars and participate in local training workshops. CEC also hosts a job board for special education professionals.
  • National Organization on Disability NOD primarily works to expand employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. The organization collaborates with schools and educators to ensure that students with disabilities receive the support they need to find jobs and succeed in the workplace.