Demand for special education teachers is growing. According to the nationwide listing of areas with teacher shortages compiled by the U.S. Education Department, many areas in the country are struggling to fill teaching positions. This shortage means ample opportunities for individuals who have earned a special education degree online. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the number of special education teachers to increase 8% by 2026.
Special education teachers work with students who face physical and emotional challenges, including learning disabilities. While earning an online special education degree, students learn to efficiently teach special needs children primary subjects such as writing, math, science, and reading. Special education teachers also help students improve their communication skills.
Choosing a Program
Earning a special education degree online prepares future educators to help children learn and succeed. Core courses provide skills necessary to mentor and guide children with disabilities. Courses common to most bachelor’s in special education programs include foundations of assessment and instructional strategies. Students explore teaching practices for children with learning, mental, emotional, and physical disabilities.
Online schools for special education typically offer specialties such as early childhood, autism, gifted and talented, applied behavior analysis, and visual impairment. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 68 U.S. children may be affected by autism spectrum disorders; many students in special education programs select the autism concentration to learn to effectively teach this population. Some programs prepare students to teach special needs children up to fourth grade; others produce graduates equipped to teach high school students.
Most students pursuing an online degree in special education complete a practicum, also known as student teaching. A practicum provides hands-on teaching experience and an opportunity to observe students. The number of required practicum hours vary by state and program.
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Online Bachelor’s in Special Education Degree Program Ranking Guidelines
We selected the degree programs based on the quality of program and range of courses provided, as well as school awards, rankings, and reputation.
The Best Online Bachelor’s in Special Education Programs
1 East Carolina University
Greenville, North Carolina
East Carolina University’s online bachelor of science in special education equips students with the tools necessary to make a difference in the lives of K-12 students. Participants of this program enjoy hands-on learning opportunities, as full-time public school internships are required in students’ final year. Internships mandate a physical presence at the school based in Greenville, North Carolina.
The ECU program follows a cohort structure, allowing new students to benefit from educational partnerships with senior students. Senior students then have the opportunity to pass their wisdom and experience along to those following in their footsteps. Education levels and degree specialization determine a student’s cohort assignment, with available concentrations including elementary, middle grades, and special education.
East Carolina University’s special education degree places strong emphasis on reading, giving students the opportunity to obtain licensure to teach reading to special needs students in elementary and secondary education.
Graduates transition into successful and rewarding teaching careers. However, because ECU cannot confirm whether a specific program meets out-of-state licensure requirements, students from outside North Carolina must contact their state’s Department of Education with inquiries regarding licensure transferability. East Carolina University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
2 Fort Hays State University
Based in Hays, Kansas, Fort Hays State University offers a flexible range of options to students pursuing special education degrees online. Students can choose between a bachelor of science in early childhood education (unified) or elementary education. Both degrees are eligible for a minor in special education, which involves delivering course material specific to gifted students and students with special needs. Behavioral strategies, classroom management, technology, and procedures are among the key topics covered by classes unique to the special education minor. A total of 21 credit hours must be accrued in special education courses to be eligible for the minor.
Both the early childhood education and elementary education majors offer internship and practicum opportunities. The early childhood education degree requires the completion of an internship and student teaching initiative, while the elementary education major necessitates physical placement in a diverse range of hands-on environments. Thus, while out-of-state and international students are welcome to apply to Fort Hays State University’s online education programs, physical proximity to the university is essential to student success.
Transfer students can achieve advanced standing in both online education majors. Those who have earned 44 or fewer credit-hours may receive limited advanced standing, while incoming transfer students with more than 45 credit-hours or an associate degree in a related field can earn wider advanced standing. The early childhood education major requires 126 credit hours for graduation, while the elementary education program requires 127 credit hours. Fort Hays State University is regionally accredited by the The Higher Learning Commission (HLC), a commission of the North Central Association.
3 Liberty University
Liberty University is a private, not-for-profit university based in Lynchburg, Virginia. It is one of the top Christian online schools for special education, offering a bachelor of science in special education interdisciplinary studies available 100% online.
Students in Liberty University’s online special education program thoroughly explore theoretical special education models and current best practices. Through coursework, students learn to apply these principles to special education settings, with a particular focus on teaching students with autism, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, and behavioral conditions.
Liberty University has a generous transfer credit policy, requiring students to complete a minimum of one quarter, or 30 credit hours, of their coursework at the college. The remaining three quarters, or 90 credit hours, can be transferred in from other postsecondary institutions to reach a total of 120 credit hours.
Students have the option of participating in a 300-hour practicum. Those who wish to do so must be local to the Lynchburg, Virginia area for the duration of the practicum placement.
Prospective students should note that graduating from Liberty University’s online special education program does not automatically lead to licensure. Those who wish to apply to the program should inquire about licensure requirements through the Department of Education (or equivalent body) in the state they intend to teach. Liberty University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
4University of Wisconsin – Stout
Based in Menomonie, Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin-Stout is a polytechnic institute with a career-focused approach to postsecondary education. The school’s bachelor of science in special education meets the needs of working adults who want to accelerate their professional growth through education while maintaining their current careers.
This online special education degree has a particularly comprehensive focus, as students learn advanced instructional strategies for children and adolescents of all ages, ranging from kindergarten to the age of 21. Candidates have the opportunity to concentrate on educational techniques for students in a particular age range or follow generalist paths.
The University of Wisconsin-Stout’s special education program offers professional, cross-categorical licensure certifications in two categories: post-baccalaureate education certifications and autism spectrum disorder specializations. Students outside Wisconsin are advised to check with their Department of Education (or equivalent) to ensure that licenses earned at the University of Wisconsin-Stout will be recognized in their home state.
Other highlights of this program include field placement opportunities, personalized faculty advisement, and educational support systems. Those interested in participating in field placements should be local to the Menomonie area for the duration of the practicum.
The University of Wisconsin system offers a convenient, online-based transfer credit tool that prospective students can use to assess the transferability of their existing educational credentials. Tuition costs are relatively affordable, with the same rates applying to both in-state and out-of-state students. University of Wisconsin-Stout is regionally accredited by the The Higher Learning Commission (HLC), a commission of the North Central Association.
5University of Southern Mississippi
With physical campuses in Hattiesburg and Long Beach, the University of Southern Mississippi is one of the leading research universities in the American South. “Southern Miss” offers an online bachelor of science in special education program with an excellent reputation among professional educators.
Students who complete a special education degree online at Southern Miss position themselves for success in a variety of career paths. Examples include classroom-based special education instruction, inclusive teaching in classroom environments with a combination of regular and special needs students, school-to-life transition specializations, and teaching students with multiple special needs or disabilities.
Coursework in the Southern Miss special education program has two main stages. First, students in their freshman and sophomore years take pre-professional courses to familiarize them with the foundational principles of special education, while introducing a broader range of general curriculum topics. Then, students in their final three semesters enter an intensive, highly specialized study track that allows them to concentrate on specific special education topics, such as language and literacy, mathematics, and life skills development. Students can pursue in-depth learning opportunities to develop their classroom management abilities and intervention skills for challenging behaviors.
Each of the final three semesters includes a planned practicum requirement, in which students gain valuable hands-on experience in educational settings. Thus, applicants should be prepared to be in the vicinity of Hattiesburg or Long Beach during these semesters. University of Southern Mississippi is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
6 Western Governors University
Salt Lake City, Utah
Salt Lake City-based Western Governors University is a fully online postsecondary institution. Regarded as one of the nation’s leading online schools for special education, Western Governors University offers a unique value proposition with its bachelor of arts in special education (K-12) program.
The Western Governors University baccalaureate special education program follows a cross-categorical design. It is specifically formulated to meet the needs of prospective special education teachers who want to work with mild to moderate behavioral and/or learning disabilities.
While all core coursework in the program is available online, Western Governors University requires candidates to complete practical experience components, including demonstrated teaching requirements. Experienced clinical supervisors oversee these components, with the assistance and participation of experienced professional special educators.
Students in the program enjoy exceptional specialization opportunities, including classroom management and student motivation, psychology for educators, reading methods and interventions, performing arts, physical education, and mathematics and numeracy.
The program prepares students to meet special education licensure requirements in all 50 states, with dual K-12 special education and K-8 elementary education licensure prerequisites. Tuition is charged on a per-term basis at affordable rates, and almost three-quarters of students graduate from the program between 18 months and four years. Western Governors University is regionally accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU).
7 Dakota State University
Madison, South Dakota
Dakota State University maintains one of the nation’s leading online special education degrees with its bachelor of science in education: elementary education/special education. The program prioritizes the educational needs of all students, positioning graduates to excel in classroom settings that combine regular and special needs learners. Graduates enter rewarding careers, including elementary school, special education, Title I, and K-12 technology teaching.
Technology is a special area of focus at Dakota State University, and students in the school’s online elementary/special education program receive thorough introduction to a complete range of next-generation instructional tools. All graduates from the program automatically receive a K-12 educational technology endorsement, reflecting the school’s commitment to preparing teachers to take full advantage of new and emerging pedagogical and instructional technologies. This endorsement makes graduates eligible to teach computer science to students at the elementary, middle school, and secondary levels, which greatly enhances their post-graduation career prospects. A growing number of public and private schools across the United States make computer science and technology classes mandatory for students at these levels.
Prospective applicants should note that, while core courses can be completed fully online, the Dakota State University program has intensive year-long residency requirements. Students in this capstone project benefit from placements in public schools, where they apply their learning to practical classroom settings under the supervision of experienced educators. Thus, it is essential for candidates to be local to the Madison, South Dakota area during this phase of the program. Dakota State University is regionally accredited by the The Higher Learning Commission (HLC), a commission of the North Central Association.
8 University of Alaska Southeast
The bachelor of arts in special education program at the University of Alaska Southeast is an excellent opportunity for Alaska-based candidates. Students who complete this special education degree online can meet the needs of a diverse range of students, including Alaskan indigenous peoples, non-indigenous Alaskans, and students living in rural communities and remote areas.
Its special focus on the unique needs of Alaskan students makes the University of Alaska Southeast program a valuable career-building educational pathway for candidates committed to working in America’s “Last Frontier”. Because the program’s design includes mandatory practice teaching requirements, it is currently only available to those living in or are willing to relocate to Alaska.
Students have the option of completing their coursework at the university’s Juneau campus or by using the school’s advanced e-learning platform, which leverages online and audio conferencing technologies.
Applicants must pass a background check in addition to meeting the University of Alaska Southeast’s general admission requirements. Before proceeding to teaching and practicum placements, candidates need a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.75, while earning at least a C in all first- to third-year courses. Students must also submit a student teaching application and complete a second background check, earn Praxis Core/CASE examination scores that meet government requirements for teacher pre-certification, and submit a letter of recommendation from a qualified individual who is not an education professor.
Upon completing program coursework, students must achieve satisfactory scores on the Praxis II exam, which clears candidates for licensure certifications. University of Alaska Southeast is regionally accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU).
Saint Louis, Missouri
Fontbonne University’s bachelor of science in special education program combines the value of a general liberal arts education with career-focused special education learning opportunities across the K-12 spectrum. As one of the Midwest’s leading online schools for special education, Fontbonne University prepares students to meet certification and licensure requirements for K-12 students with mild to moderate learning disabilities. Candidates have the option to pursue supplemental certifications in elementary-level teaching for students in grades one through six.
The program holds an excellent reputation across Missouri, where Fontbonne University calls home. Fontbonne produces more cross-categorical K-12 special education graduates than any other postsecondary institution in the state.
Another valuable aspect of the Fontbonne University program structure is that it provides student teaching opportunities throughout all years of the program. These practicum placements take place in schools throughout St. Louis and in school districts across Missouri. Applicants should be based in Missouri or willing to relocate to Missouri for the duration of their study period.
Fontbonne University boasts a 96% success rate of graduates finding employment. Students have unique access to free career services and education career guides, which can help them find post-graduation professional opportunities that align with their specific skills and interests. Fontbonne University is regionally accredited by the The Higher Learning Commission (HLC), a commission of the North Central Association.
Online Bachelor’s in Special Education Careers
Depending on their concentration, special education teachers work with children from kindergarten to high school. Some special education teachers also serve as art therapists or occupational therapy assistants.
- Preschool Special Education Teacher: Preschool special education teachers prepare young children to enter kindergarten. These teachers help children develop social skills using a specialized model of a preschool class.
- Median Annual Salary: $52,460
- Projected Growth Rate: 7%
- Kindergarten and Elementary Special Education Teacher: These special education teachers provide an academic education to prepare students for middle and high school, while helping students develop life skills.
- Median Annual Salary: $55,490
- Projected Growth Rate: 6%
- School Social Worker: School social workers ensure students have the resources they need to succeed. These professionals advocate on behalf of special needs students who require attention or intervention.
- Median Annual Salary: $46,890
- Projected Growth Rate: 12%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics