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Common Questions: Online Master’s Degree in Special Education

Common Questions: Online Master's Degree in Special Education

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that more than 7.5 million children and youth currently qualify for special education services. While federal law and state standards govern the way special education services are provided, education professionals working with these students must also have the right knowledge for their role.

Each student who receives special education services at school should have the support of a team. Teachers, administrators, and other personnel must collaborate to ensure that exceptional learners have the right instruction and environment to succeed, and that they receive the same quality of education as their peers without disabilities. Advocacy and education planning are also essential skills for these professionals.

An online master's in special education can help you achieve competency in this high-growth career area, whether you are already a certified educator or just starting in the field. Graduates go on to work in many different capacities, such as curriculum designers, special education coordinators, classroom teachers, and more. Follow the links below for additional information about this versatile degree.

What Is a Master of Education in Special Education?

The M.Ed. in Special Education is a graduate degree designed for current teachers and administrators, as well as aspiring educators, parents, those working in disability related fields, and others interested in working with students with disabilities. School counselors or instructional personnel working with the general student population can also earn this degree to broaden their knowledge of disabilities and special ed.

Advanced coursework helps students develop the legal and cultural expertise required to provide SPED services, and support exceptional learners in the school environment. Graduates with this degree may see career benefits ranging from increased opportunity for pay raises and promotion to new eligibility for positions that require a master's degree.

Southeastern Oklahoma State University (SOSU) offers two online graduate programs in this high-demand K-12 specialization. The M.Ed. in Special Education – Administration online and M.Ed. in Special Education – Challenging Behaviors online provide busy professionals a choice of affordable, fact-track options for earning their master's degree.

A master's in special education is good for anyone in the school system working with kids with disabilities — which is everyone.

- Dr. Kathy Boothe, SOSU Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Special Education

What Will I Learn In a Special Education Master's Program?

Regardless of the program you choose, a master's degree in special education can equip you with a broad scope of knowledge on disability and different aspects of education students with exceptionalities.

Depending on the focus of your program, you might study the following aspects of education for exceptional learners:

  • Response to intervention
  • Behavior management tools and strategies
  • Special education teaching pedagogy and evidence-based practice
  • Special education law
  • Collaboration and co-teaching strategies
  • Universal design for learning
  • Culturally responsive teaching
  • High leverage teaching practices

What Kinds of Courses Will I Take for a Special Education Master's Degree?

Coursework will cover both theory and practice in special education. Classes also address federal requirements and state polices for implementing these services.

SOSU's online M.Ed. in Special Education – Challenging Behaviors and online M.Ed. in Special Education – Administration programs share 21 hours of core courses, designed to build each student's skills in research, program development, evidence-based practice and student assessment. Classes also give master's students a foundation in instructional strategies for exceptional learners and stress the importance of planning and advocacy in special education.

Southeastern Oklahoma's M.Ed. students complete three courses in their area of specialization as well:

Challenging Behaviors

  • Positive Behavioral
  • Intervention and Supports
  • Teaching Students with Autism
  • Applied Behavior and Analysis for Teachers


  • Special Education Law
  • Administration of Special Programs
  • Public School Law

Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports is a three-tiered system for changing behaviors in a school environment. The PBIS course looks at the schoolwide behavior plan, the classroom, and then we start looking at tier two and tier three, which are small group to individual behaviors.

- Dr. Kathy Boothe, SOSU Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Special Education

Each class that I had, I would find things I could implement immediately. That was the most fun of everything throughout the entire program — being able to take what I was learning in a very practical, logical way and implement it the same week that I was learning it. That was amazing to me.

- Randy Mitchell, SOSU online M.Ed. in Special Education – Administration graduate

How Is Disability Defined By Law?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity," and outlines specific legal rights and protections for people who have a disability. Special education services are specifically addressed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires that school districts provide a "free and appropriate" education to eligible students with disabilities. Federal law also stipulates that students must be protected from discrimination based on their disability while at school.

Who Qualifies for Special Education Services?

The goal of special education services is to ensure that K-12 students with disabilities receive the same quality of education as children and youth without disabilities, and that they have access to the same learning opportunities at school. They may qualify for services whether they study in a special education or general education classroom.

Students with exceptional learning needs (ELN), may experience a range of disability-related challenges at school, both in the classroom and in other learning environments. Accommodations, technology, adjustments to schedules and teaching methods, and other educational interventions can help meet these needs. Students with disabilities who do not need specialized instruction may still require a range of special education services that support learning.

The Department of Education notes that students with hidden disabilities — defined as "intellectual or physical impairments not readily apparent to others"— are sometimes overlooked as candidates for special education services or accommodation under the law. This often happens when the disability in question is improperly diagnosed or documented. National disability coalition Understood points out that students with learning disabilities often fail to receive timely assessment or services for this reason.

Our students who are teachers and administrators need to have a well-rounded view of special education. I tell my students that they have to be able to defend what they do … they need to be able to back it with some type of research and ensure that they are doing what is best for their students. You can only do that with more knowledge and as a lifelong learner. Their job is to advocate.

- Dr. Kathy Boothe, SOSU Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Special Education

Don't All Students in SPED Receive the Same Services?

Not necessarily. While all services must align with federal law, there are many factors that influence the type of instruction that each child in special education receives. The core guiding principle is that services must be planned and tailored according to the needs of the individual student.

State legislatures also decide how best to meet federal special education standards and give direction to the education agency responsible for providing guidance to local school districts. This is one reason coursework focused on disability regulations and case law is essential for district and campus administrators.

SOSU's online M.Ed. in Special Education – Administration includes courses that address executive, legislative and judicial action on special education, as well as its impact on public school governance. Classes give principals and program directors the information they need to oversee services for students with exceptionalities. They can also benefit teachers ready to move into an administrative career.

Does a Master's in Special Education Qualify Me for a Teaching Certificate?

No. Certification is a separate process. If you're new to education and wondering how to become a teacher in special ed, the first step is to check your state regulations. Common requirements are a bachelor's in education from an accredited degree program, a passing score on state certification tests, and a comprehensive background screening. There may also be other standards set by your state education agency.

If you have a different bachelor's degree, you may be eligible to complete an alternative teacher certification program in your state. Oklahoma's unique Non-Traditional Route to Special Education Certification gives new educators the chance to teach on a provisional one-year certificate while also studying for their master's degree. This allows career changers who are passionate about special education to transition to the classroom with more advanced training than a regular alternative certification program might provide. The program also helps children with disabilities and their families by increasing Oklahoma's capacity to provide special education services.

At SOSU, you can pair this nontraditional certification with the online M.Ed. in Special Education –Challenging Behaviors and get a fast start on your new career. This program can help you meet professional standards more quickly, and have a positive impact in the lives of children with disabilities right away.

Learn more about our online M.Ed. programs!

Where Can I Find Special Education Licensure Requirements for My State?

To learn more about special education teacher certification and licensure requirements in your area of the country, contact your state teacher credentialing agency. The Department of Education's handy state contacts map is a good place to start.

Will a Special Ed Master's Degree Qualify Me for a License Endorsement or Enhancement?

It depends on your state's licensure framework. Most certified teachers must meet state SPED examination requirements for their subject area, or for working with specific populations of exceptional learners.

For example, teaching certificate enhancements are available to Oklahoma educators who meet special education testing requirements for working with student populations who experience the following disabilities:

Many other states offer their own version of these general license enhancements or a set of specific endorsements covering a similar body of knowledge. In some states, SPED teachers can also test for endorsements in American Sign Language (ASL), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or other specific disability-related categories.

Do Special Ed Certifications and Endorsements Transfer to Other States?

It depends on the state. Some offer full license reciprocity, meaning your credentials in your home state will seamlessly transfer to your new location. Others have a specific process qualified teachers must follow to continue working in special education after they relocate. Check with the designated teacher credentialing agency in your new state for the most up-to-date information on current standards.

What Are the Admissions Requirements for Special Ed Master's Programs?

Admission requirements for special education degrees will vary by master's program. Some admit only certified teachers or other experienced educators, others seek a broad range of applicants working both inside and outside of education. As you evaluate and compare prospective programs in special education, start by checking the application guidelines for two key requirements:

  • Undergraduate degree. Programs focused on certified educators will usually ask for a bachelor of education from an accredited school or program, as will many SPED master's programs in general. If your bachelor's is in a different academic discipline, programs open to non-educators are probably a better fit.
  • Minimum GPA. Verify whether the program considers your cumulative undergraduate GPA, the last 60 hours of the degree, or a different measure for meeting this requirement. If it looks like your GPA will not make the cut, check your options for conditional admission as well.

Once you've decided where to apply, you'll submit official transcripts from each college or university you've attended, and any other items the program requires. Some common requests include an essay or statement of purpose, district service records, reference letters, or a professional resume.

SOSU's admission process is streamlined for applicants with a bachelor's degree (in any discipline) from a regionally accredited university. Visit the online Master of Education in Special Education – Administration program and Master of Education in Special Education – Challenging Behaviors program for additional information.

Is the GRE or MAT Required?

It depends on your school. The GRE and MAT are the most common exams required for graduate admissions in education, so if you haven't taken either, you may need to before you can apply to certain special education master's programs. This also applies if you took one of the exams, but your scores are more than five years old. Check with the schools you're interested in for further guidance.

No GRE or MAT scores are required for admission to SOSU's online M.Ed. in Special Education programs.

I have had the pleasure of attending other schools locally in the North Texas Region and out in West Texas as well, so I'm familiar with a lot of different colleges and what they offer and don't offer. When I went in and started really painstakingly paying attention to what the qualifications were for the schools and what that could offer me, Southeastern, which was not initially even on my radar, proved very quickly to be exactly where I needed to be.

- Randy Mitchell, SOSU online M.Ed. in Special Education – Administration graduate

What's the Difference Between Accredited and Unaccredited Master's Programs?

Unaccredited degree programs do not undergo regular review by independent accrediting authorities in higher education, so there is no guarantee the degrees they offer meet the highest quality standards or deliver the right preparation for a career. This is one reason master's students attending unaccredited schools cannot participate in federal or state financial aid programs.

The accreditation process is rigorous and multifaceted, whether it is conducted at the program or university level. Reviewers commonly look at professor qualifications, curriculum and teaching methods, graduation rates, certification test scores, and more. They also assess the program or institution's financial solvency, financial aid structure, and other areas of operations that may impact students earning the degree.

Southeastern Oklahoma's teacher preparation programs are accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). The university also holds regional accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).

I have recommended [Southeastern online] to a lot of people. It is a fantastic program and was a great experience.

- Kim Donnell, SOSU online M.Ed. in Special Education – Challenging Behaviors graduate

Do Most Jobs in Special Education Require an Accredited Degree?

Almost all jobs in special education that require a degree feature the same stipulation: it must come from an accredited school or program. This is the universal standard for public schools systems and government agencies, as well as most nonprofits hiring master's graduates in special education. Other employers may have different policies, but with an unaccredited degree your job options are simply more limited.

Are There Other Reasons to Choose an Accredited School?

Yes, and one of the best is to protect your investment in an education. Accreditation is more than just a stamp of approval for schools and their degree programs. It's also intended to be a safeguard against fraud. The Federal Trade Commission argues that accreditation is one of the most important things students should look for in an online degree, to avoid unaccredited diploma mills and other colleges that can't deliver on their promises to students.

What Is the Career Outlook for Special Education Master's Graduates?

There are many rewarding careers paths in special education. The outlook is especially bright for instructors, administrators, and others with an advanced degree in this specialization area.

Annual reporting compiled by the Department of Education continues to show significant demand for qualified teachers in particular. In 2023, for example, every state in America experienced special education teacher shortages. The majority of U.S. counties had shortages at almost all grade levels.

Administrators who understand special education law and compliance are also in great demand, especially those that can ensure IEP and 504 plans are in place, oversee SPED curriculum and assessment, and create programs that support children and youth with disabilities.

Learn more about our online M.Ed. programs!

Can Certified Teachers and Administrators Earn More with a Master's Degree?

Yes, many teachers and administrators do see a salary bump after completing their master's degree. Having an M.Ed. with the administrative or behavioral SPED specialization could make you eligible for a higher pay grade, more teaching credit or a stipend paid out over a period of time. A master's degree may also lead to a promotion or better-paying job opportunities across the balance of your career.

Individual state and district compensation policies can vary, of course, so check with school districts directly for additional information.

I started off as a special education teacher. When [my supervisors] caught wind that I was pursuing my master's, I moved up to an ARD facilitator. And then when I completed my degree … I was allowed into the diagnostician program.

- Randy Mitchell, SOSU online M.Ed. in Special Education – Administration graduate

Do Districts Offer Signing Bonuses for Special Ed Certification?

Many school districts do offer some form of financial incentive to attract qualified special ed teachers, on top of the base salary provided. More states are also working to address teacher shortages through legislative action, creating targeted incentives for teachers in special education and other areas of significant need.

Are There Jobs In Special Ed Other Than Classroom Teaching or School Administration?

Yes. The knowledge you'll gain in a special education M.Ed. program can apply to many different jobs in this growing field. Government agencies and nonprofits recruit M.Ed. graduates for a variety of roles, for example. You could run programs benefiting students and their families, write grants to raise money for local education programs, or concentrate on the big picture when it comes to SPED policy and advocacy.

There are also plenty of opportunities on school campuses and at the district level. You might coordinate services and support for students with disabilities, oversee accessibility in school facilities, or administer behavior or transition planning programs for special ed students.

Spotlight: Special Education Planning

Proactive education planning can help children and youth with disabilities succeed in any instructional environment. This essential process is a collaboration between students and their school, and also involves parents or caregivers. Jobs with responsibility for special education planning may include teachers, ARD or IEP coordinators, behavioral or instructional specialists, assistive technology specialists, educational diagnosticians, and others involved in helping each student achieve their goals.

Education plans are tailored to each student's needs, so they may focus on anything from curriculum and teaching methods to removing physical or instructional barriers to learning. A well-designed and executed plan can help students get the most out of their school experience, and even aid them in making the transition to college, a career, or independent living after graduation.

A master's degree in special education can give you the skills and insight needed to create effective Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 plans. Here's a quick snapshot that highlights the difference:

Plan Criteria IEP (Authorized by the IDEA) 504 (Authorized by the ADA)
Purpose Provides special education services and supports for students with disabilities that are tailored to their learning needs. Provides accommodation and support to students with disabilities that do not require special education services.
Eligibility A qualifying disability that falls into at least one of the 13 IDEA categories and impacts the student's educational performance or learning ability. A qualifying disability under the ADA that impacts the student's ability to learn in a general educational setting that includes students without disabilities.
Update and review periods Yearly IEP review required. Student eligibility is recertified every three years. Participation not required. Consent still required prior to student evaluation for 504 eligibility.
Content requirements Plan must include student learning goals and specific special education services to be provided by the school. The student's IEP team must attend the meeting convened to create or renew the plan. The final plan must be documented in writing. Plan must include specific accommodations or other services/supports the school will provide the student. School personnel overseeing the plan, and responsible for each element, must be named. The student and 504 team may agree to the plan without putting it in writing.
Post-graduation transition plan required Yes. Transition planning must be included in the IEP and completed by the time the student turns 16 (earlier in some states). No. If a district does not cover transition under 504 plans, students may be referred to a state or nonprofit agency for assistance instead.

Source: Understood, 2023

Comprehensive education planning helps ensure that each student receives the same educational opportunities as their classmates who do not have a disability, regardless of how they study.

How Much Does a Master's in Special Education Cost?

Special education graduate programs can vary in price, from less than $10,000 to more than $30,000 for a master's degree at a public college or university. Some private schools and for-profit colleges can be even more expensive.

Before applying, it's important to do your research. Even if the per-credit tuition rate seems low, student fees and other mandatory charges may also contribute to the final cost. Check your prospective college or university's residency policy as well, because your location could also determine what you'll pay.

Some of the most affordable online master's programs in special ed offer a great education at a reasonable cost. Students in SOSU's M.Ed. in Special Education – Administration online and M.Ed. in Special Education – Challenging Behaviors online programs pay the same low tuition rate of $276 per credit hour regardless of their residency status, and a total of $8160 for the degree including fees.

The price was really good. The coordinator for the special education department, Dr. Kathy Boothe, is amazing. After that first course, I knew I could do it and that [SOSU] was going to be the place for me.

- Kim Donnell, SOSU online M.Ed. in Special Education – Challenging Behaviors graduate

Can I Get Financial Aid for an Online Master's Degree?

Whether you earn your degree online or on campus, if your school is accredited you should be able to apply for federal and state financial aid. Your eligibility for grants, scholarships and loans from those sources will be assessed based on the information you submit in your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Schools consider income, family size, the cost of your degree program (including housing and textbooks), and other factors to determine the amount of aid you may receive.

Can I Use My Military Education Benefits for an Online Master's Degree?

Yes, as long as your degree program or school is accredited. You must follow Department of Defense guidelines and your branch of the service must certify your benefits as well, but most schools have a veterans service office that can help with that process. The registrar's office at SOSU provides a variety of services for active-duty military members and veterans and routinely works with the Department of Veterans Affairs to certify GI Bill benefits and other types of education funding.

Can I Get Help Transferring Military Education Benefits to My Spouse or Kids?

If you'd like to transfer Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits to someone in your family, your school's veterans affairs office can help. Services at SOSU include support for beneficiaries of the VA's survivors and dependents assistance program as well. Contact [email protected] to learn more.

How Long Does It Take to Complete a Master's in Special Education Online?

On average, a master's in special ed takes two or three years to complete. However, there are many variables that can affect your time to degree. The number of hours and courses required are the most important factors, since programs can differ significantly in that department. Whether you attend full or part time, or take classes year round, can also impact your progress.

Online master's programs in special education are often designed to help students meet degree requirements faster, and some can be completed in less than two years. Most feature accelerated classes lasting five to eight weeks, and more course start dates than traditional semester-based programs on campus.

Southeastern Oklahoma State's online M.Ed. programs in Special Education – Challenging Behaviors and Special Education – Administration each require 30 hours of coursework and can be completed in as few as 12 months by taking two courses at a time during each seven-week term.

How Do Teachers Make Time for a Master's Degree?

Some teachers devote nights or weekends to studying in an on-campus master's program, but for many the time commitment required for that option is unrealistic, or it feels overwhelming. Online M.Ed. programs in special education have become a popular pathway for those who need to earn their degree without disrupting their routine or losing significant time with family and friends.

Online course modules are structured with busy professionals in mind, with weekly deadlines and assignments that often focus on research or project-based work. This helps teachers plan their study time around other responsibilities and offers the flexibility they may need to fit a graduate degree into their schedule.

These and other conveniences of online study make a master's in special education possible for many teachers and may help you find the right balance to earn your degree.

I kept a checklist right beside my desk because I was doing multiple classes at a time to complete the program in one year. As long as I kept it organized and checked it off as I went along, I was good. It was a great master's degree program.

- Kim Donnell, SOSU online M.Ed. in Special Education – Challenging Behaviors graduate

Can I Attend Part Time or Take a Break If I Need To?

It depends on your program's policies, but in most cases, you can do both. Many special education master's programs and professors understand that working teachers have a full plate already, and their ability to take classes can sometime depend on district calendars, testing schedules, and other variables. Financial aid recipients must attend at least half time during any semester they'll be using those funds however, including federal and state loans, grants, or scholarships.

If you find you need to pause your master's studies altogether due to work, health, or family considerations, it can sometimes be easier to do so in an online program than one based on campus. Flexibility is one of the core benefits of online learning after all, so it's more common for students to move at their own pace. At SOSU, it's easy to pick up where you left off. Courses in the online M.Ed. in Special Education – Administration and online M.Ed. in Special Education – Challenging Behaviors programs start six times a year, so you'll never have to wait long to get back to your degree.

How Can I Tell If Online Courses Are Right for Me?

If you thrive in a process- and results-oriented atmosphere where you can work independently, online courses may be a great fit. Self-discipline is required to stay on track, and students do take on more responsibility for checking in with professors and motivating themselves to meet deadlines. But in exchange, you have the freedom to focus exclusively on what you're learning, rather than on making the work-to-campus commute. You'll also get to meet and work with educators from other districts, and even other states, without ever leaving home.

How Do Online Graduate Courses Work? Will I Have to Log In Every Day?

They work in much the same way courses do on campus. When you first log in, you'll find the syllabus there, detailing the schedule, assignments, and the professor's policies. You'll also do some reading, take tests, and turn in your completed papers and projects online. A key difference is that your work will be organized around weekly deadlines instead of class meetings. You'll interact with classmates online as well, and regular conversation with professors can help you stay on track.

It's a good idea to log into your course regularly, but the amount of time you spend there is ultimately up to you. Just remember that it's important to stay on top of deadlines, as well as updates from your professor. Once you get a feel for the course requirements, and start working in it online, you'll have a better idea of how to manage your time there.

How Will I Work With My Professors?

In addition to viewing lectures on video and asking questions in email, you can interact with professors through discussion boards and meet via video chat. Some instructors also work with online students by phone or check text.

Students in Southeastern Oklahoma State's online special education master's programs can also join in group discussions with their professors that happen in real time. While attendance isn't required, many students enjoy having a virtual gathering spot where they can hear guest lecturers, talk about assignments or share their experiences. These online sessions are also recorded so that participants can view them later, as can students who don't attend.

We hold virtual meetings every week, and most of the students enjoy those because they get that personal attention, that personal touch from their instructors.

- Dr. Kathy Boothe, SOSU Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Special Education

I had such a great experience with all of the professors. Any time I emailed them, I always got a response back immediately. I also got an opportunity to write with Dr. Boothe. We got a couple of papers published.

- Kim Donnell, SOSU online M.Ed. in Special Education – Challenging Behaviors graduate

Do Online Master's Students Ever Study or Work Together?

Yes. Collaboration is essential to providing effective SPED services, especially for education planning, addressing behavior challenges, and coordinating student supports. Special ed master's programs encourage students to hone their teamwork and cooperation skills by completing projects with classmates or forming study groups, and this is also the case in online master's courses.

The online format may actually make working together easier, because there's no need to meet in person to get things accomplished. Study sessions can happen wherever you are, even if you live in Tulsa and your collaborators are in Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, and San Antonio. Simply pick your virtual meeting platform, share any pertinent documents or slides with each other, and you're ready to go.

Will My Computer Work for Online Courses?

Most online master's programs provide technology guidelines for students, which you can compare with your laptop or desktop computer to assess the situation. Your browser or operating system may need updating, or you might just need a few software upgrades or the latest version of apps you will use regularly. You can also add a tablet or another device to the mix to help bridge any technology gaps.

The goal is that your courses run smoothly when you access them, whatever technology setup you have. Many education deals and discounts are available to students who want to invest in a new computer or tablet too, if you feel that a fresh start will be the best option.

The Center for Instructional Development and Technology at SOSU provides a number of student resources that can help you determine whether your current setup will work for online courses at the university. In addition to system requirements for computers, you'll also find Android and iOS guidelines for mobile devices.

Do Online Master's Programs Hold Graduation Ceremonies?

Yes, many do. If participating in graduation is important to you, just be sure to check with prospective programs to make sure they offer that option. Southeastern Oklahoma State University regularly welcomes new graduates of its online M.Ed. in Special Education programs to campus for this important ceremony to receive their diploma in person.

[At graduation] I was able to shake hands with these people I had only met online. These professors and students who were in the class — these were real people! They were the same in person as they were in my online classes. The program is very honest and very real.

- Randy Mitchell, SOSU online M.Ed. in Special Education – Administration graduate

Learn more about our online M.Ed. programs!

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