Is a Special Education Degree Worth It?

special education

Key Takeaways

  • Special education degrees offer a pathway to a high-demand career focused on making a difference in students’ lives.
  • The level of special education degree pursued can significantly affect career opportunities and potential income.
  • Despite the cost of education, the field of special education provides emotional rewards and societal benefits that can outweigh financial considerations.

    Understanding Special Education and Its Importance

    The days of isolating and stigmatizing children with special needs are long gone. Schools now recognize the value of educating students with special needs. They are part of society; they deserve the same opportunities to learn and grow as any other child.

    Special education helps kids with mental delays and physical disabilities learn better with a specialized learning approach. However, this doesn’t mean these kids are restricted to only special classrooms. The law requires that special education students learn as much as possible with other kids.

    There’s no “one size fits all” approach to special education; each student gets different kinds of help depending on their needs. For example, some spend most of their day in a regular class, while others spend a little time in a special room with a teacher who knows about their needs. Some might even go to a different school that’s good at helping kids with specific disabilities.

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    The main goals of special education teachers are to:

    1. Help special needs students overcome academic challenges.

    Keeping up with the class can be hard, especially for students with special needs. But with special education tutoring, students can review tough material again, learn new ways to understand it, and prepare for harder topics. Instead of falling behind, they can catch up by getting extra help after school or at the end of the week.

    1. Build their confidence.

    Special education teachers are trained to create a supportive environment. They help students feel valued and safe to express themselves. Their specialized approach helps students develop a sense of pride in their abilities.

    1. Prioritize social and emotional development.

    Special ed teachers focus on teaching important life skills such as self-advocacy, communication, and problem-solving. These elements will help students navigate the challenges they may face both inside and outside the classroom.

    It’s a common misconception that special education programs are expensive. This is why many parents refrain from sending their special needs children to school. While this is partially true, there’s a plan called an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

    IEP provides extra help to special students without their families having to pay. Teachers who know about their needs work with them. Families are also part of the team that decides what’s best for the kids at school.

    Degree Levels in Special Education: An Overview

    Special education is a very rewarding field. But to have a career in this industry, you must earn a degree.

    Associate Degree in Special Education  

    Associate degree programs in special education are great career starters. Full-time students typically take two years to complete a 60-credit hour program. Curriculum requirements usually include:

    • Foundations in Education
    • Introduction to Special Education
    • Speech Communication
    • Educational Psychology

    Graduates of an associate degree usually transfer into a four-year degree to be able to pursue teaching positions. Always consider community colleges with transfer/articulation agreements. This agreement ensures that a four-year institution will acknowledge your associate credits.


    • Associate degrees are quick
    • They are very affordable
    • They can be completed online


    • Graduates are limited to teaching assistant positions

    Bachelor’s Degree in Special Education  

    Bachelor’s degree programs often require students to complete 120 credit hours of coursework. These programs usually have a four-year timeline. However, students with transfer credits from their associate degrees often graduate in two years or less.

    This level is focused on offering a comprehensive curriculum that delves into both general and specialized education principles. Among the most common courses include:

    • Assessment and Evaluation in Special Education
    • Behavior Management Techniques
    • Differentiated Instruction
    • Inclusive Classroom Practices
    • Atypical Language Development
    • Special Education Law and Policy
    • Technologies for Assisted Learning

    Bachelor’s programs in special education also require supervised field experiences. This opportunity allows students to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world settings. These field experiences involve the following:

    • working directly with students who have special needs
    • collaborating with educators and support staff
    • observing various teaching strategies in action


    • Qualifies graduates for teaching positions in special education settings
    • Offers practical, hands-on experiences
    • Opens doors to further education or career advancement
    • Can be completed online


    • Requires a significant time commitment
    • Higher tuition costs compared to associate degree programs
    • May require certification or licensure depending on state requirements

    Master’s Degree in Special Education 

    Master’s degrees are two-year programs beyond the bachelor’s, which usually require 32-35 credit hours. Common courses include:

    • Research Methods in Special Education
    • Behavior Analysis in Special Education
    • Advanced Studies in Special Education Law and Policy

    Students must also complete a practicum. On the other hand, some programs may also require a capstone project or thesis. These elements ensure readiness for leadership roles and terminal degree programs.


    • Provides advanced skills in the specialized areas of special education
    • Opportunities for research and publication in the field
    • May lead to higher salaries or leadership positions
    • Can be completed online


    • Requires a significant investment of financial resources
    • Requires intensive coursework and research

    Doctorate in Special Education 

    Doctorates are terminal degrees. They’re designed for students who want to pursue research positions. It’s also a requirement for professionals who want to influence educational policies. These programs usually last five to seven years. It involves the following:

    • rigorous coursework
    • comprehensive examinations
    • completion of a doctoral dissertation


    • Provides ways to make significant contributions to the field
    • Enhances credibility and recognition within the profession


    • Must be completed on campus
    • Requires a substantial time commitment
    • Are very expensive
    • Highly competitive admissions

    You may wonder, “Is an online special education worth it?” Generally, yes! In fact, a lot of aspiring special education professionals are taking their degrees online. Online special education degrees offer several benefits, including:

    • Accessibility
    • Flexibility
    • Affordability 

    But to ensure a high-quality online learning experience, you must consider these factors: 

    1. Ensure that the program and institution are properly accredited.
    2. Faculty members should have relevant experience in special education.
    3. The department should offer comprehensive student support services.
    4. The online program must incorporate practical experiences.

    Career Prospects for Special Education Graduates

    Special education is one of the most diverse programs today. It equips you with skills that can be used within and outside special education classrooms. Your expertise can also be used to create a more organized and functioning regular classroom.

    The specific special education teacher salary and career opportunities will vary based on your educational level and expertise. Here are some of the most common special education careers you can pursue, along with the minimum educational requirement:

    RoleMinimum RequirementsJob Growth
    Annual Job OpeningsAverage Annual Salary
    Teacher AssistantsAssociate degree1%151,000$35,550
    Kindergarten and Elementary Teachers– Bachelor degree
    – State licensure (for public school positions)
    High School Teachers– Bachelor degree
    – Subject-specific state licensure/certification (for public school positions)
    Special Education Teachers– Bachelor’s degree; some may require a master’s degree
    – Licensing or certification in special education
    Curriculum Policy Specialist– Master degree
    – Licensing or certification
    University Teacher or Researcher– Doctorate 
    – Licensing or certification

    The highest-paying roles within the field require advanced degrees and specialized certifications. You must continue advancing your skills and knowledge to compete for higher positions.

    Pursuing advanced degrees is the most suggested way to enhance abilities and credibility. However, they can get very expensive, and not everyone can afford them. Another route is pursuing special education certification programs.

    One of the advantages of certifications is their accessibility. Many of these certifications only require a bachelor’s degree, making them a more affordable and feasible option for career advancement.

    Specialized certifications demonstrate your commitment to ongoing professional development. It also helps you gain mastery of specific skills or knowledge areas. Here are the most popular certifications within the field that’ll help you enhance your career opportunities:

    • Autism Certificate (AC)
      • International Board of Credentialing & Continuing Education Standards
    • Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)
      • Behavior Analyst Certification Board
    • Certified Autism Specialist (CAS)
      • International Board of Credentialing & Continuing Education Standards
    • Certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis
      • Various Universities with ABA Programs
    • Certified Special Education Teacher (CSET)
      • American Academy of Special Education Professionals
    • Education Specialist Credential in Special Education
      • Various State Departments of Education or Universities
    • Wilson Reading System Certification
      • Wilson Language Training
    • Special Education Certification
      • National Association of Special Education Teachers
    • Special Education Advocate Training (SEAT) Certificate
      • Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates
    • Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages Certification with a focus on Special Education
      • TESOL International Association

    Financial Investment vs. Potential Earnings in Special Education

    According to the Education Data Initiative, the yearly averages of tuition per degree level are as follows:

    • Associate Degree: $8,220
    • Bachelor’s Degree: $36,436
    • Master’s Degree: $59,684
    • EdD Degree: $62,780

    Take note: Tuition is only a part of the overall special ed degree cost. Other costs involved include technology/campus fees, textbooks and materials, transportation, insurance, and personal and miscellaneous expenses. The average student, excluding those in associate programs, spends an additional $15,000 per year on added costs.

    With such high costs, is a college education still worth it? Yes!

    Although degrees can be quite an investment time and money-wise, they enhance your earning potential. For instance, individuals with a bachelor’s degree can opt for special education teaching roles, which typically pay 85% more than positions as teaching assistants. Moreover, the former has significantly lower unemployment rates than the latter.

    Higher positions entail more benefits like better health insurance and pension or 401(k) plan.

    Keep these tips in mind to increase your ROI:

    1. Keep student loans at bay by maximizing financial aid programs like scholarships and grants. In addition to the FAFSA, the Internet is a great source of scholarship opportunities.
    2. Consider online programs to reduce commuting and relocation expenses.
    3. Participate in internships and co-op programs. These can lead to job opportunities post-graduation. 

    Personal Fulfillment and Societal Impact of a Career in Special Education

    As you can see, special education is not the highest-paying field. However, it’s a fulfilling profession that has a big and positive impact on many families and societies. It takes genuine passion to be successful in it.

    Special education teachers play a crucial role in the academic and emotional development of students with special needs. They create lesson plans tailored to each student’s unique abilities and challenges while supporting their emotional and behavioral needs. Witnessing a student achieve a breakthrough in their learning and personal growth is a different feeling.