Early Childhood Education

Special education is one of the most challenging, and most deeply rewarding, jobs in the world. Most special education teachers choose to enter this field out of a desire to support students of all ability levels.

Teaching, however, is not the only activity special education teachers engage in. In fact, one of the most difficult parts of the job is the sometimes crushing paperwork, the meetings, and the testing and data-tracking. Interestingly, a recent NPR article reports the following breakdown of the special educator’s day:

  • Management, IEP paperwork and administrative responsibilities: 33 percent
  • Collaboration, co-teaching, assisting other teachers and meetings: 27 percent
  • Instruction, teaching students in their classroom: 27 percent
  • Diagnostic, testing and data tracking: 13 percent

There is certainly more non-teaching time than regular teaching and requires additional skills and training—this is where universities come in. They address these challenges head-on with many outstanding programs that we hope to highlight in this ranking. It is our desire that through our work, you can find yours.

If you’re exploring your options in special education as well as mainstream education, don’t miss our ranking of the Best Online Bachelor’s in Elementary Education Degrees.

Knowing the shortage of special education teachers and the high burnout rate, it is vital for our country that we train teachers with the knowledge and skills they need to excel. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Act Data Accountability Center, nearly 11 percent of the K-12 population in the U.S. is receiving special education services.

The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) has acknowledged a “chronic and severe shortage of personnel to deliver special education services.” As a result, qualified special education teachers are in higher demand than ever before.

What does a career look like for special education teachers?

Careers in special education can be deeply meaningful. Those called to teach are not in it for the money; rather, it is compassion for those less fortunate and empathy that impels someone into this career. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts average growth, however, that needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The incredible daily demands of teaching disabled children, the mountains of paperwork, and the emotional drain does lead to burn out; burn out, in turn, means there is always a need for special education teachers. The median annual wage for special education teachers is $57,910.

What is your methodology in compiling this list?

Ranking the Top 20 Online Bachelor’s in Special Education was accomplished by gathering data from the IPEDS database, courtesy of the National Center for Education Statistics, three different rankings regarding education from U.S. News and World Report, the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) Landscapes Study Ranking, and program information from school websites.

Our categories and percentages break down in the following way: Reputation (20 percent), tuition per credit (30 percent), NCTQ score (10 percent), and average salary ten years after graduation, based on PayScale (30 percent). For our descriptions of programs, we use the school’s website to find features of each program specific for those seeking to find their school of choice. Information related is if the program is entirely online or blended, faculty credentials, field experience, unique aspects of the program, licensure information, and sample coursework and credits required.

We hope this list acts as your lighthouse in the night, to help you in your search for the ideal school for you. Godspeed on your voyage!


1. East Carolina University

Established in 1907 as a teacher training school on 43 acres, East Carolina University enrolls 28,000 students and now owns over 1600 acres. Located in Greenville, North Carolina, ECU also has a Health Sciences Campus, West Research Campus, the Field Station for Coastal Studies in New Holland, and North Carolina and the Millennial Research and Innovation Campus.

State Employees Credit Union (SECU) Partnership East (PE) is an East Carolina University College of Education degree completion partnership with North Carolina community colleges. Students can complete a BS in Special Education K-12 from ECU by completing the first two years of the program at a partnering community college followed by taking ECU courses online. Features of the program follow the SPED General Curriculum track for to teach students with disabilities who are pursuing a high school diploma and are in the general education curriculum. Coursework for the program covers legal requirements, assessment for eligibility determination, instructional planning, and intervention, classroom structure and management, and technology use. Coupled with field work, ECU online classes prepare special education teachers for success.

Ranked #12 by the NCTQ for teacher preparation in special education combined with a $702 per credit tuition and an average salary ten years after graduation of $52,300 makes ECU an excellent choice.


2. Fort Hays State University

Fort Hays State University is located halfway between Kansas City and Denver in Hays, Kansas. The campus is cozy and tree-filled. The nearly 15,000 students (6500 online students) are offered 60 undergraduate and 19 graduate majors as well as outstanding online offerings through the Virtual College.

The Virtual College provides a BS in Elementary Education with a minor in Special Education K-6. The program leads to licensure in the state of Kansas and with the Special Education Endorsement you will have more earning potential and make yourself more attractive in the job market. The program is 136 credit hours and involves hands-on experience in the classroom with faculty feedback throughout the degree. The minor is 21 credits and also includes a student teaching experience. With the combination of elementary and special education, you will be more prepared to teach students from any background at any level.

Since FHSU is NCATE accredited, not only will you know you’re receiving training that meets national standards, employers will know it as well. Ranked #15 by U.S. News and World Report for Best Online Schools, FHSU knows how to educate in the 21st century. With the lowest tuition on our list at $207 per credit with the online quality that’s nationally recognized and FHSU deserves to make our list.


3. Old Dominion University

Old Dominion University is located “where the city meets the sea” in Norfolk, Virginia. Old Dominion offers 70 bachelor’s degrees, 54 master’s degrees, and 42 doctoral degrees to nearly 25,000 students and more than 100 online programs through ODUOnline. Business and research initiatives at ODU contribute nearly $2 billion annually to the economy.

ODUOnline offers a BS in Interdisciplinary Studies, Teacher Preparation with Licensure in Special Education K-12. At Old Dominion Online you will take classes online on a regular schedule and access course materials online from any location. Courses include a General Core, and special education classes like Collaboration & Transitions and Language Acquisition & Reading for Students with Diverse Learning Needs. There are 40-41 credit hours for primary content plus 42 credit hours of professional education (including student teaching). The student teaching experience can be done at local schools and takes place during the normal academic year. It is important to note; this program is designed only for those in Virginia and Washington State.

ODU’s tuition makes this degree accessible and affordable at $369 per credit. With the average salary ten years after graduation at $45,200, the ROI is excellent. Lastly, with a golden reputation for online education, recognized by U.S. News and World Report and College Choice, and Old Dominion ranks in the top five.


4. University of Georgia

The University of Georgia is the first state-chartered university in Georgia. UG is the birthplace of American public education, the 15th institution to attain sea-grant status for excellence in marine research, education and advisory services; the list goes on. The School offers hundreds of academic and extracurricular options to 36,000 total students.

The University of Georgia provides a BS in Special Education, General Curriculum; it is the only fully online BS in Education program in Georgia. The program is designed for training teachers with students of mild disability: behavior disorders, learning disabilities, mild intellectual disabilities, other health impaired, and some students with autism or Asperger’s. The BS in SPED leads to licensure in the state of Georgia. Admission to the online program requires completion of 60 transferable college credit hours, a minimum overall and cumulative GPA of 3.0, completion of all Core Areas I—VI, GACE Program Admission Assessment, and 30 observation hours.

With excellent ratings from U.S. News and World Report, #35 Best Education Schools and #59 Best Online Schools, as well as the third highest salary ten years after graduation at $65,200, the University of Georgia emerges in our top five.


5. Grand Canyon University

Grand Canyon University is a for-profit Christian research university in Phoenix, Arizona enrolling 20,000 on campus students and an impressive 60,000 online students. GCU has expanded rapidly in recent years including the construction of multiple new buildings and increasing enrollment considerably.

For those interested in teaching special needs to little children, the BS in Early Childhood and Early Childhood Special Education degree is a good choice. This program prepares students for K-3 regular classrooms and K-3 special education and for graduates who complete the 120 credit hours, they are poised to earn a licensure for both. The BS in ECE will “build your skills in classroom management and pedagogy while also learning strategies for family, community and clinical involvement in meeting the needs of exceptional children.” Student teaching includes a 16-week experience that includes eight weeks in a K-3 general classroom and eight weeks in a K-3 special education class.

At $440 per credit, GCU is one of the most affordable colleges on our list and at $85,474 average salary, the highest on our list, it is the financial aspect that propels GCU to the top of our list.


6. University of Maine

Originally opening in 1868 with 12 students and two faculty members, the University of Maine now has nearly 11,000 students, 100 majors and programs, 70 master’s, and 30 doctoral degrees. UMaine is committed to remaining relevant with their 15 Signature and Emerging Areas of Excellence, two of which are to increase STEM students and lower student debt.

The BA in Liberal Studies with a Special Education Endorsement is an interesting and creative collaborative agreement between the University of Maine at Machias (UMM) and the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA), all working with Maine’s Department of Education. The Liberal Studies portion is 121 credits, and the Special Education piece is 27 credits plus 12 credit hours of student teaching for a total of 160 credits, a robust and rigorous degree indeed. Courses to prepare you for teaching learners with disabilities include Special Education Law, Assessment in SPED, and Program Planning and Curriculum Adaptation. University College, the online school of the UMaine System, connects all online learners to expert faculty through the latest information technology.

Making up 60 percent of our criteria for this list is the tuition and average early salary, which in turn help you see the potential ROI. UMaine’s $349 per credit tuition and $50,600 average early salary is one of the best investments on our list. University College is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.


7. University of Southern Mississippi

Hattiesburg, Mississippi is the home of the University of Southern Mississippi. Founded in 1910 the University has six other campuses. USM enrolls a diverse 15,000 students representing 74 foreign countries and offers 180 programs through six degree-granting colleges. USM is a military friendly school due to a support of active-duty military, veterans, and their families.

The Department of Curriculum, Instruction and Special Education at USM offers a BS in Special Education. The degree leads to licensure and prepares individuals to teach students K-12 with mild to moderate disabilities such as mild autism, Aspergers, learning disabilities, and physical, hearing or visual impairments. Though coursework is online and taught by faculty, all students, including online students, are required to attend practicum and student teaching experiences either in the Hattiesburg or Gulf Coast area during their junior and senior years, though exceptions are possible. USM’s program for Special Education will train teachers who are highly-skilled in assessment, pedagogy, content knowledge, legal issues, technology integration, and family and community resource utilization.

Accredited by NCATE and ranked #38 by NCTQ for Undergraduate Special Education lends to the strength of the program. The $339 cost per credit adds affordability to the reasons by USM belongs in the top 10.


8. City University of Seattle

City University dual major in Seattle, Washington. CityU is a non-profit, private, and global university offering online and onsite education throughout the world to 6,400 students, 30 percent of which are online. The University offers 60 degrees and is regionally accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU).

Designed for teachers who are certified, though it can be added to bachelor’s for initial certification, is the Special Education Endorsement at CityU. The delivery is hybrid and utilizes some face-to-face learning as well as online. The 24-credit endorsement includes the knowledge and skills necessary for teaching K-12 special needs. Outcomes include students who know special education law, assessment and evaluation tools, inclusion and specialist paradigms, Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and teacher and community collaboration. Worth noting is that 94 percent of alumni of the program stated that faculty was experienced in the field, and 91 percent saying what they learned was directly relevant for reaching their professional goals.

With an excellent reputation score, based on CityU’s #45 ranking by U.S. News and World Report for Best Online School, you can know CityU is dependable. With their excellent ROI based on the affordable $340 per credit tuition and the $45,100 average early salary, you can know you’re making a wise financial decision.


9. Mayville State University

Located on 300 urban acres in the iconic Old Maine gracing the grounds is Mayville State University. The School was founded in 1889 as a normal school and is located in Mayville, North Dakota. Interestingly, MSU was the first university in the nation to become a tablet PC campus. Every student and faculty member on campus uses a tablet PC. MSU has 1,100 students and has a student to faculty ration of 13 to 1.

MSU offers a BS in Special Education online and hybrid leading to licensure. There are two options at MSU: BS in Special Education for currently licensed teachers who want a licensure in special education, which is entirely online; and the dual-major BS in Early Childhood, Elementary, or Secondary and Special Education which is generally in a hybrid format. It is worth noting that students at other North Dakota University System institutions or other universities can pursue the special education major entirely online while completing their early childhood education, elementary education, or secondary education majors on another campus.

MSU’s tuition of $365 per credit with their average salary ten years after graduation at $67407, the ROI is one of the best of our top 20. The School is NCATE accredited as well as accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).


10. The University of Hawaii at Manoa

Located in Mānoa, an affluent neighborhood of Honolulu, the University of Hawaii is the flagship school in the University of Hawaiʻi system. UH, Mānoa is known for its pioneering research in such fields as oceanography, astronomy, cancer research, and genetics. The School has 18 colleges and schools offering 20,000 students about 230 degree programs.

At UH there are two online/hybrid special education options offered through the Institute for Teacher Education. The BEd Blended; Early Childhood & SPED and the BEd Exceptional Students and Elementary Education (ESEE). The BEd Blended program is a dual-certification offered mostly online with some face-to-face classes required each semester during the weekend. When students complete the requirements, they will have two licenses and be able to teach PK-3 students with and without disabilities. The ESEE program leads to licensure for K-6 and “incorporates the principles of Culturally Responsive Teaching, Co-Teaching, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Response to Intervention (RtI), instructional technology, Evidence-Based Practices, and Data-Based Decision Making into every aspect of the curriculum.”

Tuition at UH is $453 per credit making it affordable, and knowing that the average salary ten years after graduation is $44,500 makes the ROI well worth it. U.S. News and World Report ranked UH #69 for Best Education Schools, and the program is NCATE accredited.


11. Liberty University

Liberty University was founded in 1971 as Lynchburg Baptist College by Jerry Falwell. Since then, the School has seen incredible growth. Today it is the largest Christian University in the world with a total enrollment of 110,000, with 94,000 enrolling online.

Through a distinctly Christian Worldview, Liberty U offers a BS in Special Education, Interdisciplinary Studies. The degree does not lead to licensure outright, but a 5th year MAT option can be added to do so. The degree is meant to provide a foundation for licensure through graduate school or to be used on its own for teaching at private schools, homes, or churches. The Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) recognizes the BS in Education for an ACSI Certificate, something many private Christian schools are looking for. The degree at Liberty is 120 total hours and does not require a practicum experience, though it does recommend it. With potential credits being covered for previous work and life experience, Liberty could be the perfect path for you to become a teacher.

To choose Liberty is to choose an intentional Christian perspective for sure, but it also makes sound financial sense; the tuition is $390 per credit, and the ROI, with an average early salary of $53,600, is desirable. Liberty is NCATE accredited.


12. Western Governors University

Western Governors University, a nonprofit university founded in 1997 by 19 U.S. governors. It is located in Salt Lake City, Utah. The primary goal of WGU is to serve working adults by using the growing digital world to make education easily accessible. The University serves nearly 79,000 students.

The Bachelor of Arts in Special Education K-12 requires 137 credits for completion and can be completed entirely online. WGU makes it easy to transfer in credits, and if you have previously earned credits, the program will take as little as two years. Students should plan on coursework taking approximately 20 hours per week. The pace and schedule depend on the individual. Twice a year, during the fall and spring, there is a demonstration teaching and the cohort seminar that require attendance on-campus. Every student benefits from a personal mentor giving guidance and help along the journey through the University’s competency-based model of education.

With the second lowest tuition on the list at $240 per credit and a $49,910 average salary, the ROI is fantastic. You can also take confidence in the quality and credibility of the program as WGU is the first exclusively online university to receive NCATE accreditation for its degree programs that lead to teacher licensure and is also recognized by the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC).


13. University of Wisconsin-Stout

Located in Menomonie, Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin-Stout enrolls 9,600 students. As Wisconsin’s “Polytechnic Institution” UW-Stout has a focus on professional careers in industry, technology, home economics, applied art, and the helping professions.

The BS in Special Education is an online, degree completion program designed for working adults. The program prepares you to teach K-12 students with mild to moderate disabilities with emotional, cognitive, and physical impairments. Knowledge and skills to adapt lessons to individuals, assess the needs of each student, work with families and community organizations, and techniques for explicitly teaching special-needs students. There are practical field experiences required early and often, since this degree is entirely online, UW-Stout works with local schools for placement.

A critical area in helping you decide where to begin your new job as a special education teacher is finances and the program’s quality. At UW-Stout the program is NCATE accredited, thus giving confidence to you and your future employer. Also encouraging is the average early salary of $47,600 making the $571 cost per credit pay off in the long-term.


14. Midway University

Situated on 200 acres of a working farm in Midway, Kentucky with a total enrollment of 1200 students (950 undergraduates) is Midway University. The University is divided into three schools: Arts & Sciences, Business, Equine & Sports Studies, and Health Sciences. Study abroad, service-learning abroad, and equine-study abroad programs are also available at MU.

At Midway, online education programs are offered in multiple areas of education; for special education, you choose a major, elementary, middle or secondary education (P-5, 5-9, P-5/5-9 or 9-12), and add the Learning and Behavior Disorders endorsement. The program is 21 credits and complements the professional education coursework in any of the bachelor’s programs mentioned. Coursework includes Characteristics of Children and Youth w/Learning Behavior Disorders, Instructional Technology, Materials and Community Resources for Children and Youth w/LBD, and Children and Youth with Exceptionalities in Regular Education to name a few. The endorsement is a perfect fit for those seeking to teach special education for mild to moderate learning disabilities. The flexible and convenient online option starts throughout the year in August, October, January, March, and May. The degree may require some on-campus visits, and we suggest checking with the school’s academic advisor or program director for specifics.

Midway is regionally accredited by Kentucky Educational and Professional Standards Board (EPSB) and ranked #44 by the NCTQ. The School could be a perfect fit for you if you’re looking for a small school and are looking to work with mild to moderately disabled students in a regular classroom. Tuition is $415, and the average early salary is $40,000.


15. Stephen F. Austin State University

Located in Nacogdoches, Texas, Stephen F. Austin State University offers 83 undergraduate, 50 graduate degrees, and three doctoral degrees to 13,000 students. SFA began as a teachers’ college in 1923 and is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

If you are an instructional aide or paraprofessional working in Texas seeking to advance in your career, SFA’s online degree may be the perfect fit. The BS in Interdisciplinary Studies (BSIS) with a concentration in special education and EC-12 special education teacher certification is for individuals who have completed at least 45 hours at community colleges to transfer to SFASU and complete their degree online. Modeled after SFU’s award-winning online education format, students can continue their work in the classroom and do all coursework online. The degree does include a semester student teaching experience. Something else to note is that at SFA the student to faculty ratio is excellent and will allow you to be trained directly by highly-qualified faculty. The TEACH Grant also offers scholarships specifically for those seeking initial licensure in special education.

Recognized by the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), SFU’s BSIS with SPED concentration will prepare you with the knowledge and skills necessary to work with students, fellow teachers, the community, and families. Tuition is $458 and average early salary is $40,700.


16. St. Petersburg College

St. Petersburg College is located in Pinellas County, Florida and is part of the Florida College System; SPC has eleven campuses and centers, offering 65,000 students more than 100 bachelor’s, masters and doctoral degrees. Since SPC is a “state college” many students are part-time (72 percent), and the average age is 28.

The BS in Exceptional Student Education (ESE) prepares you to teach students with mild to moderate disabilities in grades K-12 with the bonus of earning an ESOL endorsement as well. The online/blended, part-time or full-time program features general education coursework with a professional core followed by 34 credits specifically designed for the Exceptional Student portion. To add the ESOL endorsement, something that significantly increases your marketability, you would take six credits and do a capstone project. The BS in ESE does include a 15-week student teaching experience as well. Advantages of an SPC degree are small class sizes with faculty that is available, accessible and professional, a flexible format, and an exemption from the 300-hour ESOL Pinellas County training requirement.

SPC is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS-COC), and the College of Education is accredited by the Florida Department of Education. Tuition is affordable at $425 per credit, and the average early salary is attractive and a good ROI at $41,800.


17. Notre Dame College

Located 25 miles from the heart of Cleveland, Ohio, Notre Dame College calls the city of South Euclid home. The College offers 30 undergraduate degrees along with a variety of master’s degrees, certification programs, and continuing and professional development programs for adult learners both on campus and online. There are around 2100 students, 1200 are full-time students.

There are two Bachelor of Arts in Education licensure tracks available for online students at Notre Dame College. One track is known as the Mild to Moderate Intervention Specialist (MMIS) K-12 which prepares special education teachers to meet the educational needs of K-12 students in inclusion, resource and intervention classrooms. Students will meet the Ohio Standards for Teaching Profession. This online program is accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the classes are taught by full-time faculty.

Tuition is affordable at $450 per credit hour, and graduates earn an average early salary of $40,497. Although it is not ranked by the NCTQ or U. S. News and World Report, this is a fully accredited program at an affordable cost, good ROI, and is worth consideration.


18. St. Mary of the Woods College

Founded in 1840 by Saint Mother Theodore Guerin and the Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC) expanded to include men in all programs in 2015. Today it offers a rich liberal arts education in the Catholic tradition. The college offers 25 majors; students will benefit from the 8:1 student to faculty ratio. There are approximately 670 students who attend SMWC.

Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and the NCATE, SMWC offers baccalaureate degree programs that prepare teacher candidates to obtain an Indiana initial teaching license. Applicants must follow the Indiana teacher licensing structure REPA (Revisions for Educator Preparation and Accountability). The Special Education, Preschool—Grade 12 degree requires 118 credit hours. The college also offers the opportunity to choose from different minors, including Exceptional Needs: Mild Intervention. There are several paths to licensure, and SMWC provides faculty to help students map out the best course for their situation.

Affordability makes this degree from Saint-Mary-of-the-Woods College one of the best, and at only $469 per credit hour, students won’t lose out. The School is also recognized by U. S. News and World Report as #18 in Regional Colleges in the Midwest.


19. Fontbonne University

Founded as a women’s college in 1923, Fontbonne University is now a co-educational, liberal arts Catholic school of 1500 students. Located in Clayton, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, the School offers 42 majors, 35 minors, and 17 graduate programs based on the values of the Congregation of St. Joseph.

Paraprofessional Pathways (PP) is Fontbonne’s program for instructional aides and teacher assistants to attain teacher certification. Students who complete the PP will earn BS in Special Education, K-12. The training is specifically designed to allow you to continue working with two 16-week online courses in the fall and spring, two 8-week online courses in the summer, and clinical experiences that can be completed on-the-job. With preparation through courses such as Survey of Learners with Exceptionalities, Mild and Moderate Disabilities in Special Education: Identification and Instruction, and Methods of Teaching Literacy, you will be prepared to work with mild to moderately disabled students with confidence and skill. Adding to the advantage of online convenience and flexibility, FU graduates have an impressive 96 percent career outcome rate.

Financial considerations are also important. Fontbonne’s tuition is on the high end of our top 20 at $648, and the average early salary is $39,600. The Paraprofessional Pathways is approved by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and CAEP accredited.


20. Nova Southeastern University

Founded in 1964 as the Nova University of Advanced Technology on a former Naval Outlying Landing Field built during World War II, Nova Southeastern University now offers over 200 majors. Enrolling 25,000 students at many locations (the main campus is in Fort Lauderdale), it is diverse and is a Hispanic-serving Institution and military-friendly.

Fischler College of Education offers a BS in Exceptional Student Education with an ESOL endorsement entirely online. Specifically designed and suited for working professionals, recognized experts teach the program in autism and special education. NSU prides itself on the fact that only highly credentialed professors teach classes, no teaching assistants. Features of the BS in ESE program include the knowledge and skills for best practices, both within the general inclusive classroom and exceptional student education settings. Field experience at NSU consists of 10 hours per education class and culminates in 12-week full-time student teaching. The four-year program leads to initial certification and an ESOL endorsement setting you up to be very hireable in a market demanding highly-qualified teachers.

With a quality assured program and fantastic convenience, NSU could be ideal for you in your career and life goals. It should be noted, however, that the tuition at $933 per credit is the highest on our top 20, though the average early salary is $51,114.