Earning Your PhD in Special Education Online

Professionals working in special education have answered the call to help students who need extra attention to make the most of their education. If you want to make a lasting impact in the lives of these students, discover how earning your PhD in special education online can make that happen.

Written by

PhDs.me Staff

Last updated

Feb 12, 2021

The targeted needs of students in special education programs require teaching and administrative staffs that are dedicated to helping them reach their full learning potential. The number of students with disabilities has grown from 6.5 million to over 7 million from 2008–2018, and the need for special education professionals has grown as well. During the 2017-2018 school year, an average of 13.7% of all students in the U.S. fell under the umbrella of special education.

Earning the doctorate in special education online can prepare those who want to move into the highest levels of teaching and managing the special needs classrooms in their school district or region or conduct important research that can open up even more opportunities that focus on the potential of students in special education programs.

Before you choose a PhD in special education online program, you’ve likely got plenty of questions, such as:

Which program is right for me? How do I narrow down those options? Is the degree worth the time and financial investment? For that matter, do I have the time? How will I pay for it all?

Let’s take a look at doctorates in special education, specifically those that can be earned online, to help you decide if this is the right path for you.

Best Online PhD in Special Education Programs for 2021

Choosing the best graduate program in special education means seeking a program that provides the flexibility that can accommodate your busy schedule. you’re also looking for a program that will give you the best possible learning outcomes, thus preparing you for the increased responsibilities your new career trajectory could provide. But how do you narrow down so many good programs? We’ve taken some of the guesswork out of that for you by looking at the various special education online programs across the nation. Let’s look at a few that stand out for 2021.

UNC Extended Campus

University of Northern Colorado’s Extended Campus offers the special education PhD, a flexible program designed for those who are already working in the field and trying to fit online learning into their packed schedules. Students can expect to complete 77 credit hours and their dissertation in three to five years to earn their degree. The online program starts in either the fall or the spring, during which three 16-week courses are available. You can enroll in just one or in all three, depending upon how much time you have and how quickly you want to finish the work. Summer terms are when you will focus on the dissertation, externship, and electives that help round out your educational experience.

Liberty University

Through 100% online, eight-week courses taken at a pace chosen by the student, Liberty University presents the online PhD in special education in a way that provides maximum flexibility. Sixty credit hours are required, and with the accelerated option, the program can be completed within three years, on average. This is helped along by the potential of transferring in 50% of credits from previous study and eight different start times throughout the year. Online students structure their programs in a way that is right for them and have full access to all resources the university has to offer, including a top-notch research portal.

Capella University

The special education leadership PhD through Capella University is a robust program that requires the completion of four core courses, 10 specialization courses, and three residencies. Students can choose the online or in-person options, and can work with the college in figuring out flexible options for their two required internships. At the end of the coursework, there is a comprehensive exam and a dissertation required, making this program well-rounded in preparing students for the rigors of working in the higher levels of special education leadership. Those who are already working with students with special needs might be eligible for the 30% Front Line Heroes Discount, which saves them a bundle of money on their tuition and fees.

Benefits of the PhD in Special Education Online

Many of those who are interested in the doctorate in special education are already working in the field and building up a good foundation of experience and knowledge. It’s safe to say they don’t want to take time away from work to simply focus on earning their PhD, and that’s why so many programs are designed specifically for those who have other obligations, such as full-time work or a family to support. Online education makes sense for several reasons, but here are two of the biggest ones:


Opening new career doors.
In some school systems, those who earn their doctorate in special education have other career options available to them that weren’t there before, such as moving into administration or curriculum planning. The PhD also opens doors to work as a professor of special education, instructing future teachers at colleges and universities.


Little disruption to your day-to-day life.
In most cases, the PhD in special education can be earned entirely online, which means your day-to-day life, including your family, community, and work obligations, can continue just as they have in the past. Asynchronous learning, or being able to take courses whenever is most suitable for you, can help you fit education in around that busy schedule. In addition, you can often choose just how quickly you complete the program. From an accelerated track to taking one course at a time, you choose the pathway that’s right for you.

It’s important to remember that every online program will handle their scheduling in a different way. It’s also good to remember that while the PhD can open new doors for you, what those doors are depends greatly upon where you work. Check with your school district (or potential district) to determine what’s available to educators with a doctorate, and check with your potential online school to make sure their scheduling plan works for you.

Types of Online PhDs in Special Education

When it comes to online PhD programs, including those in special education, it’s important to know that “online” doesn’t necessarily mean every aspect of that program is online. This is especially true with programs that involve education, as there might be residencies, internships, and other hands-on time that make it necessary to step outside of typical online learning and complete some elements in person. Here’s what you might expect.

Fully online

These programs are usually made up of asynchronous online courses, which can be taken at your convenience if you meet the required deadlines to keep the program moving. All projects, assignments, chats, and meetings with professors and your cohort can be done through virtual means. However, there might be in-person requirements as well, such as weekend intensives or short residencies held on campus during your time as a student. In some cases, these in-person requirements can be completed at your current place of employment, but others might necessitate a trip to the campus. A good example of this is the dissertation defense at the end of the program.

Blended or hybrid

These programs are usually up front about the requirements, which often include expectations for certain courses to be taken at the college or a satellite campus. These classes might be in person but at more convenient times, such as at night or on weekends. It’s not unusual to go to class only a few times per week and finish up the rest of your work on your own time through online means. These programs include the hands-on requirements as well, which are either completed at an approved school near your location or at a school of the college’s choosing.

Timeline: Online PhD in Special Education

The timeline for earning the PhD in special education online depends greatly upon how much time you want to devote to the program. Accelerated programs can give you a degree in three years or so, but most take four or five years. Some programs can take as long as you need, providing that your classwork, dissertation, and any other requirements are completed by a certain number of years. Some schools put a cap of seven or eight years on the pursuit of the degree. Let’s take a look at the typical timeline.


This year usually begins with seminars designed to help acclimate students to the PhD program. You’ll also take the core courses that are required of every student in the program. This might include a course in curriculum design or research analysis and procedures. You’ll also get to know your advisor and figure out the requirements for your dissertation, internship or externship, and residency, depending upon what your program requires.


If you’ve chosen a specialization, this is the year you dive into those courses. You’ll also move into research for your dissertation. You might have completed an internship or externship during the summer months between the first and second year. If not, you’ll be planning to do that in the coming summer, or during some other time that suits you and your school. Electives will be woven in, and your advisor will help you create a concrete dissertation plan.


By this point you’ve likely completed all your coursework, and now it’s time for the qualifying examination to ensure you become a doctoral candidate. This opens the door for you to work full speed ahead on your dissertation while completing any additional residencies and internship hours your school might require. If there is a capstone requirement, you’ll be preparing for that as well.


This year is dedicated to your dissertation, which includes the deep research, the writing, preparing for the defense process, and looking for places to publish your final product. You’ll spend a great deal of time with your advisor, tweaking and working on the various aspects of your dissertation that might need some additional help. If there is a capstone, it is likely going to happen this year.


It’s time to go before the committee and defend your dissertation to earn your doctoral degree. You might also be looking forward to publication of that dissertation and looking at potential job changes that you could take advantage of as soon as you have that terminal degree. You’ll wrap up any residencies or internships, and be well on your way to a new career path.

Keep in mind that your course requirements, dissertation, capstone, and other elements will vary depending upon what your school requires. Always be sure to check with the school before enrollment to be sure of what is expected of you. Also remember that this is a rough timeline. You might shave a year or even two off this timeline depending on previous credits earned and whether your college accepts credits for experience.

PhD in Special Education Online Program Learning Outcomes

The learning outcomes in a PhD program might vary slightly from one school to another, but they each have one strong point in common: The desire to thoroughly prepare graduates to handle the rigors of special education teaching or administration. Here’s what you can expect to find as a preferred outcome in most PhD programs in special education online.


Effective collaboration
Educating students with special needs harkens back to the saying, “It takes a village.” That village includes the parents, fellow educators, the classroom, the overall school, the board the runs it all, the outside volunteers and employees who do their best to implement an outstanding education for students in special education programs. Collaborating with the “village” in person, through email and voice chats, and via other forms of communication is an absolute must to help students reach their full potential.


Acceptance of diversity
Students in special education come from all environments, cultures, backgrounds, skill sets, and family styles. Accepting the wide diversity of those students and the diversity of their needs as individuals can help graduates figure out how to best serve those students. This acceptance of diversity also extends to the greater educational world itself, where graduates of the PhD program can become agents of change.


Strong management skills
Whether it’s intensive self-management for teachers who are juggling a variety of requirements and responsibilities or management of fellow educators, curriculum, and other points of the special education world, these management skills will hold the graduate in good stead no matter their career path after graduation.


Critical assessment of research
The field of special education and the proper teaching methods of students with special needs is filled with research and evidence-based practices. Giving graduates the tools they need to assess research, determine which processes or procedures might work, and implement them in a classroom or overall school setting is a goal of the special education PhD program.


Implementation of research and resources
Understanding and properly using the most up-to-date research and finding and evaluating the resources available for special education students is something graduates can take back to the educational institutions with them.

Specialization in Special Education: Is Narrowing Your Focus of Study a Good Idea?

The PhD in special education can prepare students for a wide range of work. Students who choose to specialize can narrow their focus to work in a particular area or with a particular population, such as K-12 students, higher education students, or behind the scenes in administration or curriculum design. Many programs offer specializations that can push your career trajectory right where you want it to go. Let’s take a look at a few of the more common ones.

Curriculum and Instruction

This specialty prepares students with an understanding of the theories and research behind various curriculum models, assists them in developing evaluation skills that allow for the flexible curriculums that students with special needs require, and prepares them to create original research in preparation for conferences and publications that serve the field.

Educational Psychology

A strong focus on developmental and behavioral psychology drives this program, helping students to recognize, research, and create original publications that can assist fellow educators in helping students with special needs learn in different ways. It also prepares them for work as teachers at the postsecondary level.

Advanced Educational Leadership

Those seeking a job in administration can look to this concentration, which focuses on the process of change within a school setting and approaching it from a macro and micro level. Strategic, innovative, and cost-effective approaches for enhancing special education are a focus of this specialization.

Educational Technology and Online Learning

Special education students can be helped in new ways by online learning, and this special focus on tech and online opportunities provides students with a way to blend technology with learning methods for a more well-rounded experience for both students and teachers.

K-12 School Leadership

Graduates seeking to take on leadership and administration roles in the K-12 system can dive into this specialization, which focuses on following students with special needs through their educational career during the formative years.

Accreditation & Online PhDs in Special Education

To earn accreditation, a school or program voluntarily provides in-depth information to an independent accrediting body, which determines whether the school meets the requirements for a strong education in that particular program or the school as a whole. Programmatic accreditation is offered through various organizations, such as the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education or state boards of teaching.

Regional accreditation is the same process, only for the school as a whole. Schools are proud of their accreditation and often display it on their website, but to be certain of what you’re getting, check out the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

Graduating from an accredited school and/or program helps ensure employers will take your degree seriously. It also helps ensure that you are eligible for some forms of financial aid and allows credits to transfer to other accredited institutions if you choose to change schools during the course of your degree pursuit.

Applying to a Special Education PhD Program Online

Applying to an online special education PhD program will require you to show proof of experience in the field, several letters of recommendation, a GPA that meets program requirements, and prior educational experience that covers any prerequisites the school might require. You can get started on those well before you apply. When you apply, keep these points in mind:

Establish a relationship with the faculty.

Make contact with faculty members at the school you wish to attend. Make it clear what you want to do with your future in special education, and ask for guidance in choosing the concentration you need to make those dreams a reality. Ask intelligent questions and make good connections. You want them to recognize how serious you are about earning your PhD.

Prepare for an interview.

Just as with getting a job, the impression you make during an interview can help you get one of those coveted spots in a special education PhD program. The interview might be virtual or in person — consider this as you apply. Prepare for interview questions you might encounter, such as your goals for the future and why this particular program is of interest to you.

Meet the experience requirements.

The more experience you have with students with special needs, the more highly your application might be considered. Include not only your employment in the field but any volunteer work where you made an impact.

Tuition & Fees

Online learning has become popular for many reasons, and one of those is the potential savings on expenses that usually surround higher education. For instance, online learning means there is no commute. When you’re studying and taking classes from home, there’s no need to drive to a campus. This cuts down on fuel, wear and tear on your vehicle, parking, and other expenses. You might also be exempt from certain fees, such as fees to use the school gym or library, since you aren’t on campus to use these facilities.

Tuition might vary as well. Some schools offer their online students the in-state rate, while others have a special flat rate per credit just for online education. Tuition isn’t the bottom line, however. You’ll also have some fees, need to maintain your own laptop or other device for class, and pay for or somehow acquire broadband internet service.

The following chart looks at tuition at a handful of schools. Keep in mind that fees and other expenses, such as any expenses to travel to the school for residencies (if required) are not included.

SchoolCost per CreditTotal CreditsSubtotal
Regents University$77575$58,125
University of Northern Colorado$64077$49,280
Lehigh University$66560$39,900
University of Toledo$56060$33,600

NOTE: Though these tuition numbers might seem high, remember that financial aid can work wonders. There are many funding options out there, including fellowships, grants, scholarships, tuition assistance for those with financial difficulty, employer reimbursement, loans, and more. In fact, some schools offer full funding for those who plan to earn their special education PhD.

Talk to a financial aid representative before accepting this bottom line as your actual tuition cost. You might be surprised by what you find. In the meantime, take a look at our guide to scholarships and grants to see what’s available to you.

Salaries for Special Education PhDs

Your salary after earning the special education PhD depends upon many factors, such as where you choose to work – administration, teaching, or some other path – your geographical location, and much more. However, it’s a safe bet that you will likely make more by earning the PhD than you will by simply holding a master’s degree in special education. According to Payscale.com, those with a master’s degree in special education made a national average of $55,675. Those who earned their PhD in special education saw their national average income jump to $74,500. Salaries for professionals with special education PhDs will also vary depending on job titles. As an example, check out the salaries below, from Payscale:

Job TitleMedian Earnings90th Percentile Earnings
Postsecondary Assistant Professor$69,000$106,000
Nonprofit Program Manager$52,000$78,000