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The best doctoral degrees in special education

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    Introduction to special education

    Special education looks at interventions, assessments, and evaluations that identify and help those with learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. Programs can specialize in different age groups, types of disability, and teaching approaches. Most degrees include a significant research component, although many also offer practical teaching experience.

    One reason you may be interested in a doctorate degree in special education program is if you want to advance your current position to a senior position, or if you are planning a career move to a position as a postsecondary teacher, researcher, or in educational policymaking. A growth of 9% of employment of postsecondary special education teachers is projected between 2019 and 2029. A doctorate degree could also deepen your understanding of learning approaches and successful interventions in the field of special education.

    Requirements for doctorate degrees in special education usually involve:

    • bachelor’s degree transcripts with a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 3.0. Some courses might require a master’s degree, while others allow you to complete one en route to your doctorate.
    • GRE scores
    • resume detailing your experience in special education
    • 2 to 3 letters of recommendation
    • written personal statement

    The best doctorate degrees can be tailored to your interests. Below we set out the essential information, such as assessment methods, research interests, concentrations, and cost, to help you decide which school is right for you.

    The best doctoral programs in special education

    • Vanderbilt University

      Vanderbilt University Nashville, Tennessee
      Vanderbilt University

      The Department of Special Education, which is part of Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, offers prospective students a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in special education program. The department works closely with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, providing excellent opportunities for research within a facility of national importance. There are several program areas:

      • early childhood
      • high incidence
      • low incidence

      The program focuses on teaching and research. Besides the core requirements, students have the flexibility to design the program around their interests, submit grant proposals, and publish papers. Faculty members supervise the students during 2 phases of college teaching. Current departmental research covers the role of language comprehension in reading and math, and interventions for young children with language delays.
       

      Program name Doctor of philosophy special education 
      Name of DepartmentPeabody College
      Accreditation Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
      Location Nashville, Tennessee
      Cost$2,096 per credit
      Financial Aid
      Teaching approachOn campus
      Course length 60 credit hours, 3-5 years
      Read more
    • University of Kansas

      University of Kansas Lawrence, Kansas
      University of Kansas

      The School of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Kansas offers a Ph.D. in special education. The program is a combination of core courses, specialization modules, and praxis seminars. Students complete several internships in research or college teaching. 

      The program culminates with  a comprehensive exam and a dissertation defense. Research areas include inclusive education and support in general education classrooms, assessment and intervention related to self-determination, and multi-tiered systems of support and response to intervention.
       

      Program name Doctor of philosophy special education 
      Name of DepartmentSchool of Education and Human Sciences 
      Accreditation Higher Learning Commission (HLC) 
      Location Lawrence, Kansas
      CostTuition in-state: $8,056 per year
      Tuition out of state: $18,527 per year
      Financial Aid
      Teaching approachOn campus
      Course length 4 years, min 72 credit hours+research credits
      Read more
    • Boston University

      Boston University Boston, Massachusetts
      Boston University

      The Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University delivers a Ph.D. in educational studies specializing in special education. Although the main focus of the program is research, there are also coursework and teaching elements. Faculty research areas include:

      • measurement of deaf children’s comprehension of American sign language
      • language acquisition and deprivation
      • reading interventions
      • bilingual education


      Students will complete 3 qualifying tasks, plus a dissertation in their chosen specialization of special education; possible options include school administration and special needs, atypical development, and developmental disabilities (values, policy, and change). 
       

      Program namePh.D. in educational studies – special education
      Name of school (dept)Wheelock College of Education and Human Development
      AccreditationYes, New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
      LocationBoston, Massachusetts 
      Cost

      Tuition: $56,854 per year

      Finance office

      Teaching approach Full time, on campus 
      Course length 5 years, 66 credits 
      Read more
    • University of Wisconsin

      University of Wisconsin Madison, Wisconsin
      University of Wisconsin

      Through the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education, part of the School of Education at UW-Madison, you can apply for admission to a Ph.D. in special education program. Students take special education core subjects and are able to choose a minor to complement their research interests. Faculty research includes:

      • diversity and equity issues in special education
      • evidence-based interventions with students with severe disabilities
      • literacy and reading instruction for individuals with disabilities
      • special education issues in transitional and vocational education
      • teacher education and preparation of high-quality special education teachers

      You can complete internships in research and teaching, and must complete a dissertation. 
       

      Program nameDoctor of philosophy special education
      Name of school (dept)School of Education
      AccreditationYes, Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
      LocationMadison, Wisconsin
      CostTuition in-state: $12,220 per year
      Tuition Minnesota resident: $19,052 per year
      Tuition out-of-state: $25,548 per year
      Finance office
      Teaching approachOn campus 
      Course length 5 years, 56 credits 
      Read more
    • Clemson University

      Clemson University Clemson, South Carolina
      Clemson University

      The College of Education at Clemson offers a Ph.D. in special education that is taught both on campus and via synchronous online classes. The program curriculum involves research methodologies, core courses, electives, and a supervised teaching internship.

      Faculty research topics include:

      • speech-language interventions
      • multimedia use in classroom management
      • legal and policy issues in special education
      • transition, employment, and independent living

        The program focuses on theory and research, particularly in the area of students with mild to moderate disabilities. To graduate, students must successfully defend their dissertation and pass a comprehensive exam.  
         
      Program namePh.D.in Education – special education
      Name of school (dept)College of Education
      AccreditationYes, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
      LocationClemson, South Carolina 
      CostTuition in-state: $5,486 per semester
      Tuition out of state: $6,911 per semester
      Tuition in-state off-campus: $5,174
      Tuition out of state off-campus: $6, 599
      Finance office
      Teaching approach On campus and online 
      Course length 5 years, 65 credit hours 
      Read more
    • University of Minnesota

      University of Minnesota Minneapolis, Minnesota
      University of Minnesota

      A Ph.D. in educational psychology with a specialization in special education program is offered by the College of Education and Human Development at UMN. The program is included in the National Center for Leadership in Intensive Intervention Consortium. Students take modules on research, statistics, and measurement and evaluation.

      The program is taught in person at the campus in Minneapolis. Faculty members maintain interests and conduct research in the following areas:

      • autism spectrum disorder
      • alternative routes to literacy development for visual learners
      • using professional development to close the research to practice gap
      • integrating neuroscience with special education research
        Graduate students start work on research projects early in the program, thereby gaining valuable research experience that they can utilize in their dissertations. 
         
      Program namePh.D. in educational psychology – special education
      Name of school (dept)College of Education and Human Development
      AccreditationYes, Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
      LocationMinneapolis, Minnesota 
      CostTuition in-state: $10,138 per year
      Tuition out of state: $15,130 per year
      Finance office
      Teaching approachOn campus 
      Course length 3-5 years, 66 credit hours 
      Read more
    • University of Washington

      University of Washington Seattle, Washington
      University of Washington

      The College of Education at UW delivers a doctorate program in special education that incorporates 3 elements: research, coursework, and teaching experience. Research interests of the college faculty include:

      • developmental disabilities
      • digital literacies
      • educational policy
      • social-emotional issues

      If you don’t have a master’s degree, you can complete additional modules and publish a paper en route to your Ph.D. Students are able to tailor the program to their interests, in consultation with their supervisory committee. The program is taught at the University of Washington campus in Seattle. 
       

      Program namePh.D. in special education 
      Name of school (dept)College of Education
      AccreditationYes, Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
      LocationSeattle, Washington 
      CostTuition in-state: $6,174 per quarter
      Tuition out of state: $11,128 per quarter
      Finance office
      Teaching approach On campus 
      Course length 3-5 years, 57-87 credit hours
      Read more
    • University of Florida

      University of Florida Gainesville, Florida
      University of Florida

      The College of Education at the University of Florida offers prospective students the option to choose between 1 of 2 doctoral degrees:

      • Ph.D. in special education (on-campus)
      • Doctor of Education (Ed.D) in special education (online)

      The full-time, on-campus program provides research and teaching opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. You can select a major and may also opt for a minor subject to complement your studies. Students need to complete a qualifying, written and oral exam, and a dissertation.

      The online program can be taken part-time and has several specialization choices, including:
      autism, disability in society, dyslexia
      Students are expected to complete both coursework modules and research courses. This program is designed to equip practitioners and educational leaders with the essential skills and knowledge of special education. 
       

      Program namePh.D. in special education
      Ed.D. in special education
      Name of school (dept)College of Education 
      Accreditation Yes, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
      LocationGainesville, Florida 
      Cost Tuition in-state: $12,740 per year
      Tuition out of state: $30,134 per year
      Finance office
      Teaching approach On campus and online 
      Course length 3-5 years, 90 credit hours 
      Read more
    • Florida State University

      Florida State University Tallahassee, Florida
      Florida State University

      At the College of Education at FSU, students consult with their supervisory committee to design a doctorate in special education that uniquely matches their academic and career goals. The program is taught in person at the campus in Tallahassee. Students take part in supervised research, teaching, coursework, and complete an internship or service-learning experience as part of the program.

      Faculty research interests include:

      • interventions for language and literacy skills for preschool children with disabilities
      • autism intervention research
      • effectiveness of inclusive play-based interventions
      • identification and intervention for struggling readers
         
      Program namePh.D.in special education
      Name of school (dept)College of Education 
      AccreditationYes, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
      LocationTallahassee, Florida 
      CostTuition in-state): $479.32 per credit
      Tuition out of state: $1,110.72 per credit
      Finance office
      Teaching approach On campus 
      Course length 3-5 years, 91 credit hours 
      Read more
    • Purdue University

      Purdue University West Lafayette, Indiana
      Purdue University

      The aim of the doctorate program in special education at the College of Education at Purdue is to promote leadership, equip students to teach at the university level, and develop scientific and applied research skills. This degree is taught on campus and is open to full-time students.

      The program includes research modules, core and cognate courses, and has a choice of 4 specializations being:

      • autism and developmental disabilities
      • challenging behavior assessment and intervention
      • disproportionality in identification, placement, and discipline
      • mathematics instruction and learning disabilities/difficulties

      The program also includes teaching experience, grant writing, research, and professional engagement. 
       

      Program nameDoctor of philosophy special education
      Name of school (dept)College of Education 
      Accreditation Yes, Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
      LocationWest Lafayette, Indiana 
      Cost Tuition in-state: $347.85 per credit
      Tuition out of state: $948.30 per credit
      Finance office
      Teaching approach On campus 
      Course length 3-5 years, 90 credit hours 
      Read more

    Financial support

    A doctorate program can be an expensive commitment in terms of your time and finances. Visit the Federal Student Aid website for general information on financial support for students, and to complete the FAFSA form which assesses your eligibility for federal aid.

    Many programs are only available as full-time options, which means you might struggle to work and study. The majority of colleges provide full or partial funding for accepted Ph.D. students in the form of teaching or research assistantships or scholarship and grant programs. Contact the finance office at your university of choice for more information.

    Career options

    Doctoral degrees typically lead to advanced careers in academia or an administrative or policy-making role in special education. Holders of this degree have significant expertise and usually specialize in particular research areas. Potential job roles include: