Earning a graduate degree in Special Education rewards students with some of the highest qualifications in the field. Special Education is a relatively new academic discourse, with most of today’s legal landmarks in the field not being designated until the 1970s.
Students who pursue a Doctorate in Special Education are often already practicing educators or administrators within education, and still, see change and improvement needed to support those with neurodevelopmental disabilities better. Once they’ve earned the degree, graduates from a Special Education program are better equipped with tools in research, methodologies, and knowledge in the breadth of the field, enabling them to show up as masters of the field in careers from all types of industries.
FINDING A PH.D. IN SPECIAL EDUCATION
Application to a doctoral degree in Special Education is often pursued after one has completed their Master of Education degree. Programs typically offer one of two, and sometimes both, degrees in the field: a Doctor of Philosophy or Doctor of Education. Both degrees usually require upwards of 50 graduate credits that cover research, core topics of the field, and a dissertation. While much of the curriculum in either of the degrees are very comparable, the Ph.D has historically been the route to those who are looking to teach and conduct research, whereas the Ed.D is more for those who will enter specific industries dedicated to education, like administration or training programs. Both programs, however, will often include a required dissertation.
As Special Education is a field influenced by many factors of society, students in its graduate programs will study an array of topics. This includes not only the history of the field and its application of theory and research––but with more technical aspects––such as legal processes and training or organizational methods. As research is required in most doctoral degrees, students will also acquire hands-on experience conducting relevant research showcasing areas of the field that may need improvement or support to better the education system for learners with disabilities. Those who commit to furthering their qualifications in and knowledge of the field of Special Education are preparing themselves for years of absolutely crucial work, and will graduate ready to take on some issues in an organized, thoughtful, advanced, and accessible way.
RANKING THE TOP 15 AFFORDABLE ONLINE PHD’S IN SPECIAL EDUCATION
While you’re on your way to earning your Ph.D. or Doctorate within your field, the editors at Online PhD Programs are already practicing doctors of their craft: ranking the best online Ph.D. programs. To be featured on our annual rankings online doctorates must satisfy four coinciding requirements: accreditation, research and scholarship doctorate certification, NSF recognition, and institutional association with peer-reviewed academia.
Each degree is then ranked using information provided — primarily — through the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. The data collected is scored through a series of weighted categories to represent seven crucial aspects of what makes an online doctorate valuable to future students. Online program quality and presence are joined by industry salaries, student reviews, degree exclusivity, costs, and completion rates to determine the best online doctorates available. For a comprehensive breakdown of how we categorize and source data, please visit ourmethodology page.
#1. TEXAS TECH UNIVERSITY
Texas Tech University designed their Doctor of Philosophy in Special Education to equip leaders who are motivated to shape the future of education. Texas Tech’s curriculum provides goals that individually prepare graduates for research, teacher education, program development, and evaluation. The degree is a total of 90 credits for the Ph.D., but students can transfer in their master’s or graduate coursework for up to 30 credits. Coursework is divided into five different categories, which include Tool Courses, College Foundations, and Special Education. Students are required to finish three semester hours, or one full semester in length of an internship, through social service organizations, educational research agencies, or special education programs.
Coursework is devoted to Special Education and covers an array of topics within its application in the real-world organizational and bureaucratic settings. Classes include Writing Grant Proposals, Contemporary Issues, Legal Issues with Special Populations, and Preparing Leadership Personnel. The Interdisciplinary category within coursework requires students to take courses outside but related to special education, allowing them to designate a further specialization within special education.
#2. UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO DENVER
The University of Colorado Denver offers both a three and a five-year track to earn their Doctor of Education in Leadership for Educational Equity. The 54-credit program can be obtained either online or in a hybrid format, each with optional summer intensives. The courses are divided into three core areas: Equity and Diversity, Leadership and Learning, and Research Methods. Students also complete fifteen credit hours to fulfill their Doctoral Research Project. For program applications, students select a degree concentration from seven different areas, including the Early Childhood Special Education/Early Childhood Education area. The concentration is designed for those looking to work as administrators in districts, agencies, and programs dedicated to improving educational conditions for all children but especially those with disabilities.
The bulk of the courses are completed in the outlined core topics, with four courses in the concentration. Courses in the Ed.D. cover topics like Power & Privilege, Social Construction of Difference; Nature of Work in Schools; Leadership in Education; Organizational Performance in Educational Contexts; and more. For their Doctoral Research Project or dissertation, some may work in schools, districts, a state agency, or a community partner, all sites where they will collect data to defend upon graduation. Prospective students to the program should have at least a 3.2 GPA in graduate work as well as five or more years of experience in an educational setting.
#3. UNIVERSITY OF IDAHO
The Doctor of Philosophy in Education at the University of Idaho offers a focus on Special Education/Autism Spectrum Disorders & Related Disabilities. The curriculum is specifically designed to prepare prospective university faculty members, transforming students into leaders with skills in teaching, and then conducting and disseminating research. They’ll also be ready to work through bureaucratic limitations of the field, with the motivation to secure funding for research in autism spectrum disorders and related disabilities. The program is highly structured but can accommodate both full and part-time students with courses offered both online and on-campus. The curriculum acknowledges the importance of teaching philosophically but through a lens that covers family involvement, cultural competency, inclusive and multi-tiered supports, evidence-based interventions, and research.
The core Ph.D. requirements account for 26 credits, and upon completion students then go onto 16 credits in the specialization, 24 credits in the cognate, and 18 credits worth of dissertation work. Upon graduation, students will have prepared an article ready for publication. The specialization courses cover advanced and in-depth topics of the field, with subjects like Principles of Leadership in Neurodevelopmental Disorders. All students will also complete both a College Teaching internship, as well as a Research internship or immersion.
#4. LIBERTY UNIVERSITY
Liberty University’s Doctor of Education in Curriculum & Instruction — Special Education is a 60-credit degree that can be earned entirely online and on average within three years. The program caters to those who are seeking to increase their credentials for further career advancement in teaching, administrative work, or other organizations dedicated to special needs programs. Graduates are equipped with the skills necessary to advance the disciplinary field and support the unique needs community in a positive and influential way. The curriculum is centered around a theoretical framework that prepares students for the evaluation of teaching challenges faced in all academic institutions.
The core of the Doctor of Education is focused on developing an understanding of essential education concepts. The focus on Special Education advances skills in the field, specifically in quantitative and qualitative research, learning theory and research skills, and much more. Course topics may cover topics like Behavior Management, Organization and Design of Gifting Education Programs, and Educational Assessment for Special Needs. While coursework is completed online, students have the opportunity for on-campus intensive sessions, where they’ll meet and work alongside peers and professors in their writing, research, and a final dissertation.
Format: Online/Optional Residency
#5. BALL STATE UNIVERSITY
The Doctor of Education in Special Education is designed to transform students into leaders of the field with the skills necessary and desirable in administration, scholarship, and entrepreneurship. The curriculum focuses on both core knowledge and technical skills with opportunities for candidates to develop specialized expertise. The courses emphasize the importance of the relationship between research and practice, specifically through training students in the application of evidence-based education and research. Classes take place both online and on-campus, and also include a residency made up of 15 credits earned in two consecutive semesters.
The degree is considered to be 90 credits after an undergraduate degree, and those who hold master’s degrees may transfer up to 30 credits to fulfill the 90 for the doctorate. Graduate assistantships are available for competitive funding. As the field draws on discourses from many others, students have the opportunity to learn from both faculty in their department and those in related ones. With an understanding that education often calls upon interdisciplinary knowledge and skills, students can take credits outside of the department to fulfill their doctorate requirements. Many will also pursue a focus area, with options like Applied Behavior Analysis and Autism, Teaching and Learning — Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, and Systems, Teaching, and Learning.
#6. GRAND CANYON UNIVERSITY
Grand Canyon University offers a Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership with an emphasis in Special Education. The curriculum trains students in both relevant discourses and research to become leaders in the field, intending to ensure that all students receive fair, appropriate, and accommodating education. As many in the program are working professionals, courses are available in the evening and online. The coursework in the doctorate program takes an in-depth research-based approach, covering topics like ethical dilemmas and stewardship, corporate social responsibility, and evolving theories on leadership and intervention. They’ll also be trained in administrative duties, such as data analysis for fiscal management, legal compliances, and ethical decision-making.
The 60-credit doctorate in Special Education consists of eight-week online courses. However, the dissertation is completed on-campus in two different three-week residencies. Classes have start dates frequently and year-round. There are also evening courses available at the main campus. Courses include Progressions in Leadership Thought, Foundations of Special Education, Analysis of Existing Research, and Leading Across Cultures. Graduates from the program have gone onto careers as school administrators, lead special education teachers, consultants, curriculum developers, policymakers, and learning advocates.
#7. UNIVERSITY OF NORTHERN COLORADO
The online Doctor of Philosophy in Special Education offered by the University of Northern Colorado is designed to give students the space to pursue their specific interests and ambitions within the field. The curriculum was built on the perspective that learning should be an active and self-regulated and motivated process, so students work in collaboration with faculty members to create an individualized course of study. All students are trained in theory, pedagogy, research methodology, evidence-based practice, public policy and advocacy, and different kinds of collaboration. Upon graduation, students are creative leaders and advocates who have the tools and knowledge necessary to invoke change in all aspects of education and its settings. The program is a total of 77 credits, including dissertation work.
Core courses are divided into subject categories: Doctoral Core, Research Core, and Research Tools. These courses cover the advanced breadth of the field, with topics like Law of Exceptionalities, Professional Writing, and Statistical Methods. After completion of these foundational courses, students take electives in a cognate closely related to their goals, before completing their doctoral proposal research and dissertation. Applicants to the program should have earned at least a 3.0 GPA in their most recent degree, which is typically a master’s. There are also minimum GRE score requirements.
#8. GWYNEDD MERCY UNIVERSITY
The Executive Doctorate in Education Leadership program from Gwynedd Mercy University is an online and accelerated 54-credit program, designed to be completed in less than three years. The degree focuses on advancing one’s leadership skills in professional education settings. Prospective students have often experienced administrators and teachers looking to increase their credentials and breadth of potential in the field. The curriculum in GMU’s program advances skills and theoretical understandings of teaching, assessment, and curriculum development; management and development of staff; education policy, regulation, and research; and community relations and outreach.
Graduates of the program are equipped with not only an understanding of the systems within mainstream education, special education, and education-facing organizations; they’ll also they have the capacity and ideas of how to better these systems through transformational leadership. As the program is designed for working professionals, course schedules are accommodating and flexible. The online program ensures small class sizes to allow students to build cohorts of meaningful, professional relationships with their colleagues. The accelerated schedule is done with one course at a time in five-to-seven week blocks and combines this online coursework with field experience at the student’s convenience. There are also two required on-campus residencies and one international study experience.
#9. HAMPTON UNIVERSITY
Hampton University’s Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Management is an online program preparing students to become flexible, informed leaders who know how to put into practice the most innovative educational strategies. The degree is considered an accelerated, 66-credit program training students in specialized instructions. Most complete the program in just under three years. The offered Special Education specialization works alongside the degree’s focus on Educational Management to equip students with core leadership competencies, dispositions and applied research methods. Students will have the opportunity to focus their dissertation on real-life problems faced by educational organizations. The core curriculum is centered around two themes: Leadership and Management, and Socio-Political and Cultural Contexts of Education. The research and practice core is made up of coursework, an internship, and dissertation research.
Specific coursework in Special Education will focus on Special Education Law and Finance; Policy, Ethics, and Politics; History of Special Education; and more. Applicants are required to have at least a 3.0 undergraduate GPA and a GRE score of 150. There is no minimum GPA requirement for a master’s degree, but applicants should have one in Education. They’ll also be required to submit a written statement and potentially participate in a personal interview.
#10. SLIPPERY ROCK UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA
The Doctor of Education in Special Education from Slippery Rock University is designed for educators and human service agency workers looking to increase their potential for leadership positions in the field. The program is made up of coursework around special education, content learning, and leadership, and upon graduation, students use these skills and knowledge in combination to enter public schools, agencies, and non-profit organizations. Courses are online and both synchronous and asynchronous. Weekend face-to-face courses are taught during the summer term when students take one or two classes.
The degree is typically earned in three years. Research core courses make up 12 of the 60 required credits, while Content and Leadership courses are 18 and Special Education is 15. These courses cover the breadth of the field’s required pedagogical knowledge as well as practical tools, such as Positive Classroom Interventions. The degree is finished off with 15 credits worth of dissertation work. Applicants to the program should have an undergraduate GPA of at least 3.0, and a graduate degree earned with at least a 3.5. The degrees should have been earned in elementary education or a related field, including content-specific disciplines such as English, Science, or Social Studies. Applicants are also required to have their teacher certification or licensure.
#11. REGENT UNIVERSITY
Regent University’s Doctor of Education in Special Education is designed for career development and leadership growth for special education teachers, with a curriculum centered on research, practice, and policy. Coursework will cover both the breadth of the field, subject knowledge, as well as various research methods within the field and how to use that research in evidence-based practice. Specific course topics include Research Design & Analysis; Statistics Interpretation; Data-Driven Decision Making; and more. As Regent is a proud Christian university, students are required to take a course on Christian Worldview for Educators and will study through a biblical lens and worldview.
While coursework is completed online, students pursuing an Ed.D. from Regent must complete four on-campus residencies during their study. These residencies are at the main campus in Virginia Beach and occur during the summer, allowing students to interact with their faculty and cohort face-to-face. This provides a specialized professional experience exterior to the regular course of study. Admissions are rolling throughout the year with various start dates. All applicants must submit unofficial college transcripts and are expected to have a bachelor’s and master’s degree. They may also be required to complete an interview on campus or over the phone.
#12 UNIVERSITY OF TOLEDO
The University of Toledo designed their Doctor of Philosophy in Curriculum and Instruction – Special Education to prepare those already working in the field of special education to pursue leadership positions further. The program’s goal is to train students in the application of field research to create evidence-based practices for the specific benefit of learners with disabilities and their families. Graduates have gone onto positions as academic leaders in education or early intervention systems, both at the state and national level. The 70-credit program is completed within four-to-five years, including summers, and is offered entirely online. Students complete advanced coursework in a variety of topics covering the breadth of the field and its many research tools, including quantitative and qualitative methods, single case design, and survey research.
Offered differently than many other programs are “virtual” internships, in accompaniment with the dissertation to create a hands-on capstone experience. While coursework is completed online, there are face-to-face meetings twice a year required of students to be had with their advisor. Prospective students of the Ph.D. from UToledo must have a master’s degree earned with at least a 3.0 GPA. Students must also have at least two years of successful teaching or direct working experience with children, and submit evidence of writing and research ability, such as a master’s thesis.
#13. CAPELLA UNIVERSITY
The Doctor of Philosophy in Education at Capella University offers a Special Education Leadership Specialization. The ideal candidate is dedicated to work as a student advocate and participate in their doctoral research. The curriculum centers on the importance of understanding laws and regulations, designing accessible curriculum and instruction, managing financial resources, and maintaining a healthy community and family collaboration. The course of study is designed specifically to remove common roadblocks and hardships of the working student. Students will begin their dissertation research early on, rather than towards the end of their time in the university. Faculty and support are available for synchronous online interaction, in accompaniment with other online university resources.
Beginning dissertation research early on ensures that students will gain momentum in their studies and maintain a sense of focus and dedication for the years to come. Courses in the program at Capella follow a ten-week quarter system, and students typically enroll in one-to-three courses. Curricular goals of the Ph.D. include a focus on the subject matter and its place within the discipline; the development of assessment-driven instruction; conducting on-going and relevant research as scholar-practitioners; and the application of current research and theory to lead growth in the profession.
#14. CONCORDIA UNIVERSITY, CHICAGO
Concordia University Chicago offers a Doctor of Philosophy in Leadership with a specialization in Special Education, designed for educators who are hoping to continue their studies in preparation for leadership roles both in public and private institutions. The goal of the Leadership doctoral programs is to prepare students in knowledge management, decision making, conflict management, communication, and all types of leadership styles. The specific Special Education curriculum prepares students with the tools and abilities necessary to research in the field of special education, drawing from theoretical and practical knowledge. Graduates reenter the field as leaders and advocates in special education, familiar with curriculum modification and program evaluation.
The 67-credit program consists of both a comprehensive examination and a dissertation. It is offered 100 percent online with certain cohort opportunities provided on campus. Specific courses are dedicated to research-based decision making, supervision of programs for children with disabilities, global perspectives, special education law and policy, and much more. Doctorate-level courses are built around the foundations, philosophy, and ethics of the field. These courses will examine the relationship between theory and observations and the role of the researcher in their relationship with subjects. The methodologies used include Qualitative Research, Quantitative Analysis, and Research Design.