Special Education Careers
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Careers in special education involve helping students achieve their fullest potential.
Public school systems are tasked with providing students a free and appropriate education. Students with special needs — including behavioral disorders, intellectual disabilities, and physical disabilities — may require educational services beyond those available in a typical classroom. Special education teachers receive training in providing these individual services.
This guide discusses careers available with a special education degree, the training and education required to enter the field, and professional advancement opportunities.
Why Pursue a Career in Special Education?
Many people find helping students with special needs fulfilling and rewarding. Teachers use their instructional skills, understanding of child development, and creative talents to find new ways to share information and help their students grow and succeed.
Careers in special education require skills related to instructing, coordinating activities, and active listening. Classroom teachers work with administrators, counselors, other teachers, and parents or guardians to develop individual learning plans. These plans outline academic accommodations, learning goals, and behavioral goals.
Communication, patience, and resourcefulness top the list of qualities that prospective special education teachers should possess. They also need interpersonal skills to work with other educators and build positive relationships with parents and students.
Special Education Career Outlook
Public schools must offer all students educational services that align with their needs. The 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ensures that students with disabilities receive instruction tailored to their individual situation.
The need for special education teachers and specialists continues to grow across the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that 13,600 new special education teacher positions will be created between 2018 and 2028, which is equal to about 3% growth. Early identification of children in need of special services and the subsequent enrollment of students with special needs are two main causes of this growth.
The following table illustrates how the salaries of special education professionals tend to grow over time as they gain experience.
|Job Title||Entry-Level (0-12 months)||Early Career (1-4 Years)||Midcareer (5-9 Years)||Experienced (10-19 Years)|
|Special Education Paraprofessional||$18,280||$19,550||$19,970||$21,250|
|Special Education Teacher (Preschool, Kindergarten, or Elementary School)||$40,420||$42,780||$48,630||$53,590|
|Special Education Teacher (Secondary School)||$41,390||$44,690||$49,730||$56,980|
Skills Gained With a Special Education Degree
Special education professionals must have a diverse skill set to serve the unique needs of their students.
For example, teachers and aides who work with blind learners must be fluent in the Braille writing system, while those who work with deaf students may need to learn American Sign Language. Special education programs focus on strategies to help future special education teachers make appropriate accommodations for learners with various challenges.
Special education programs teach students the fundamentals of curriculum development, including needs analysis, objective design, and assessment. They also emphasize the importance of "universal design for learning," or the creation of curricula that give all students an equal opportunity to engage with the course material and learn core concepts.
Providing instruction for students with special needs requires unique strategies and approaches. For example, many special education teachers work in inclusive classrooms where they must modify lesson plans and instruction for students with mental, physical, and/or emotional disabilities.
Special education teachers need strong communication skills to explain concepts to learners with differing abilities. They also need excellent writing skills to draft individualized education programs (IEPs) and progress reports for other teachers, school administrators, social workers, and parents.
When writing IEPs, teachers often must interview the student, the parents or guardians, and other educators. They also need to build and maintain positive working relationships with all interested parties to effectively implement IEPs.
Special education teachers must often leverage outside resources to ensure students receive an adequate education and appropriate support. They may direct families to government sources of financial assistance or to nonprofit organizations that offer supplementary out-of-school learning opportunities.
Special education programs equip future teachers with the knowledge and skills needed to forge these connections.
Special Education Career Paths
While many special education careers begin in a classroom, special education professionals can find work in many different arenas. Your degree may also offer specialization options, preparing you to work with a particular age of students, students with specific educational needs, or in specific support areas that help improve the educational experience for students.
Special education students concentrating in early intervention typically train to work with children from birth to age five. They learn to identify signs of early developmental disabilities, educate families on providing proper support to children with physical disorders like cerebral palsy, and conduct early childhood research.
A specialization in elementary education prepares teachers to work with children in preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school. Covered topics include customizing instruction for students with special needs, understanding special education law and policy, and recognizing specific learning challenges that emerge in early life.
Students who concentrate in secondary education learn how to instruct youth in middle and high school. Learners often master curriculum design and instructional skills across multiple content areas, though some special education teachers focus specifically on a single subject, like math, reading, or science. This concentration may also emphasize the importance of inclusive classrooms.
Some aspiring teachers study the tools and technologies that support learners with special needs. For example, students with dyslexia often perform better when presented with information on screens instead of in books. Thus, special education teachers may seek to incorporate the use of smartphones and tablets into their lesson plans.
Special education also encompasses instruction provided to gifted learners. Learners who choose this concentration may study subjects such as accelerated curricula, compacting lessons, and gifted student identification and assessment. They may also study resources available to particularly talented students, such as advanced placement classes and after-school enrichment programs.
How to Start Your Career in Special Education
Many people begin their careers in special education by working as teaching assistants or paraprofessionals in a special education classroom. Some states require individuals to earn an associate degree and pass an exam and a background check to work in these roles.
Most graduates pursuing careers with a special education degree become special education teachers. Each state sets minimum standards for public school teachers. Requirements often include a bachelor's degree from an authorized teacher preparation program, a student teaching internship, and passing a background check and standard licensing exams such as the Praxis.
Administrative or curriculum development roles often require a master's degree. If you want to work as a school psychologist or behavior analyst, you must also complete a relevant master's program.
Associate Degree in Special Education
Associate programs in special education usually require 60 credits and two years of full-time study. In addition to general education coursework in subjects like English and the humanities, learners often study topics like early childhood behavior management, linguistically and culturally diverse learners, and introduction to curriculum design.
While you may work as a preschool teacher in some districts with just an associate degree, most states require K-12 teachers to hold a bachelor's. Many public colleges and universities hold articulation agreements with community colleges in their state, making it easier for students to transfer credits from an associate program into a bachelor's program.
What Can You Do With an Associate in Special Education?
Special education paraprofessionals support teachers inside and outside the classroom. For example, they may supervise student transportation services, assist in grading assignments, or respond to behavioral issues. Paraprofessionals may also assist with basic care duties for students with physical disabilities. Many of these jobs require a postsecondary certificate or associate degree.
Preschool teachers work with students younger than five years old, helping them develop language, social, and motor skills. They may also provide basic instruction in subjects like reading or arithmetic. While you can qualify for many of these roles with just an associate degree, roughly half of Head Start teaching positions now require a bachelor's.
Bachelor's Degree in Special Education
Earning a bachelor's degree prepares you for many different careers in special education. In addition to teaching roles, you can also serve as a preschool or childcare center director, overseeing the care and enrichment of students with special needs.
Undergraduate programs in special education include coursework in subjects like behavioral support strategies, collaborating with partners for student success, and instructional strategies for learners with mild to moderate exceptionalities. Most programs also feature a supervised teaching experience, allowing students to get feedback on their instructional methods from experienced educators.
Most states require some form of student teaching as a prerequisite for licensure.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Special Education?
Special education teachers who work in preschools, kindergartens, and elementary schools provide foundational instruction in subjects like reading, arithmetic, and basic science. They also make appropriate accommodations for their students' physical, emotional, and/or mental disabilities. They must develop IEPs to guide and track the support offered by other educators, counselors, and social workers.
Middle school special education teachers typically work with children in grades 6-8. They build on students' elementary education, helping them develop the academic and social skills needed to succeed in high school and beyond. While many of these teachers work exclusively with students who have special needs, an increasing number now serve in inclusive classrooms.
Master's Degree in Special Education
Earning a master's degree in special education can help you qualify for a promotion or salary increase. This advanced degree also empowers you to pursue more specialized and senior roles, such as instructional coordinator, academic counselor, or school principal.
Master's programs in special education may cover topics like targeted instructional strategies for youth with disabilities, incorporating exceptional learners into general education classrooms, and the behavioral principles of special education assessment.
Students in master's programs may also take a series of classes in research design and analysis, preparing them to incorporate research into their practice or continue their education at the doctoral level.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Special Education?
Special education directors oversee the delivery of instruction and support to students with special needs. They often work at the district level, coordinating the efforts of principals and curriculum designers at multiple schools. While not always required, a master's degree may give you a competitive edge when applying for these roles.
Intervention specialists provide intensive and often individualized assistance to children dealing with emotional, behavioral, and/or mental issues. Depending on the state in which you work, you may need a master's degree to qualify for licensure as an intervention specialist.
Doctoral Degree in Special Education
To teach or conduct research at a college or university, you must first earn a doctoral degree. A doctorate in special education may also position you for certain leadership roles, such as superintendent or chief academic officer.
Doctoral programs typically begin with 2-3 years of classes in areas like special education law, neuroscience, and advanced statistics. After completing this coursework, doctoral candidates may need to pass a comprehensive examination before working on their dissertation.
The dissertation process involves collecting original research and summarizing the methodology and findings in a written document, usually 100-200 pages in length. Students may need 3-5 years to complete and successfully defend their dissertation.
What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Special Education?
Postsecondary professors conduct research and instruct students at colleges, universities, and trade schools. They may also perform administrative functions like chairing a special education department or overseeing the student admissions process. While you may be able to teach at some community colleges with just a master's degree, most of these roles require a doctorate.
Academic deans oversee teaching and learning activities at colleges and universities. They approve curricula, lead search committees, resolve student issues like plagiarism, and supervise various academic departments. Most academic deans have both a doctoral degree and several years of experience as a professor
How to Advance Your Career in Special Education
Continuing education, additional certification, and professional development help you grow as a special education teacher and advance your career after graduation. Teachers who regularly engage in in-depth study of learning disabilities, instructional methods, and legal issues can better address their students' needs.
Professional development can also offer new special education career opportunities. In addition to qualifying individuals for leadership positions within a school system, professional development can provide opportunities in other positions, like behavior analysis and curriculum development.
Below, you can learn about additional teaching credentials beyond your teaching license, as well as continuing education opportunities to prepare you for new challenges.
Certifications and/or Licensure
Most teachers begin their careers with an apprentice or provisional teaching license, which is valid for 1-3 years. Some states may renew this beginner license once before requiring educators to qualify for a professional teaching license. The professional license may require graduate courses in special education or professional development programs.
The American Academy of Special Education Professionals offers board certification in special education. This voluntary professional credential recognizes your commitment to education for exceptional children. This certification requires a relevant master's degree and five advanced professional development courses.
Additionally, the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards offers an autism certificate for educators with a specialization in autism spectrum disorders. Applicants must complete 14 continuing education credits related to autism, pass a competency exam, and pay a registration fee. Renewal requires ongoing education.
Most states require teachers to complete a specified number of continuing education credits each year to renew their teaching license. Many school systems offer teachers the opportunity to take this training from a combination of professional organizations, state or federal education departments, and nonprofit organizations.
Professional development courses offered by state and federal education agencies are often free, and many of these classes use web-based instruction.
Some individuals may continue their education by earning a full-fledged graduate degree; a master's allows special education teachers to gain expertise in working with students with intellectual disabilities, behavior disorders, and learning disabilities. Many programs also offer a specialization in autism spectrum disorders. These programs enhance a professional's classroom teaching ability, preparing educators for curriculum development, early intervention, and special education administration roles.
Other careers available to individuals with a special education degree include school psychologist, behavior analyst, and therapist. These careers all require additional training, but often build on skills gained during an undergraduate program.
Educational research provides new insight into best practices for classroom management, differentiated learning, and assisted learning techniques. Successful special education teachers stay abreast of these discoveries to put new ideas to work in their classrooms.
As you begin your special education career, take advantage of professional learning opportunities and build relationships with your fellow teachers, many of whom can offer advice and support during challenging situations. Seek out opportunities to work with other special education teachers across your school district and state to build a strong professional network.
Schools often require teachers to complete professional development each year. Professional development may include in-person training hosted by your school system, workshops sponsored by professional organizations, and webinars offered by organizations that advocate on behalf of students with disabilities.
How to Switch Your Career to Special Education
If you already have a teaching license, becoming a special education teacher may only require taking the required Praxis exam. You may benefit, however, from earning a master's degree in special education. A master's degree may qualify you for a higher salary and leadership positions, such as lead teacher or interventionist.
If you have a degree in a field other than education, you probably need to return to school to enter this field. Special education careers require the knowledge and skills gained during a teacher preparation program. Many schools offer master's degrees that lead to initial teacher certification in special education.
Where Can You Work as a Special Education Professional?
Most people who earn a degree in special education serve as teachers. However, they may also find work as educational administrators who create and oversee programs for students with special needs. Some special education graduates work in the nonprofit sector, while others act as public advocates for children and families.
Your professional opportunities depend on where you live, your chosen industry, and your level of education.
Most special education teachers work in schools. The BLS reports that 188,810 kindergarten and elementary special education teachers work in elementary and secondary schools.
However, other employers also need the skills and insights held by special education teachers. These employers include local governments, family service organizations, educational support services, and residential care facilities.
Special education teachers who work at elementary and secondary schools teach students with mental, physical, and emotional disabilities. Most serve in classrooms, though others may administer enrichment and skill-development programs.
Average Salary: $66,040
Many state government agencies oversee local school districts to ensure that students with special needs receive an adequate education. Administrators in these state offices may conduct site visits, facilitate the distribution of funds, and train teachers in new instructional practices.
Average Salary: $63,360
This industry comprises nonprofit organizations and quasi-governmental agencies that supplement the education offered by local school districts. For example, some nonprofits help families identify tutors who specifically work with students with disabilities.
Average Salary: $56,080
Local governments often provide services to children with special needs and their families. They may, for instance, provide specialized transportation to and from school for children with physical disabilities. Municipal staff may also work as liaisons to teachers and educational administrators, coordinating access to other forms of public assistance.
Average Salary: $59,150
Despite the growing trend of inclusive classrooms, some students have disabilities so severe that have trouble learning in mainstream environments. Some special education teachers work within schools and organizations that exclusively cater to students with intellectual, developmental, and behavioral issues.
Average Salary: $49,070
Special education teachers can find employment across the country. In New York, these teachers make the highest salaries, taking home an average salary of $83,890 annually. California, Maryland, Oregon, and the District of Columbia also pay these teachers high wages, with average salaries ranging from $79,000-$83,000.
New York also employs the most special education teachers (17,340 individuals). Texas employs 13,990 special education teachers, followed by California (9,750), Illinois (8,710), and Pennsylvania (7,970).
Interview With a Professional in Special Education
Dr. Reesha Adamson is an associate professor in the department of counseling, leadership, and special education at Missouri State University in Springfield.
Previously, Dr. Adamson worked as a special education teacher in a K-5 classroom for students with emotional and behavioral disorders, as an educational provider within a juvenile justice center, and as a districtwide behavioral specialist. She has also worked as the project coordinator for the Center for Adolescent Research in Schools in Missouri.
I have always known that I wanted to teach. I was raised by teachers, and there is a long history of educators in our family. However, my specific interest in special education came in high school, when I was placed at a local elementary school to fulfill hours.
I was put in a classroom for students with challenging behaviors and was immediately drawn to their emotional needs. I saw the complex balance of providing academic and behavioral skills and felt that I had an internal knack for reaching these students on all levels.
I then went to college and got dual certification in elementary and special education to ensure that this was the pathway I wanted to be on. It was at college that I took my first behavior modification class and became hooked on the principles of behavior management and applied behavior analysis techniques to shape behavior.
Working with challenging kids who combine a mixture of mental health and behavioral needs is where I have always felt my calling. I love challenging myself to help them overcome whatever obstacles they may have to be successful.
I was working as a classroom special education teacher for the most challenging students within the school district and started wanting more knowledge.
I was lucky to have a university close by that had one of the leading experts within the field for challenging behaviors. He worked closely with my school and district to assist in developing multileveled systems of support, and I was immediately drawn to the knowledge base and information that he had.
I was learning constantly from his guidance with our school, and when he approached me about the option to get my doctorate under his guidance, I was excited about the opportunity.
One of my passions as a teacher was always to help educate my fellow teachers in behavioral strategies for student success, and I believed that a doctorate would allow me to impact pre-service and in-service teachers to combine my passion for improving outcomes among students and my desire to be a lifelong learner myself.
Being a special educator is hard. The typical response is that it takes a "special person" to do that kind of work, but in reality, it takes someone who is willing to put their own feelings and emotions aside and do what is best for kids.
You may think that we are "special people," but in fact the kids are special. They have untapped potential and need someone to believe in them and support them throughout all of their challenges and through their own personal ups and downs. Children need someone who is willing to ride the wave with them and travel down a pathway of uncertainty and risk.
Creating an environment of support and guidance is a special educator's role, and we are working side by side with our students to be successful. Put mental health needs and behavioral challenges on top of that, and you typically have a child who thrives on trust and relationships, but may have experienced these only on occasion.
We are in special education to help children, and some days it's harder than others. I always say that adults are much more challenging to work with than kids. Helping kids learn and succeed is better than any other "win" you can have!
I also believe it has to be noted that the intrinsic rewards from being a special educator are plenty, but the extrinsic are few and far between.
We are often overlooked as members of school teams, and we spend long hours on our classrooms and paperwork, which can overshadow our personal lives, in addition to countless hours of preparation to ensure that we are supporting each student on their own individualized level.
This can be something that is challenging in itself, and we do all of this for inadequate pay and with inadequate resources. It is a challenge; while many states around the country have begun expressing concerns, even after strikes and pay raises, education remains an undervalued field.
I believe empathy is critical.
As an educator, you are working with kids who many times have very different backgrounds from your own and families that may have had their own challenges with the educational system. It's important to look at the situation from a vantage point other than your own; this can give you a better understanding of why things are the way they are for everyone else involved.
I also believe that being consistent is a needed skill, especially when working with students with challenging behaviors. Students need to know who you are deep in your core and know that you are consistently there for them — even when mistakes happen.
You are there through the good times and the bad to support students and help them overcome their challenges.
I believe the most critical advice I would give is to walk away at the end of the day. There is always going to be another task you can complete and another project to work on, but it is important to have a balance in your life.
Burnout is real, and it is something that plagues education as a whole. There will be some nights when you do have to stay late or a weekend that you have to come in, but make those happen on occasion, not as the norm.
I have always encouraged students to plan their time wisely during the day. Use it to make yourself successful and to do just that … plan!
Also, stay out of the teacher's lounge. These areas can potentially be hazardous, as individuals will gossip and talk about "problems." Our special education students are not immune to these conversations, and it can have a dramatic impact on your mental health if you are hearing more concerns than you really need to.
If someone has a concern, let them come to you. It will be more purposeful, and the individual will be telling you something they think you need to know — not something just because they saw you.
Lastly, I would tell students that they have chosen a career that will be one of the most rewarding in their lives, but they need to find a group of individuals who know and understand what they are doing and can ride the waves with them.
I found my people in an organization that supports students with emotional and behavioral disorders, and some people find them with a spouse or colleagues, but no matter where you find them, you need them — to share the joys and the sorrows, to raise you up and celebrate, but also to help you find a room to cry in when emotions get to be too much!
I love being a special education teacher and could not imagine any other job.
I also love helping to create the next generation of teachers. We are at a unique position where we have the ability to change perceptions about education and educators through policy and activism.
I'm excited to see future generations and what they can accomplish to continue fighting for equal rights and supporting individuals with whatever special needs and supports they may have.
Resources for Special Education Majors
Professional organizations, education publications, and online courses offer opportunities to learn and grow as professional educators.
The resources listed below provide a sample of the organizations and materials available to college graduates entering careers with a special education degree. Additionally, you may qualify for reduced or free registration, subscriptions, or tuition as a special education teacher.
National Association of Special Education Teachers: NASET represents special education teachers working in public and private schools across the country. The association provides a wealth of professional resources on subjects like developing IEPs, special education law, teaching English language learners with special needs, and supporting students with severe physical disabilities. NASET also hosts a career center.
American Academy of Special Education Professionals: AASEP provides board certification to special education teachers and administrators. Board certification signals expertise, experience, and a commitment to ongoing education. To qualify, candidates must hold a master's degree, complete a series of online courses, and pass a set of five exams.
Council for Exceptional Children: CEC works to ensure the academic success of children with exceptionalities. The council conducts public advocacy on behalf of its members and constituents. CEC also provides professional development resources to educators, publishes books and scholarly journals, and hosts conferences on subjects like bullying and tiered intervention systems.
National Association of State Directors of Special Education: NASDSE promotes collaboration among state education agencies tasked with supporting students with physical and mental disabilities. In addition to organizing an annual research and networking conference, the association provides online resources in areas such as the role of charter schools in special education and working with students on the autism spectrum.
National Education Association: With more than 3 million members, the NEA is the nation's largest professional organization for teachers and education professionals. The association provides free access to lesson plans and classroom management tools, shares research and policy briefs on a variety of topics in special education, and offers scholarships to aspiring and current teachers.
Autism Spectrum Disorder - University of California, Davis: Offered through Coursera, this course introduces autism spectrum disorder characteristics and how they can impact behavior, learning, and the ability to process information. Designed for educators, clinicians, therapists, counselors, and medical staff, the curriculum provides information about autism spectrum disorder diagnosis and evidence-based intervention strategies.
Early Education and Care in Inclusive Settings - University of Massachusetts Boston: Designed for early childhood education professionals, this course helps teachers assess their skills in eight competency areas. The eight competencies align with early childhood education licensing regulations and best practices for early education development. Upon completion, participants can outline their professional development plan for the next 1-5 years.
Individualized Reading Instruction in the Elementary Grades - University of Michigan: This course focuses on how young students acquire literacy skills and the methods that help them succeed. The curriculum includes planning and leading reading and writing workshops, administering reading assessments, and conducting language and word study.
Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom - Columbia University: This course examines how to create an equitable environment that promotes inclusive teaching practices. Modules include setting explicit expectations, promoting diversity and inclusion with course content, designing course elements for accessibility, and cultivating self-reflection. Designed by the Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning, the course appears on the edX platform and lasts six weeks.
TEACHING Exceptional Children: Published by the Council for Exceptional Children, this research- and practice-based journal supports classroom teachers by discussing new strategies, procedures, and techniques. Articles address academics, building school-family partnerships, and using assistive technology. The journal publishes issues six times each year.
TEACH Magazine: Published in Canada, this magazine fosters open discussion among teachers about tools and resources used to promote innovation. Contributors offer perspectives from their classrooms and profiles of educators. Experts in their field share information on research-based interventions for students with special needs and examine the impact of policy decisions on teachers and students.
Teacher Education and Special Education: Also published by the Council for Exceptional Children, this journal focuses on teacher preparation and professional development. Peer-reviewed articles include original research, literature reviews, and position papers.
NASET Week In Review: NASET produces this weekly newsletter that offers curated materials related to special education. Readers can stay current with changes in regulations and laws, new instructional techniques, and book reviews. Anyone can subscribe for free.
NASET Special Educator e-Journal: Published online each month by NASET, this journal includes a collection of new academic articles and original content from NASET contributors. In addition to special education news and updates, it includes employment postings.
Education Update Newsletter: Published monthly by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, this newsletter examines trends in education, instructional leadership, and new research in learning and teaching. Teachers, administrators, and other education practitioners share their best practices and strategies to overcome challenges.
American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: This journal reports on new research in areas related to biological, behavioral, and educational sciences. Published by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, this journal has served as a resource for researchers, students, clinicians, and educators for more than 100 years.
Frequently Asked Questions
Your special education degree prepares you for many types of teaching careers. Most graduates work as special education teachers, helping students with physical, emotional, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities overcome challenges and develop to their fullest potential. The BLS projects 3% employment growth among special education teachers between 2018 and 2028, and these professionals make a median salary of $61,030.
Individuals with a special education degree can also pursue careers related to curriculum development, education administration, and early intervention. In addition to local schools, special education graduates find work with state and federal agencies. They may also work for residential care facilities, rehabilitation hospitals, and nonprofit organizations.
In addition to special education teachers, other related careers include social worker, school counselor, behavioral analyst, and developmental psychologist. Qualifications for these careers vary. You may need a graduate or advanced degree for some jobs. Occupational, speech, and physical therapists also work with individuals with special needs.
Patience, creativity, and empathy are key for working with children with special needs. Children with special needs often require adaptive instructional methods that help them understand the tasks at hand. A career in special education also requires strong communication and interpersonal skills.
The BLS reports a median salary of $61,030 for special education teachers. However, salary often varies by location and industry. For example, special education teachers working in the educational support services industry report average salaries of $85,170 each year.
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BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.
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