Best Online Doctorate in Special Education Programs

Pursuing a career in special education is rewarding for many professionals, and the demand for special education teachers and researchers is growing. We've ranked the best online doctorate in special education programs. Compare schools and figure out where to earn your doctorate in special education.

portrait of James Mielke
by James Mielke

Updated July 9, 2022

Reviewed by Dr. Samantha Fecich

Our Review Network

BestColleges is committed to delivering content that is objective and accurate. We have built a network of industry professionals across healthcare and education to review our content and ensure we are providing the best information to our readers.

With their first-hand industry experience, our reviewers provide an extra step in our editing process. These experts:

  • Suggest changes to inaccurate or misleading information.
  • Provide specific, corrective feedback.
  • Identify critical information that writers may have missed.

Our growing Review Network currently consists of professionals in fields like business, nursing, social work, and other subject-specific industries; professionals in higher education areas such as college counseling and financial aid; and anti-bias reviewers.

Reviewers typically work full time in their industry profession and review content for BestColleges as a side project. Our reviewers are members of the Red Ventures Education Freelance Review Network and are paid for their contributions.

See a full list of our Review Network contributors.

Edited by Colin Weickmann
Share this Article

Many public school students — over 14%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics — partake in federally subsidized special education programs. As this number continues to grow, so does demand for special education professionals.

Individuals pursuing an online doctorate in special education are prepared to serve the more than 7 million students in special education programs across the United States. Not all graduates with this degree work directly with special education students. Some apply their specialized knowledge in college classrooms and leadership roles. 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.

Ready to start your journey?

This page examines online doctorate in special education program offerings. We also review admission requirements and career prospects, while spotlighting the traits of quality doctoral programs.

What Can I Expect From an Online Doctorate in Special Education Program?

Whether you want to work in academia or in an administrative role in a public school, an online doctorate in special education equips you to with core skills in special education and disability advocacy.

Graduate school students pursuing an online doctorate in special education usually seek either a Ph.D. or an Ed.D. Thoe tackling the research-heavy Ph.D. in special education typically go on to work in higher education teaching and research roles. Learners who want to develop the leadership skills required for administrative roles might prefer a management-focused Ed.D.

Special education doctoral students typically complete 60-75 credits and graduate in 3-5 years. Depending on program format, students can complete online coursework either synchronously or asynchronously. Distance learning often allows the flexibility to complete course requirements while keeping up with personal and professional responsibilities.

In addition to core academic requirements, special education students can dedicate time to various academic concentrations. Specializations offerings may include applied behavioral analysis, early intervention, and autism.

Still Looking for the Right Fit? Discover Similar Programs.

Popular Online Doctorate in Special Education Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

What Courses Will I Take in an Online Doctorate in Special Education Program?

Introduction to Qualitative Research

This critical doctorate-level course provides students with a working knowledge of qualitative research methods. Participants learn to write research questions and analyze data. They also explore statistics and quantitative research. Learners apply research techniques and complete research projects to highlight the compilation and analysis of qualitative information.

Advanced Learning Theory and Research

During this graduate-level class, doctoral students evaluate education-based research involving topics like diversity, assessment, and classroom management. Students familiarize themselves with contemporary learning theories and apply them to real-world situations.

History and Future of Special Education

This online course surveys the history of disability advocacy and special education. Degree-seekers explore historical trends through the lens of contemporary issues in the special education field.

Advanced Study of Best Practices in Special Education

This course takes an empirical approach to educational interventions for children with academic, emotional, and social disabilities. Students learn about current best practices and evaluate the various ethical and legal issues in a special education environment.

Collaboration and Communication in Special Education

This online graduate class explores the support infrastructure and services for students in special education environments. Online learners familiarize themselves with communication networks involving special education students, services providers, and family members.

Find the Tools You Need to Get Started on Your Degree

What Are the Admission Requirements for an Online Doctorate in Special Education Program?

Admission requirements vary among programs. Applicants to online doctorate in special education programs can expect certain baseline similarities when completing applications. For example, prospective students should have a bachelor's degree in a relevant field. Most programs require a minimum 3.0 GPA as well.

When applying for graduate admission, make sure to review application checklists closely. Preferred test scores, work history, and academic experience may differ among schools.


The specifics of college applications vary among schools. Most require prospective students to submit admission information online. Applicants typically provide boilerplate information along with transcripts, essays, and test scores. Prospective students should submit clear, concise, and complete applications.

Test Scores

Admission into an online doctorate in special education typically leans on an applicant's professional experience and past graduate-level coursework. For this reason, many programs do not require standardized test scores. Some may require GRE scores, but standardized testing often supplements other essential admission information.

Letters of Recommendation

Most doctorate in special education programs require applicants to submit letters of recommendation. Depending on application requirements, these can come from academic and/or professional sources. When selecting individuals to compose these letters, applicants should choose references who can speak specifically and positively about their unique skills and accomplishments.

Resume and Work Experience

Many online doctorate in special education programs require applicants to have several years of professional teaching experience. Applicants traditionally submit professional resumes outlining their achievements, skills, and competencies. A resume is also an opportunity to underscore any education-based certifications and licensures.


Graduate-level admission essays allow applicants to showcase their writing proficiency and academic and career goals. Essay topics vary among programs, but the prompts typically ask applicants to introduce themselves, highlight their unique stories, and discuss what they can bring to the doctoral program.

Official Transcripts

Official transcripts from all undergraduate and graduate-level coursework are required with all graduate applications. Many programs impose minimum GPA requirements, but many review applications holistically, weighing past academic performance alongside professional experience, test scores, and ability.

What Can I Do With an Online Doctorate in Special Education Degree?

Career Outlook

An online doctorate in education can lead to a career at a university or as a school system leader. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for special education teachers, school principals, and postsecondary administrators are projected to grow by 8% from 2020-2030.

Public school principals earn a median annual salary of nearly $100,000. Top-earning administrators can earn more than $150,000 per year. Common careers for special education doctoral grads include higher education, primary and secondary education, research, and special education advocacy roles.

A doctorate in special education can open up a variety of career opportunities. Learn more about special education careers.

Career Paths

Special Education Administrator

These professionals manage special education programs within school systems and individual schools. Typically in public school settings, special education administrators tackle responsibilities including curriculum assessment, teacher and staff evaluation, and budget oversight. These professionals work closely with other administrators to ensure their schools adhere to various local, state, and federal laws.

Median Annual Salary: $98,490

Instructional Coordinator

Working within the context of special education, instructional coordinators take a data-based approach to designing and implementing special education curricula. These professionals evaluate curriculum standards, conduct teacher training, and implement new teaching techniques, classroom materials, and course content

Median Annual Salary: $66,970

Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers use specialized training to work with students with various emotional, learning, and physical disabilities. These professionals create individualized education programs to address each student's needs. These teachers also communicate student progress with parents, specialists, and administrators. Special education teachers work closely with families and students to prepare them for life outside the classroom.

Median Annual Salary: $61,500

Special Education Professor

Special education professors work in a variety of postsecondary environments, applying their academic and practical knowledge to prepare the next generation of special education teachers. These professionals develop course content, teach classes within their areas of expertise, and evaluate student progress through graded assignments. These higher education professionals advise students, keep up with topics in their field, and often publish their own research.

Median Annual Salary: $80,560

Postsecondary Education Administrator

Postsecondary education administrators supervise academics, student services, and budgetary issues in higher education. These professionals may formulate academic policies, analyze admission data, and take part in faculty hirings and tenure determinations.

Median Annual Salary: $97,500

Special Education Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

Continuing Education

After earning a doctorate in special education, graduates can pursue a variety of postgraduate certificates in areas like special education and leadership. They can also tackle postdoctoral fellowships focusing on research areas relevant to special education practice and policy.

Common postgraduate certificate topics include special education for culturally and linguistically diverse populations, special education and inclusive classrooms, and early childhood special education.

How Do I Choose an Online Doctorate in Special Education Program?


The cost of a doctorate in special education can vary significantly among programs. As a general rule, tuition at public schools costs less than at private institutions. This cost difference can end up saving students tens of thousands of dollars.

Online and on-campus rates are relatively similar for graduate students. However, online programs may allow students to continue working while saving money on travel and campus-related fees.

Program Format

Program format can help determine whether a program is a quality fit. For example, do you prefer a self-paced delivery or a scheduled, real-time online class? If you must balance professional responsibilities with your coursework, you may not have the bandwidth for a full-time or accelerated program.


Some online programs require in-person attendance at orientations or academic sessions. Make sure to review any in-person requirements a prospective program may have.


Institutional accreditation indicates that a school meets rigorous standards set by a third-party organization. Applicants should seek out regionally accredited schools to ensure access to quality academics and student services. The best education programs also earn programmatic accreditation from groups like the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Student Support

Online learners often require fewer student services. Still, access to networking opportunities, alumni connections, and online counseling can enhance students' academic experience. Before enrolling, make sure to ask about student support services for online learners.

Best Accredited Online Doctorate in Special Education Programs

Rankings compiled by the the BestColleges Ranking Team

Is your school on this list? Get the BestColleges ranking seal.

How We Rank Schools

At BestColleges, we believe a college education is one of the most important investments you can make. We want to help you navigate the college selection process by offering transparent, inclusive, and relevant school rankings.

Our rankings are grounded in a few guiding principles and use the latest statistical data available from trusted sources. Read our ranking methodology. We hope our approach helps you find the school that is best for you.

Best Online Doctorate in Special Education Programs

  • Concordia University Chicago

    River Forest, IL



    Established in 1864, CUC provides learning experiences to students through a Christian lens. CUC values academic excellence and service. The university also strives to accommodate working professionals through distance programs.

    Professionals with an affinity for helping students with distinctive needs can earn an online doctorate in special education through CUC. This program requires 61 or 67 credits, depending on whether learners pursue an Ed.D. or a Ph.D. Courses include supervision of programs for children with disabilities, international perspectives in special education, current issues and trends in special education, and assistive technology for students with disabilities. The curriculum also requires a comprehensive exam and a dissertation.

    Students take coursework asynchronously. CUC is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

  • Drexel University

    Philadelphia, PA



    Founded in 1891, Drexel prioritizes student-centered learning, research, and problem-solving. As an extension of that mission, Drexel has offered distance learning since 1996.

    Working professionals who enroll at Drexel can earn an online doctorate in educational leadership and management with a concentration in special education leadership. This online doctoral degree in special education requires 60.5-61.5 quarter credits. Part-time students typically graduate in three years. Courses include program evaluation in organizations and quantitative research methods in data analysis.

    Admission requires an accredited bachelor's and master's degree. Applicants also need at least three years of professional experience. Drexel is regionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

  • Hampton University

    Hampton, VA



    Located in Virginia, HU is one of the top historically black universities in the nation. The university's student body includes nearly 4,300 learners. HU prioritizes accessible and affordable education. To that end, HU ranks first among universities in the South in terms of graduating students with the smallest amount of debt.

    Special education advocates can earn a Ph.D. in educational management with a concentration in special education. This degree requires 66 credits, and students typically graduate in 30 months. All students complete a dissertation and learn core educational leadership competencies.

    Admission requires a bachelor's degree from an accredited university with a minimum 3.0 GPA. Applicants must also earn a minimum score of 150 on the GRE. Prospective students who do not meet GPA or test score requirements can still earn provisional admission; they may be fully admitted after earning a minimum 3.0 GPA over their first six credits in the program.

    HU is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

  • Liberty University

    Lynchburg, VA



    A conservative, evangelical university, Liberty provides academic programs that promote a Christian worldview. Liberty serves over 100,000 students, including roughly 30,000 military students.

    Students can earn an online Ed.D. in curriculum and instruction - special education at Liberty. This program requires 54 credits, and the average student graduates in about three years. Courses include the history and future of special education, collaboration and communication in special education, and advanced learning theory and research. Each course lasts eight weeks, and the program does not have any in-person requirements.

    Liberty is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

  • Regent University

    Virginia Beach, VA



    Regent is one of the fastest-growing Christian schools in the nation. The university delivers student-focused and Christ-centered learning, including online programs that primarily serve working professionals and military students.

    Regent offers an online doctorate in education with a special education concentration. This degree requires 75 credits, including 21 core credits, 24-26 special education concentration credits, six summer residency credits, and 15 dissertation credits. Courses include advanced study of high-incidence disabilities, data-driven decision-making, bioethics in special education, and issues in education. Each course lasts eight weeks.

    Regent is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Frequently Asked Questions About Doctorate in Special Education Programs

Is a doctorate in special education worth it?

Yes. Whether a student is pursuing a career in academia or leadership roles in public education, an online doctorate in special education can increase career options and earning potential. Online learning opportunities allow working professionals to earn their degrees while keeping up with personal and professional obligations.

Online doctoral students tackle essential special education topics while honing research skills in collaborative environments. Graduates leverage their studies in education leadership roles and when advocating for special education policies.

What can I do with a doctorate in special education?

Students graduating with a doctorate in special education qualify for careers in higher education, primary and secondary education, and administration and leadership. Common careers for graduates include school superintendent, college professor, and curriculum development.

In addition to careers in educational settings, graduates are equipped to tackle other data-centric roles, leadership positions, and work. Doctorate-holders can avocate for policy issues surrounding special education and populations with disabilities.

How long does it take to get a doctorate in special education online?

Most students can complete their online doctorate in special education in 3-5 years. Students hone their research and writing skills and tackle coursework on topics including low-incidence instruction, emotional and behavioral disorders, and special education history and policy.

In addition to more traditional coursework, online learners often complete dissertations. These students work closely with dissertation advisors to craft original, publishable pieces of research.

How much money can I make with a doctorate in special education?

Graduates often work as school principals and college professors, which command median salaries of about $100,000 annually. Experienced professionals in special education can potentially earn higher salaries.

What are the highest paying jobs with a doctorate in special education?

For graduates with a doctorate in special education, the highest paying jobs are typically leadership, management, and administrative roles. School superintendents, primary and secondary school principals, and postsecondary administrators all earn median salaries approaching or exceeding six figures.

In addition to leadership roles, doctoral students can expand their career options and earning potential through academic specializations, postgraduate certificates, and networking opportunities.

Image Source: FG Trade, Getty Images 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.

Compare your school options.

View the most relevant school for your interests and compare them by tuition, programs, acceptance rate, and other factors important to find your college home.