Special Education Degrees: Associates, Bachelors & Online Course Info

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What kind of job can you get with an associate's or bachelor's degree in special education? Find out the degree program requirements, the pros and cons of each degree and potential careers.
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Studying Special Education: Degrees at a Glance

An associate's degree in special education does not qualify you to teach special education, but it can enable you to obtain a position as a teacher's aide. It is important to note, many teacher's aide positions only require a high school diploma or its equivalent. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates job growth for teacher's aides to be approximately 15%, which is about as fast as average, between 2010 and 2020.

A bachelor's degree is required to teach special education. Special education can be the major of the degree, or it can be a minor. State licensing is also required in order to teach at a public school. Some states require you earn a master's degree in special education after you become certified. Job opportunities for special education teachers are expected to increase 17%, about as fast as average, between 2010 and 2020, according to the BLS.

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Students looking to increase credentials to work as a teacher's aide or who plan to transfer to a special education bachelor's degree program Individuals who wish to teach special education in a public or private school
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) -Teacher's aide ($25,000)*
-Childcare worker ($21,000)*
Special education teacher ($56,000)*
Time to Completion 2-3 years, full time Approximately 2 years after the associate's degree, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements -Approximately 60 credit hours
- Field/service experiences
-Basic skills test and/or other exams
-Approximately 128-136 credit hours
- Teacher licensure requirements
- Student teaching and/or other practicum
Prerequisites -High school diploma or GED
-Fingerprint/background check
-Immunization and possibly insurance requirements prior to working in the classroom
High school diploma or GED
Online Availability Yes Yes

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Associate's in Special Education

An associate's degree in special education does not enable you to teach special education, but it can be a stepping stone in gaining employment as a teacher's aide while in the pursuit of your teaching credentials or qualify you for other positions like an early childhood intervention assistant or a family home child care provider. Some states do require an associate's degree for teacher's assistant positions, while others do not.

Often, community colleges will offer the associate's degree in special education and have specific relationships with local schools so you can transfer into a bachelor's degree program. By completing your associate's degree at a community college and then transferring, you can save a significant amount on tuition.

There are further concentrations or specializations within the special education department that can include early childhood development, visual impairments, and deaf education.

There are several variations of permits, certification, and credentialing that vary by state, so it is important to research the requirements where you live and to ensure you are in the correct program with the correct coursework for your end goal.

Pros and Cons


  • Obtaining an associate's degree from a community college then transferring to a 4-year college can result in significant tuition savings
  • Public schools consider associate's degree holders as highly qualified for aide positions
  • In some areas, positions requiring this degree outnumber available applicants, creating a positive job outlook for degree holders


  • Many positions only require a high school diploma or other shorter certificate programs and classes
  • There can be additional state certification requirements and permits for specific positions
  • Cost of degree program might not translate into pay potential

Courses and Requirements

Associate's degrees in special education can include concentrations that includes specific coursework and requirements. The degree, in general, includes coursework and classes in human development, educational theory and practices, and psychology.

Some of the specific courses might include:

  • Human communication
  • Psychology
  • Diagnostics/assessment of special needs children
  • Curriculum
  • Creative art and play
  • Child growth and development

Many programs include field and service work opportunities that involve working in classrooms and various other settings with special needs children under the supervision of a teacher or other certified caregiver. Usually, there are immunization requirements and possibly insurance requirements prior to being allowed in the school or child-care facility.

Online Degree Options

There are accredited associate's degree programs in special education that make coursework available purely online. They are generally structured around full-time working individuals, do not require any courses to be taken on campus, but might still have classroom or field-work requirements that have to be completed to earn your degree.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

If you are planning on continuing your education and obtaining teacher certification, it is recommended that you take the Praxis I test. Schools, unions, or other professional organizations might offer additional training opportunities to teacher assistants in order to familiarize them with their school district and policies. Taking advantage of these opportunities as soon as possible can help to make you a well-rounded job candidate and acquaint you with the system.

Bachelor's in Special Education

Teaching special education requires a minimum of a bachelor's degree. Additionally, there are different ways of pursuing certification to teach special education. There are some degree programs in which the major is special education; however, often you can major in elementary education or a particular secondary education subject and have special education as a minor. Other options are early childhood education and development with a minor in special education or degrees in specific special education areas, like working with the deaf.

It should also be noted, that there are licensing requirement differences between public and private schools. Additionally, some states require you earn a master's degree after you receive your initial certification. Other states frequently have requirements that can include yearly development classes in order to retain your license after you have begun teaching.

Pros and Cons


  • This degree enables you to recognize developmental needs in children and affect change in their lives
  • You will be filling an imperative and valued niche in your community
  • Some states/programs allow you to obtain dual licensure in both special education and elementary education or secondary education


  • The financial investment of the degree program may not translate into equitable earning potential after graduation
  • Some programs require students to meet specific criteria in order to be accepted into their programs
  • Some programs will require full-time enrollment at 15-18 credit hours per semester in order to be completed in 4 years

Courses and Requirements

The courses and requirements of a bachelor's degree program in special education are very similar to those listed in the associate's degree section. Additionally, you will be exploring the issues of the field, developing the means to shape your specific teaching style to suit the needs of your students, learning how to interact with and include the families of your students, and obtaining various other tools to assist you in teaching children with disabilities.

Some courses you might take include:

  • Reading instruction
  • Psychological foundations in education
  • Teaching exceptional learners
  • Learning and behavior differences
  • Communication development
  • Sign language

You will also have to complete some combination of experiences in the field and internships, student teaching and practicum experience as part of the program.

Online Degree Options

Bachelor of Arts in Special Education degrees that lead to becoming a licensed teacher do exist online from accredited and affordable schools. These programs deliver your coursework online so you can complete it according to your own schedule. These programs also coordinate the necessary student teaching and classroom time required to obtain teacher licensure and certification.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

Some degree programs are designed to certify you in either elementary or secondary education, in addition to special education. By combining your coursework from several programs, you are able to obtain dual licensure and gain access to a larger pool of job opportunities faster than if these degree programs were pursued separately.

Communication, instruction, and other interpersonal skills in addition to ingenuity, analytical thinking, and patience are all tools integral to success in this arena. Taking electives and additional coursework that hone your skills in these areas and demonstrate your abilities and mastery of them can better prepare you for obtaining employment after graduation.

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