Special Education

Your Guide to Earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Special Education

Your Guide to Earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Special Education
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Melanie Harrison profile
Melanie Harrison July 22, 2019

Special education can be a highly competitive major, meaning that it's never too early to start thinking about, and preparing for, the prerequisites to admission.

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If you are considering a __bachelor’s degree in special education, there’s a good chance you have been impacted by a differently abled person at some point in your life. Maybe you’ve worked with exceptional children, learned alongside an exceptional classmate, or loved an exceptional family member. Most of us will intersect with people of different abilities in this neurodiverse world; for some, those experiences translate into a calling to work with differently abled learners.

Seeking your bachelor’s degree in special education is an important first step toward carving out your career as a special education teacher. Here is your essential guide to applying to and surviving a special education bachelor’s degree program, and for thriving afterward in your career as a special education professional.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • How to apply for a bachelor’s in special education program
  • What a bachelor’s of special education curriculum covers
  • How to receive your certification after completing your degree
  • Career opportunities for someone with a bachelor’s in special education

Applying to a bachelor’s program in special education: What do you need?

As with most undergraduate programs, admission to teacher education programs typically requires some minimum score on a standardized test such as the SAT or ACT. In fact, many undergraduate programs admit students without differentiation regarding intended major; at such schools. the admissions requirements for the special education program are exactly the same as they are for students in any other field.

A minimum GPA

A number of schools offer a special education bachelor’s degree online. Many of these require a minimum GPA ranging between 2.0 and 2.8 in high school or pre-college academic courses. Many online schools also require students to earn a minimum GPA throughout their introductory general education courses in order to continue to a major in special education.

Requirements are similar for on-campus undergraduate special education programs. You will likely need to apply to the special education program separately after you have completed a few semesters of undergraduate work, during which you will have to earn a minimum GPA (which could be as low as 2.0 or as high as 3.0—the latter is required by Ohio State University) in required courses. At most schools, students can begin pursuing a special education major sometime during their sophomore year (in the fall or spring, depending on the school).

Declaring your major

Competitive programs may require students to declare their intention to study special education even earlier. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison requires students to enter the School of Education with a “pre-professional” classification. After two years of study at the pre-professional level, students may apply to the special education professional program, which requires a written statement of purpose in pursuing the degree.

Similarly, Brigham Young University requires students to declare a pre-major in special education, which includes prerequisite courses in special education as well as a specified number of volunteer hours in special education settings.

Requirements truly vary depending on the program; the important takeaway here is that special education can be a highly competitive major, meaning that it’s never too early to start thinking about, and preparing for, the prerequisites to admission.

When does an associate’s degree make sense?

Students looking to save some money should consider earning an associate’s degree at a two-year or community college and then completing their bachelor’s at a four-year school. Many four-year schools have arrangements with two-year schools that guarantee admission upon completion of the associate’s degree.


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Graduate degrees for teachers fall into two categories: the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and the Master of Education (MEd). Many resources indicate that the MAT is the best master’s degree for teachers, while MEd programs are primarily for aspiring educational administrators, policymakers, and other current education professionals who aspire to work outside the classroom. In reality, it’s not quite that simple.

Both MAT and MEd programs tend to be concentration-based, and while there are more part-time and full-time Master of Arts in Teaching programs focused on advanced pedagogic theories and skills, there are also plenty of Master of Education programs with grade-level, subject-area, and student-population concentrations.

In some areas of the US, a teacher with a master’s degree at the top of the salary schedule can earn close to $40,000 more than a teacher with a bachelor’s degree. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that going to graduate school will lead to a substantially bigger paycheck. The only way to know how much you’ll earn after graduating with a master’s in teaching or master’s in education is to look at the salary schedule in your district. You should be able to see at a glance how your education and experience will translate into dollars. (source)

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What will you learn in a special education undergraduate program?

Your bachelor’s program in special education will prepare you to assess all students’ learning needs. In addition, your program will prepare you to work with a wide range of learners, including those with “intellectual disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders, autism, developmental delays, learning disabilities, visual impairment, and/or severe/multiple disabilities.”

Some programs, such as the one at Vanderbilt University-Peabody, require you to focus on a specific type of disability (e.g. speech-language pathology, autism spectrum) or a level of severity. Other programs, like The College of New Jersey, deemphasize these distinctions (which makes sense given that the “New Jersey state certification does not distinguish between these diagnostic labels”).

Either way, your program should expose to a wide variety of learning characteristics and needs, which will prepare you to plan lessons for a broad range of learners, cultivate inclusive classrooms, and implement intervention strategies when necessary.

A bachelor’s in special education will also require some kind of hands-on experience through fieldwork. Usually, this means student teaching, or an experience where you’ll collaborate with a professional teacher to observe management and pedagogical skills, co-facilitate classroom learning, and practice teaching lessons independently. Some programs even build field experience into the curriculum in preparation for the student teaching experience; for example, students in the bachelor’s in special education program at the University of Texas-Austin accrue 1,500 hours of classroom experience, which “far exceed[s] the 30-hour requirement set by the State of Texas.”

Most students benefit greatly from attending a program like UT-Austin’s, which goes the extra mile to immerse students in a range of classroom environments. Consider this as you look for the program you hope to attend.


Will you receive your teacher certification?

The majority of programs are tailored to ensure that the special education teachers they graduate meet state curricular requirements for licensure.

However, most states require additional testing, for which you are independently responsible (though your academic program advisor should mentor you through this process). Testing usually involves the Praxis Core (an assessment of basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics), a Praxis Content Knowledge exam in a specified area (depending on the state, this might be a specific type of disability or something more generalized, like a subject or grade level), and often some other kind of workshops or training (for example, New York state requires workshops in autism, school violence, child abuse, and bullying).

Many states also require an elaborate exam called the edTPA, which is reflexive, portfolio-based, and usually linked to the student-teaching experience.

Most undergraduate programs in special education are designed to graduate certified teachers. However, the process is much more involved than simply completing coursework. While your peers in other majors can apply for jobs after graduation with simply a degree under their belt, you will have other tasks to complete in order to earn your license. It is important to look for programs with comprehensive supports in place in order to ensure you don’t miss a beat.

Entering your bachelor’s program in special education program with a proactive mindset won’t hurt, either.


What kind of career can you have?

A rigorous undergraduate program in special education graduate will prepare you for a teaching position at the elementary, secondary, and high-school levels. Michigan State University—one such program—boasts that 90 percent of its graduates “land teaching positions in special or general education.” With curriculum and advising that is directly responsive to teacher certification requirements, a bachelor’s degree in special education is one of the surest ways to land a full-time salaried teaching job straight out of undergrad.

The skills imparted through bachelor’s in special education programs are not limited to the general classroom or special education teacher. Gaining a dynamic understanding of human development, diversity, and inclusion can set graduates on a path to thrive in many contemporary careers—among these, New York University-Steinhardt lists:

  • Children’s book editor
  • Children’s television producer
  • Curriculum specialist
  • Inclusion coordinator
  • Staff developer

If you find yourself gravitating toward a career in assisting diverse learners, an undergraduate degree in special education can only bolster your chances at success and broaden your career options. Undergraduate programs in special education are best suited to independent, pro-active learners who will claim responsibility for their own education. Start paying attention to the expectations now.

Yes, there are a lot of requirements to juggle, but conquering them will ultimately lead you toward a sense of accomplishment and a continually rewarding future as a special education teacher.


Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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