Sarah Roberts' decisions have been especially personal. Watching her younger sister, who has Down syndrome, and peers with disabilities go through school inspired her to pursue a career in special ed. Then, several summers spent working at the Social Security Administration illuminated a more targeted path: helping special-ed students transition to the real world.
"I got a firsthand look at some of the post-school outcomes for students who have disabilities," says Roberts, 25, and they were "not great." Indeed, the labor force participation rate for people with disabilities is about 18 percent, compared with 68 percent for those without.
After getting a bachelor's in special education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., Roberts earned her master's in secondary special education and transition services at the University of Kansas in 2013.
Now, as a high school work experience coordinator for a number of schools in Colorado Springs, she helps young adults with a wide range of challenges gain community-based job experience, in the process exposing them to different career opportunities and teaching them job skills and interviewing techniques. She earns about $40,000 annually.
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Transition services is just one area among several offering opportunity in the special-ed field, which besides classroom teachers also includes case managers and occupational therapists. Median pay for teachers is about $55,100, slightly higher than for most other teaching disciplines; according to the Department of Education's latest teacher shortage survey, nearly all 50 states report a lack of qualified professionals.
"There are such significant needs at the different levels," says Kimberly Paulsen, associate professor of special education at Vanderbilt. "We get calls, if not every day, at least three, four times a week from school districts" looking for people, she says.
Geared toward both novice educators and veteran teachers, special-ed master's programs typically train candidates to work with students challenged by dyslexia, cerebral palsy, behavior disorders and other learning disabilities. Many offer specializations in a range of areas, such as elementary school-age special ed, severe disabilities, visual impairment and autism spectrum disorders.
Roberts had already done student-teaching as an undergrad, so when she came to KU she had time to devote to a position working for a community-based transitions program for 18- to 21-year-olds while she did research with a faculty member on the subject. "Having that experience to kind of ground your education into is so vital," she says.
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The increased demand for transition services education is just one part of a larger trend of popular education jobs.
Job opportunities for postsecondary health educators, who teach at four-year and community colleges, professional schools and trade schools, are projected to grow by some 36 percent in the next eight years, much faster than the average. These folks are key to getting much-needed workers into public health, lab technology, therapy and other health-related disciplines. The median salary currently is around $81,140.
Meanwhile, STEM education remains a scorching-hot opportunity for teachers. With STEM-related fields projected to face serious workforce shortages, President Obama has repeatedly made clear the urgency of training 100,000 science and math teachers by the end of this decade -- the people who will prepare all those future engineers and software developers. Many teacher prep programs offer scholarships and loan forgiveness to encourage STEM professionals to try their hand at teaching.
Finally, don't overlook a career as a preschool teacher. Thirty states increased funding for pre-K programs for 2013-14; South Carolina and Minnesota upped it by close to 80 percent.
As researchers demonstrate the lasting economic and social benefits of preschool and politicians push universal access, the need for educators to work with students ages 3 to 5 is expected to swell by 17 percent in the decade ending in 2022. Median salaries hover around $27,130.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Graduate Schools 2015" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.
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