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Standing out online: BSU master’s degree program is among the nation’s best

Bemidji State University students aren’t the only ones gearing up for the start of classes Monday. Rachele Schafer, an assistant professor with professional education, is about to start her first year with BSU. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

By Bethany Wesley

BEMIDJI – An online master’s program offered through Bemidji State University enabled a Wyoming teacher to earn an advanced degree without leaving home.

“There was no way I would ever be able to get a master’s degree any other way,” said Lezley Simonson in a phone interview from her seventh-grade classroom in Lander, Wyo.

Simonson wanted to obtain a master’s in special education, but the only university in her state was nearly five hours away. She was teaching full-time and had four children at home. She just couldn’t make that commute work for her.

BSU offered a two-year master’s degree through online studies.

“It was perfect,” said Simon, who teaches social studies at Starrett Junior High School in central Wyoming. “I never really did it to go into special education. I just did it to be a better teacher. All kids benefit from what you learn.”

The online master’s in special education through BSU has now been ranked the 15th most affordable special education degree in the U.S. by, a consumer group that publishes college rankings and ratings based on affordability and credibility.

“It was exciting for us to see this,” Judy Olson, department chair of professional education, said of the national listing.

The program began going online about 10 years ago. It went fully online eight years ago.

“It was unique in the sense that the program was the first in the state to go online,” Olson said.

BSU’s masters in special education costs about $13,436, according to Get Educated, which is below the national average of $16,730.62.

Nine of the 14 programs ranked by Get Educated ahead of BSU have variable rates for out-of-state tuition that are higher than in-state rates. For students not living in the state of Minnesota, BSU would rank as the seventh-most affordable online special education master’s program in the country.

Richard Hanson, BSU president, praised the program and its faculty, saying they have committed to offering a strong master’s program.

“They’ve just done a bang-up job and I commend them,” he said. “Bemidji State’s always been a leader of online education; we were one of the first … and we’re still one of the very best.”

BSU, where classes for fall semester begins Monday, offers two master’s programs for special education. One is the master’s degree in special education and the other is a master’s of science in special education.

The difference is the master’s of science is more research-oriented degree intended for those who plan to go beyond a master’s degree or want to do scholarly research. The master’s of special education is an applied degree designed for practicing teachers who plan to remain in the classroom and want to improve their teaching knowledge and skills.

The master of special education degree is offered in Wyoming through a collaborative agreement between the Natrona County School District in Casper, Wyo., and BSU. This cohort program is what Simonson took part in several years ago.

Offering the master’s programs online, Olson said, opened opportunities for teachers nationally and regionally who were simply unable to make it to a classroom setting.

When classes were held on campus, full-time working teachers in the area might teach a full day of classes, drive two hours to the BSU campus, stay for a three-hour class and then have to drive another two hours home, she said. It was difficult for teachers to juggle their full-time jobs, their family lives, the community and the class load.

While it’s possible for a student to go straight from obtaining a bachelor’s degree to a master’s degree, Olson said BSU recommends that they first teach and gather some classroom experience before they return for a master’s degree.

“It takes a certain kind of person to teach and instruct students that have special needs,” Olson said. “The students, when they learn a skill, a strategy that works for them for the first time and makes it so they can reach the next level, it is so rewarding.”