As the need for special educators continues to rise, there is a severe shortage of PhDs in the field ready to train them, which could have a ripple effect on students with disabilities, researchers say.

Universities are graduating far too few doctoral students in special education to meet the growing demand for faculty in the field, according to a study out this month that was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs.

And that could spell trouble for students with disabilities who may be underserved as a result, researchers say.

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The problem is so acute that to meet the expected demand for new faculty over the next five years, the study indicates that universities would need to triple the number of special education PhD’s they graduate.

“We were surprised by many of our findings,” said Deborah Deutsch Smith, a professor of special education at Claremont Graduate University who led the research. “We hope this study will inform the nation’s policymakers and the special education community of actions that need to be taken to avoid an impending faculty shortage of overwhelming magnitude.”

One reason for the shortage is that half to two-thirds of current special education faculty are expected to retire in the coming years and there are not enough young people to fill their shoes.

As a result, Deutsch Smith and her colleagues found that job prospects and stability for those with a doctorate in special education remain high, despite the poor economy. And, they say action needs to be taken to address the shortage.

“This problem will not go away by itself,” Deutsch Smith said.