For students considering accounting as a career, it can be difficult to identify which college degree will best help you to meet your goals. No matter what career path you choose in the field of accounting, you’re likely to need college level classes before you can qualify for your ideal position. Here’s what you need to know.


Why Get a Degree?

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Accounting is a profession that can be self-taught; however, a degree in accounting is essential to long-term success. Some people are simply naturally gifted with numbers; whereas, others must work hard to become skilled in the art of mathematics. Either way, accounting degrees are critical to learning the intricacies required to follow accounting practices to the letter of the law. These courses and degrees will also help to pass your state and national exams far more easily. Also, keep in mind that the higher the degree you complete the more money it will be possible to make.

It is important to note that highly trained professors from accredited colleges and universities are the best resources to minimize the risk of errors that can cost businesses thousands or millions of dollars and to keep you from making those errors and facing fines and the loss of your license. The government takes accounting practices incredibly seriously and so should you. Throughout your coursework, you will learn a variety of accounting skills that will help make you more employable in the long term that are quite difficult to learn on your own. These will also prepare you for credentialing tests that you would not have the opportunity to sit for if you don’t earn a degree from an accredited program.

Accreditation

It is essential that the college or university of your choice is regionally accredited or that the accounting program is accredited by a professional accounting organization. The exception to these rules is that if you are in pursuit of an entry-level accounting certificate program. It is ideal to complete these certificates from accredited schools; however, it may not always be possible or necessary. If you do complete an entry-level accounting certificate, be sure to continue your education from an accredited college or university to improve your employment opportunities and pay in the future.

Accreditation Agencies:

  • The Association for Advancing Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)
  • The Association of Collegiate Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP)
  • The International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE)
  • Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges
  • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, Higher Learning Commission
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools

Degree Options

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Certificate

If you’re brand new to the field, a certificate in accounting might be a good starting point.

You don’t need any prior certification to start working toward a college degree. However, for those who are in school part-time and looking for relevant work experience to keep them financially afloat along the way, a certificate in accounting can be a valuable asset. It can also be helpful for business owners who lack a background in accounting but want the knowledge to manage their own finances legally and properly.

Accounting certification typically consists of a series of lower level classes designed to get your feet wet in the industry. You’ll learn about basic bookkeeping and receive an introduction to the fundamentals of accounting. It won’t be enough for a full-fledged career, but it can be helpful to have under your belt.

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Accounting Certificates Available:

It is possible to complete a certificate in accounting to begin basic, entry-level accounting jobs. Other certificates are available as post-graduate certificates for those who have already completed higher level degrees. You can find these entry-level, one-year accounting certificates at for-profit colleges and universities, community colleges and technical schools.

  • Certificate in Accounting - An accounting certificate prepares high school graduates with general, entry-level accounting skills. This certificate will typically cover a wide variety of accounting topics rather than one specific focus.
  • Bookkeeping Certificate - A bookkeeping certificate focuses on basic bookkeeping skills that are ideal for small businesses, such as statistical reports, financial data, spreadsheets, and data entry.
  • Accounting Clerk Certificate - An accounting clerk certificate places emphasis on accounting records and financial statements, including accounts payables and receivables, and payroll.
  • Payroll Accounting Certificate - A payroll accounting certificate allows students to apply for entry-level payroll jobs with an in-depth knowledge of state and federal payroll taxes, benefits, garnishments, stock options, and pension plans.

Associate's Degree in Accounting

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An associate’s degree is a two-year degree that can get you started on the road to an accounting career. Associate’s degrees are generally offered at traditional four-year universities, community colleges, technical colleges, and online schools. If you can get a bachelor’s degree at an institution, you may be able to get an associate’s degree there as well.

When you sign up for an associate’s degree, you’ll have some flexibility in how you want to go about achieving it. Most schools give students the option of completing their degree in an accelerated one-year program, a traditional two-year program, or a longer, more flexible part-time arrangement.

Associate’s programs generally require about 60 semester hours of class work. Required courses can vary based on the school and program but may include any combination of core classes and lower level accounting classes.

While less comprehensive than more advanced degrees, an associate’s degree can provide a solid foundation of basic accounting knowledge. It’s also a great stepping stone for those who may wish to continue their education in the future.

An associate’s degree isn’t enough to qualify students to sit for the Uniform CPA Exam, but it can be enough education to get a job as a bookkeeper, administrator, or assistant in an accounting firm. The average salary for jobs that an associate’s degree would cover hovers at around $40,000 per year.

Students who graduate with an associate’s degree in accounting should have an understanding of the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). They should leave the program with a clear grasp on the ethics and expectations surrounding the integrity of the accounting profession. They should be able to keep precise financial records with accuracy and attention to detail.

Associate’s Degree Example Courses:

  • Accounts Payable and Receivable
  • Bookkeeping
  • Invoicing
  • Payroll

Bachelor's Degree in Accounting

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For those who are seeking a more traditional degree in accounting, a bachelor’s degree is a good place to begin. A bachelor’s in accounting requires students to take at least 120 semester hours of class work. This generally consists of a core group of well-rounded topics, including English, history, social sciences, and electives. Students are also required to take a group of business core classes along with their general education requirement, which includes classes like lower level accounting and business courses.

Along with their general education and business requirements, students who are earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting must take the course load that comes with the major. These classes include advanced accounting courses, as well as courses where students get a more in-depth look at taxation, auditing, information systems, and ethics.

Bachelor’s degree programs generally take students four to five years to complete, with a full-time credit load. This degree opens the door for students to move forward with their education and pursue a graduate school program in accounting.

Though many accounting firms require their employees to hold a graduate degree, a bachelor’s degree can be enough to secure a position in many industries. Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, you may be able to find work as one of the following:

  • Accountant
  • Analyst (budget and finance)
  • Bookkeeper
  • Credit examiner
  • Financial consultant
  • Payroll administrator
  • Risk assessment advisor
  • Tax advisor

Accounting employees with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn an average of about $45,000 to $60,000 per year upon graduation, depending on the position. This salary tends to increase over the first five to ten years due to the increased experience you’ll have under your belt; however, salary growth usually tops out at that point unless additional credentials are earned.

Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, you should come away with a solid knowledge of the GAAP, along with the ethical practices and considerations that go hand in hand with accounting as a profession. You should also be able to create financial reports for a wide variety of client and industries, addressing the pain points and unique needs of each organization.

Bachelor’s Degree Example Courses:

  • Auditing
  • Financial Reporting
  • Financial Statement Analysis
  • Fundamentals of Tax
  • Managerial Accounting

Master’s Degree in Accounting

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If you’re looking at accounting as a lucrative career path, you’ll probably end up with a master’s degree at the end of your journey. Students who want to pursue a master’s degree in accounting generally must have already completed a bachelor’s degree, which doesn’t necessarily have to be in accounting. However, to make sure you possess at least a fundamental understanding of the subject, your school may require you to take supplemental accounting courses prior to master’s enrollment.

Before enrollment, you may have to take a GMAT or GRE exam. These are standardized tests that most business students are required to take before they’re admitted into a graduate degree program. Master’s degree candidates may also be required to submit letters of reference, and undergraduate university transcripts.

Master’s degrees in accounting usually take one to two years to complete with a full-time workload. You may be able to choose between a variety of accounting degrees, including Master of Accountancy (MAcc), Master of Science in Accountancy (MSA), Master of Professional Accountancy (MPA), and Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a focus in accounting.

A master’s degree in accounting may open the door to many of the following positions:

  • Actuary
  • Appraisal specialist
  • Auditor
  • Budget analyst
  • Compliance manager
  • Forensic accountant
  • Internal auditor
  • Risk assessor
  • Tax examiner
  • Treasurer

Master’s degree graduates can expect to earn a minimum of $50,000 per year, with income potential reaching up to $130,000 depending on your chosen concentration. Upon graduating with a master’s in accounting, you’ll be ready to sit for your CPA exam, if you choose to do so. This certification, though challenging to obtain, can earn accountants an average of five to ten percent more income annually.

Upon graduating with a master’s in accounting, you’ll have a thorough understanding of accounting theory, as well as the everyday skills required to use it in practice. You should be able to take the information you’ve learned and apply it directly to business decision-making, both ethically and logistically. You’ll be able to extrapolate valuable information from data and use it to lead your client or organization to financial success.

Master’s Degree Example Courses:

  • Applied Statistics for Business Decisions
  • Contemporary Issues in Accounting
  • Corporate Financial Reporting
  • Federal Taxation
  • Financial Statement Analysis

Post Graduate Accounting Certifications

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The three major degrees discussed above, and doctoral degrees, are the most common tiers in any postsecondary concentration. However, depending on your career goals as an accountant, you may choose to obtain a post-graduate certification in lieu of an advanced degree.

To qualify for eligibility to take the Uniform CPA Exam, candidates must have a bachelor’s degree and 150 semester hours of college credit. As the bachelor’s degree only covers 120 semester hours, you’ll need to obtain additional credits after graduating.

While some students choose to make up these hours in a master’s program, many schools offer a one-year accounting certification. This allows students to take a faster track to CPA licensure than they would have access to with a traditional master’s degree.

The courses required for a post-graduate certification can vary from school to school, but typically provide a more comprehensive focus on topics needed for a career in accounting than a bachelor’s degree can offer. These can include subjects like advanced financial reporting, auditing, cost accounting, and taxation.

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Available Certifications:

  • Certified Public Accountant
    A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is one of the most prestigious and well-respected accounting certificates in the US. Those accountants with a CPA are often considered some of the best accountants in the market. It provides accountants with a unique position, education, and training. This accounting license allows recipients to work in a variety of areas, such as publicly traded companies, auditing reports, signing tax returns, and representing clients to the IRS. It is important to note that this certification exam has four parts and the overall license is general rather than specific. It costs up to $300 to take the exam and takes 16 hours to complete all parts.
  • Chartered Global Management Accountant
    A Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) focuses on management accounting rather than general accounting. These professional recipients will master a specific set of skills, including finance, management, operations, and strategy. The certificate program will develop the business background of CGMA holders in diverse areas, such as financial accounting, business challenges and concepts, performance management, and external financial influences. To be able to sit for the CGMA exam, you must be an AICPA member with at least three years of work experience in a relevant area. You can learn at your own pace for this designation. The CGMA exam takes 3 hours and the available leadership program costs nearly $2,500 for one year and $4,400 for three years and includes all exam fees.
  • Certified Management Accountant
    A Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification holder will be able to specialize in accounting management for nearly any company. Accounting management is a specialization that is not covered by a CPA designation. Individuals who hold this certificate will typically pursue executive roles, such as COO or CFO, or internal management positions. This is for managerial positions rather than general public accounting positions. If you have aspirations to become a leader and influencer rather than someone who completes the daily accounting tasks of report writing, auditing, and taxes then this certification might be just what you’re looking for. Before you can sit for this exam, you will require a bachelor’s degree in a related subject and a minimum of two years of relevant work experience. The exams cost up to $1,200 and takes several hours to complete each of the two tests.
  • Chartered Financial Analyst
    Becoming a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) is a bit more time-consuming than many other accounting-related certifications. This certification requires the passing of three different exams, all of which must be passed in succession. It is estimated that less than half of individuals who sit for the first and second exams will pass and just over 50% will pass the third exam. You will also be required to complete at least 48 months of acceptable and relevant work experience and join the CFA Institute. To become a member of the CFA Institute, you must join a local affiliate chapter and complete a statement of professional conduct. The CFA program takes 3 to 4 years to complete and costs up to $4,500.
  • Certified Financial Services Auditor
    A Certified Financial Services Auditor (CFSA) program may not be around for much longer as the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) has decided to phase out this certification. The IIA is replacing the CFSA designation with a CIA designation. Those individuals who currently hold a CFSA designation will have the opportunity to complete a replacement exam, also referred to as the CIA Specialty Challenge Exam, to receive their CIA designation without having to go through the entire CIA exam and designation requirements. It is important to note that this exam is only available for a limited time, and only if you already have the CFSA designation. The CIA exam takes nearly 16 hours to complete and costs roughly $2,000.
  • Certified Internal Auditor
    A Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) is a designation designed specifically for individuals who are or wish to become an auditor or a compliance officer. A CIA holder is typically hired by large corporations or enterprises to assist external auditors and to perform internal auditing procedures. These positions with a CIA designation require individuals of the highest ethics and people who are unable to be persuaded by others to present findings that are not 100% accurate. The CIA exam takes nearly 16 hours to complete, costs roughly $2,000, and is highly recommended for all individuals who wish to be a professional auditor.
  • Certified Fraud Examiner
    A Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) is responsible for ensuring financial transactions and accounting practices remain legal and legitimate. Essentially, a CFE is a protector of the global economy. A CFE will spend their days working in deterrence, detection, and fraud prevention. You will be training to be able to identify evidence of fraud and potential risk of fraud through common red flags and warning signs. CFEs are also responsible for establishing processes and procedures to prevent and fight against fraud. The CFE exam will test you on your understanding of fraud laws, investigative methodologies, prevention, and resolutions. To sit for the exam, you must join the ACFE. The CFE exam costs $400 and takes 8 hours to complete.
  • Certified Government Auditing Professional
    A Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP) program may not be around for much longer as the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) has decided to phase out this certification. The IIA is replacing the CGAP designation with a CIA designation. Those individuals who currently hold a CGAP designation will have the opportunity to complete a replacement exam, also referred to as the CIA Specialty Challenge Exam, to receive their CIA designation without having to go through the entire CIA exam and designation requirements. It is important to note that this exam is only available for a limited time if you already have the CGAP designation. The CIA exam takes nearly 16 hours to complete and costs roughly $2,000.
  • Certified Information Systems Auditor
    A Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) designation is ideal for individuals who work in various sectors of information systems, such as security, control, and auditing. To be able to sit for the exam, you must have at least five years of relevant experience to receive your official certification. You can minimize the years of work experience required if you complete various degrees in accounting-related fields. It is important to note that only roughly 50% of individuals pass the exam the first time, so be sure you are ready before you take the exam. The exam costs around $465 for members and takes 4 hours to complete.
  • Certified Information Technology Professional
    A Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP) is one of the most respectable and demanding designations for qualified CPAs specializing in information and technology. To even apply, you must have at least 1,000 hours of relevant experience in technology assurance and information management. These hours must have been completed within five years of the day you apply for the CITP. You will also have to complete at least 75 hours of technology assurance and information management as part of your professional development and continuing education requirements during this time frame. You also must be a member of the AICPA and have a valid CPA license. The exam takes 4 hours and costs $400.

Doctoral Degree in Accounting

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A doctorate in accounting is the highest level of education one can achieve. This degree usually takes four to seven years of full-time coursework to complete. Students will take courses in advanced accounting theory and research subjects, which leads up to a final dissertation project that meaningfully contributes to the global field of accounting.

Accounting students who earn a PhD typically go on to hold an academic or research position in the industry. This can include careers such as postsecondary professor, industry researcher, or government consultant.

PhD candidates must show a strong understanding of research methods and be proficient enough in their field to conduct thorough, valuable research. In their dissertations, students must probe otherwise unanswered questions or needs in the field of accounting. They should have the mastery to know which questions to ask, and how to obtain the information that can unlock progress in the industry.

Doctoral Degree Example Courses:

  • Auditing
  • Accounting Information Systems
  • Empirical Methods in Corporate Finance
  • Managerial Accounting
  • Microeconomic Theory

Potential Jobs/Careers

  • Forensic Accountant
    A forensic accountant investigates financial records to look for irregularities or illegal activities to be presented in a court of law or to track down terrorist activity.
  • Bookkeeping
    Bookkeeping is a job found in every type of business but is the most prominent task in small businesses for individuals in charge of invoicing, billing, tracking deposits, monitoring expenditures, and more.
  • Tax Accountant
    A tax accountant specializes in tax preparation for both businesses and individuals. These individuals must have a deep understanding of tax codes and regulations.
  • Accounts Payable/Receivable Clerk
    An accounts payable and receivable clerk is someone who maintains all financial transactions in all business departments to make sure the bills are paid, and debts are collected.
  • Accounting Information System Specialist
    An accounting information system specialist must monitor, evaluate, and analyze large amounts of data, including statistical information and financial data.
  • Actuarial Accountant/Insurance Accountant
    An actuarial accountant works in statistics and data gathering to determine risks for insurance companies, corporations, and government entities.
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Career and Salary Outlook

Increasing challenges throughout accounting careers are increasing education necessities and job responsibilities for finance positions. Accounting automation, software applications, and artificial intelligence are becoming more ubiquitous, which is resulting in many accounting positions becoming obsolete at lower levels. This automation is also influencing a demand, perhaps unfairly, by consumers for a drastic reduction in accounting expenses.

Despite these challenges, the growth projections for accounting careers is an increase of 10% by 2026. This is still higher than the overall average growth for all careers. It is safe to consider that the career projections are directly linked to the health of the economy. If the economy grows, you can expect a greater demand for accountants. Also, certain accounting jobs are in greater demand than others, such as actuarial accountants and accounting information system specialists.