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Accountants make the world go round. They analyze budgets and keep businesses humming along, head above water. But, there's a definitive cap to your earnings and job prospects without a CPA certification or advanced accounting degree.
But, chances are, you already know this. Perhaps you're working as a bookkeeper and want to move up in the business. Or, you're an accountant seeking a salary bump. That barrier to better jobs might be a sign it's time to make your next move.
Below, we'll walk you through the ins and outs of the post-baccalaureate accounting certificate. And, we'll look at why it could be a potential solution to a current roadblock.
Post-Baccalaureate Certificates in Accounting Explained
The post-baccalaureate certificate is something of an alternative to a master's degree. Most people who pursue this option are career changers or professionals looking to "level up" their expertise.
Post-bac certification is an option for people with an existing degree in another field of study. Additionally, it may be a good choice for accountants who plan on furthering their education but haven't been in school for quite some time.
Certificates are more affordable than a master's degree and less time-consuming. On average, the maximum amount of time you'll spend on this credential is one to two years.
The CPA question
Students who have a background in accounting may opt for a certification program that prepares them for the CPA exam. There are several accounting courses offered through these programs that relate to material on the exam. A post-bac program also provides preparation for tax accounting, auditing, and corporate applications.
Some certificate programs undergraduate level classes. In this case, these courses make the most sense for people trying to gain knowledge in a new field of study. These types of programs won't help you advance your understanding enough to get that CPA credential without supplementation.
But, if you're looking to become a CPA, but don't have a four-year accounting degree, an undergraduate level post-bac is the best way to help you work towards the required credit hours needed to become a CPA and will fill in those pre-requisites you have yet to take.
Additionally, most salaried accounting jobs require a bachelor's degree, earning a certificate can be a fast and affordable way to get the accounting "major" part of the degree you can use to segue into a new position.
Graduate level certificates
At the graduate level, certificates aim to provide advanced training in a specific area of study. So, if you have a degree in accounting, taking a CPA preparation course expands on that existing pool of knowledge.
Unlike undergraduate certificate programs, you typically need a four-year degree in order to enroll in a program. On top of that, you'll need a degree or related work experience that applies to said area of study. With a grad-level certificate, you'll receive the same level of education you'd find in a master's program. Keep in mind that coursework may be challenging for those with less experience in the field.
The other benefit of completing graduate level classes, is those credits may later be applied to a graduate program at that same institution.
Loose vs. structured CPA-track certificates
Some certificate programs are fully programmed. You'll take a series of predetermined classes, earning your credential upon completion. Others allow you to choose from a set of electives that suit your area of interest.
Others allow you to choose from a handful of electives related to accounting. Some programs only require two or three classes and allow you to select the majority of your courses based on interests.
These considerations are huge when you're looking at different schools. If your goal is to become familiar with the materials covered in the CPA exam, a structured course will be your best bet.
Less structured programs work best for people using a certificate program as a jumping off point for a master's degree later on, or for people looking to break into a particular career.
Typical Application Criteria
Most post-bac certificate programs require that you have a bachelor's degree from a four-year college. That said, it depends on the program. Some extension's CPA certification programs state that a bachelor's degree is recommended. Certificate programs are not subject to the same scrutiny as applying for a position in a bachelor's or master's degree program, but beyond taking the classes, becoming a CPA means you'll need to meet certain standards, many of which take place outside of the classroom.
Before you start gathering transcripts and applying to programs, do some research on your school's CPA licensure requirements. All states will ask that you have at least some practical experience as an accountant before you are eligible to become a CPA. And about half of all states have adopted the Uniform Accountancy Act (3), which requires at least one year working under a licensed CPA.
In most cases, the prospective CPAs need to complete 150 credits of college coursework. In general, this would be a bachelor's degree from a four-year college, plus 30 credits completed in a graduate or post-bac program.
Most states do not require CPAs to have a master's degree. In fact, going the grad school route is recommended for a different career path. A Master's is the best course of action if you're looking to be a tax accountant, a corporate accountant, or another specialized field.
Courses experience in law or business may make it easier for students to grasp concepts like international accounting, forensic accounting, or advanced level tax code.
If you're seeking a higher-level understanding of accounting concepts, a post-bac is a good choice, especially if you have a bachelor's in accounting.
Career Paths with a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate
A post-bac accounting certificate can open the doors to some opportunities--it depends both on your background and your area of study.
A CPA preparation certificate is designed to produce graduates ready to take the CPA exam. Because the success rate is less than 50%, taking the coursework can help you gain an edge over those students who studied for the test on their own.
CPAs can find successful careers as public, managerial or government accountants, financial advisors, internal auditors, supervisors, tax accountants, business managers, controllers, chief financial officers and more.
Obtaining your master's degree in accounting will likely help you fulfill the requirements needed to take the CPA (namely, credit hours and advanced accounting concepts). However, a specialized CPA prep certification may be a cheaper, more direct path to becoming a CPA.
Career Outlook and Salary Expectations
The career outlook for an accountant is always good. As per the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over a million accountants and auditors are actively employed in the US. While this is a massive industry, with many existing accountants working in a vast array of areas, taking the steps toward completing your CPA is sure to pay off. The AICPA says accountants with a CPA certification earn 10-15% more than those without it. (4)
What's more is, the industry is poised to grow by 10% between 2016 and 2026, which amounts to roughly 142,000 new jobs over a 10-year period. Additionally, accountants can take solace in a low unemployment rate of just 1.8%.(5)
Because there are so many employment opportunities for Certified Public Accountants, the average salary varies wildly.
Like most careers, accounting salaries are based on the individual’s education, career path, certifications, and experience, as well as other factors like location or the size and budget of the employer.
That said, the BLS states that the median annual wage for accountants and auditors was $68,150, as of May 2016 (6). CPAs make about $70k, on average, as compared to an accountant with just a bachelor's who can expect a salary of about $50k annually.
The curriculum depends a lot on the school you choose. In many CPA preparation programs, you can expect to cover the full spectrum of accounting topics, minus the basic ed requirements you took during your bachelor's degree.
A lot of programs require that you complete specific coursework in accounting before beginning the certificate program.
Additionally, the number of credits you need to complete your training may vary based on your experience and the number of classroom hours required.
How to Choose a Certificate Program
These days online degrees are catching up to their traditional counterparts. In most cases, you can expect the same level of content as you would on campus.
Online certification programs work best for working professionals who don’t live near the schools they’re considering. They're also great for students who don’t have the time or the bandwidth to commit to making it to a physical classroom.
That said, it's hard to stay motivated. Online classes are best for people with a strong sense of willpower who can meet deadlines—essentially this is a person who excels working from home.
Digital courses are broadening the educational possibilities for many prospective students. But, if you are able to sign up for classes that take place in person, it may well be worth your while. Post-bac programs are filled with a diverse range of professionals—people with established careers, as well as those just starting out.
It may be an excellent networking opportunity for you or a chance to study with people working out the same problems. Plus, on-campus instruction means greater access to your professor and in-depth Q&A sessions.
This option is the best of both worlds. Hybrid courses split the credit hours between online learning and in-person lectures. A hybrid class may meet once every couple of weeks instead of weekly. You may have homework assignments and projects to be turned in digitally.
What’s your budget?
Another factor in choosing the right school for your degree program is money.
Both types of programs last for between one and three years. And during that time, you'll take between 20 and 50 credit hours. If your motivation is taking the CPA exam, you do need to make sure your program provides enough credit hours to get you to that 150 threshold. Otherwise, you may need to seek out a few extra electives.
Undergraduate certificates start at around $5,000. However, some cost as much as $20,000 depending on the school, the length of the program and your state residency status. Graduate level certificates are more expensive and range from around $10,000 to $30,000. (7)
Is a Post-Baccalaureate Degree in Accounting Right for You?
In the end, going back to school isn't a decision you can take lightly. A post-bac certificate is one of the most affordable ways to increase your earning potential. And, many of these programs--online or not--are designed with the working professional in mind.
Our recommendation is to weigh both cost and curriculum. Again, if the goal of the certificate is to help you ace the CPA exam, a structured program is going to be your best option.