If you’re good with numbers, you have a strong sense of organization, and you’re fascinated by the flow of money, you might consider an accounting degree. Accounting is sometimes referred to as the language of business, an apt description because much of the work revolves around communicating information by using numbers. Students pursuing accounting degrees learn how businesses measure, process, and exchange financial information, and gain an understanding of the roles played by corporations, investors, regulators and other key players in an ever more complex global financial system.
An accounting degree focuses on financial recordkeeping for individuals, businesses, governments, and other entities and organizations. Accounting degree programs offer specializations in a variety of topics, including public accounting, corporate accounting, taxes, and more. Choosing to pursue one of the many accounting degrees available can prepare you to manage, advise, or consult individuals and organizations in financial matters.
If you’re the kind of person that gets excited about stuff like fiscal responsibility and operational transparency, then you’re in luck because accountants are a hot commodity. Accounting degrees are in high demand and if you have the skills and passion for this line of work, you could have a lot of opportunities to choose from.
But an accounting degree isn’t just for future accountants. Anybody with an interest in business, finance, tax law, or a host of other related fields could benefit from a body of knowledge in bookkeeping, auditing, financial reporting and an array of other subjects likely to be covered by an accounting degree program.
Whether you envision a future as an internal accounting manager for a big company, as the proprietor of your own consulting group, or simply as a business professional with the desire for a well–rounded body of knowledge, we’ll tell you what accounting degree is the best fit for your interests and we’ll give you a sense of what to expect in the job market.
What Kind of Accreditation Should My Degree Program Have?
Accreditation is the process by which colleges and universities are evaluated and validated. Colleges and universities that have earned accreditation have met the standards set by accrediting organizations. These organizations are comprised of faculty from various accredited colleges and universities. Legitimate regional and national accrediting organizations are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Typically, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognizes the same institutions, although CHEA recognition isn’t mandatory. A college or university must be accredited by a Department of Education-recognized accreditor for its students to receive federal financial aid.
For a detailed look at the differences between regional and national accreditation, check out What Do I Need to Know About College Accreditation?
- What is Regional Accreditation?
- Regional accreditation is the signifier of quality education; this includes the currency of curriculum, credentials of educators, and credibility of degrees. Regional accrediting agencies only accredit institutions in their geographical area.
- The Six Regional Accrediting Agencies
- Middle States Commission of Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Commission on Higher Education (NECHE)
- The Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
To find out if a college or university on your list is regionally accredited, check the Department of Education’s Database of Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.
- What Is National Accreditation?
- National accreditation is often perceived as a less rigorous standard than regional accreditation and is governed by educational accreditors agencies that are not restricted by region or geography. This means that one such agency can provide accreditation to any college or university in the U.S. that meets its criteria. National accreditation is commonplace among trade schools, religious schools, and for–profit colleges.
Most regionally–accredited colleges do not accept or recognize credits or degrees earned from colleges that lack regional accreditation. However, national accreditation may be a useful indicator of quality for students pursuing vocational training, competency-based education, or other education models that operate under a for-profit model.
To learn more about National Accreditation, check out Understanding National Accreditation.
For help safely navigating the For–Profit Sector, check out our Guide to For–Profit Colleges: What You Need to Know.
- What is Programmatic Accreditation?
- Programmatic accreditation certifies that an institution’s program, department, or college has met the standards of the programmatic accrediting agency. While programmatic accreditation agencies often have national jurisdiction, programmatic accreditation is not institutional national accreditation. In fact, programmatic accreditation often coexists with regional accreditation. In some disciplines, a degree with programmatic accreditation may even be required to earn a license or enter professional practice.
Programmatic accreditation is of importance in the field of accounting. Many places of employment will require that your accounting degree has been conferred by a course of study with program specific national accreditation.
The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business’s (AACSB) Accounting Accreditation is the most reputable and recognized stamp of approval. The AACSB, which also confers Business Accreditations to qualifying business school, recognizes 182 accounting schools at the time of writing.
The easiest way to determine accreditation status is to contact your school of choice, or visit the website for any of the above accreditation agencies. Each provides a searchable database of accredited institutions and degree programs. You can also look at the Department of Education’s database of all recognized accreditors within its purview.
To learn a little more about navigating the tricky accreditation landscape, check out Accreditation of Colleges and Universities: Who’s Accrediting the Accreditors?
What Kinds of Accounting Degrees Are There?
Associate Degree in Accounting
The associate degree in accounting is typically a two–year program. This introductory level accounting degree program will introduce you to the basic principles of accounting and provide you with some of the skills you’ll need for entry level work in the field. The associate degree will provide you with some knowledge and experience for work in the field, but if you end your education here, it will limit your future earning power. With an associate degree in accounting, you can work as an accounting clerk, a bookkeeper or in any number of mid–level roles in an accounting firm. While you won’t earn as much as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), you will hit the job market sooner and with less debt.
That said, if you do intend to ultimately become a CPA, you will need to continue your studies in a four–year accounting degree program. Fortunately, entering a four–year program with an associate degree already in hand can significantly reduce the amount of time and money that you’ll have to spend earning your bachelor’s. It’s also worth noting that your associate degree in accounting still has tremendous value, even if you plan to earn a bachelor’s degree in separate but related fields like business or finance. In addition to building a strong foundation of knowledge in a specialized and in–demand discipline, chances are you’ll fulfill a handful of prerequisites in the sciences and humanities on your way to an associate degree. All this will ease the process of eventually earning your bachelor’s degree.
What Courses Will I Take in an Associate Program?
- Accounting Theory and Applications
- Business Ethics
- Business Mathematics
- Introduction to Business Law
What’s the Difference between an AAS, an AA, and an AS in Accounting?
The associate of applied science in accounting (ASS) is your best bet if you plan to immediately hit the job after finishing your two–year accounting degree program. This is recommended if you don’t ultimately plan to move into a bachelor’s degree program. Both the associate of arts (AA) and the associate of science (AS) in accounting degrees are ideal if you plan to ultimately move on to the next level. The course of study for your AA will typically provide a liberal arts education in coordination with your accounting studies. The AS will generally be more math– and science–intensive.
Bachelor of Accounting
The bachelor’s degree in accounting is the most basic threshold for sitting to take the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants exam, which means that if you wish to become a CPA, you must at least complete this level of education. In fact, most states in the U.S. require that you have at least 150 credit hours completed before you can take the exam, which means that some graduate courses will probably also be required.
But for now, let’s focus on your bachelor’s degree. This four–year program encompasses the ever–broadening set of roles and expectations of public accountants, from basic number crunching and financial reporting to more sophisticated work with financial technology, planning, analysis, and executive decision making. Your bachelor’s in accounting degree program should also incorporate some hands–on experience, the kind that will not only better prepare you to apply your new skills in a real–world setting but could also place you into contact with professionals working in the field. You never know who might become your new mentor, employer, or colleague.
Indeed, this degree could be the biggest step on your way to becoming a corporate accountant, an auditor, a tax examiner, a financial analyst or any number of in–demand and well–paying jobs. But first, you will need to earn your certification. Most accounting jobs require you to be a CPA and even the ones that don’t will probably consider that a huge advantage when making employment decisions.
This means that, in most cases, you will need to do some post–graduate work after earning your bachelor’s degree.
What Courses Will I Take in a Bachelor’s Program?
- Accounting Information Systems
- Applied Business Statistics
- Entrepreneurial Finance
- Financial Reporting and Auditing
- Investment Portfolio Management
- Payroll Accounting
- Principles of Marketing
- Tax Law
What’s the Difference between a BS, a BAC and a BBA in Accounting?
A bachelor of science (BS) in accounting allows you to focus entirely on accounting, particularly in the context of business practice. A bachelor of accounting (BAC) provides a foundation in accounting topics and is generally designed to provide a framework of skills and knowledge for those who will move on to an advanced degree program. If you are looking for an accounting degree program that places equal emphasis on accounting studies and general business topics, you should consider a bachelor of business administration (BBA).
Master of Accounting
If you plan to become a CPA, this step is essential. Currently, 40 states require 150 credit hours for CPA certification. That’s an extra year of study beyond your bachelor’s degree, which means that a master’s accounting degree is essential. That said, you do have a few options here.
Larger corporations seek candidates with either a master of science in accounting (MS) or a master of business administration with an emphasis in accounting (MBA). Either of these accounting degrees will help qualify you for executive–level positions and allow you to sit for the CPA certification exam. It may not be necessary for your master’s degree to be in accounting in order to qualify for every position, but it does provide you with a competitive edge.
The accounting master’s degree makes you particularly attractive for accounting job openings in a highly competitive field. Your advanced studies will address subjects like forensic accounting, regulatory compliance, and corporate auditing, as well as areas of specific concentration. A master’s in accounting will qualify you for a broad range of professional opportunities. You can direct your course of study accordingly, whether you plan to become a CPA, a tax examiner, or a financial analyst.
What Courses Will I Take in a Master’s Program?
- Accounting in the Global Business Environment
- Advanced Public Sector Accounting
- Business Law and Ethics
- Corporate Tax Decisions and Strategies
- Financial Modeling
- Issues in Regulatory Enforcement
- Mergers and Acquisitions
- Quantitative Analysis and Business Decisions
What’s the Difference between an MS, an MAcc, an MPAc, and an MBA in Accounting?
The most notable difference is that the master of science in accounting (MS) and the master of accountancy (MAcc) are specifically reserved for those who have earned an undergraduate degree in accounting or a closely related field. The MS may offer a more specialized concentration in certain math intensive courses but the differences between these accounting degree programs are minimal. Either of these programs will typically require 30 to 36 credit hours, or one year of work.
The master of business administration in accounting (MBA) and the master of professional accounting (MPAc) programs may be accessible to those with an undergraduate degree from a wider range of disciplines. The MBA provides a broad focus on general business topics alongside an accounting focus, whereas the MPAc offers a greater concentration on accounting topics. These programs will generally require the completion of 45 to 60 credit hours, or two years of study.
Ph.D. in Accounting
You can earn your Ph.D. in accounting either after earning your master’s degree or, depending on the accounting degree program, you may even be able to skip right to your doctoral studies after earning a bachelor’s degree. Typically, applicants will also have to provide GMAT scores as well.
You should be prepared for an extremely rigorous program, one that requires both extensive writing and mathematics. Through a Ph.D. in accounting degree program, you’ll learn advanced research methods, statistical analysis, and business principles. You’ll also be required to produce original research in areas of your choosing.
This is an ideal career path if you ultimately plan to work in research or academics. Earning a Ph.D. could place you on the path to becoming a professor of accountancy. However, given the increasingly complex and demanding nature of the profession, many corporations and firms are looking to accounting Ph.D.s for key decision–making roles. You could qualify as a senior financial advisor for a major company, a thought leader in a smaller organization, or a public policy analyst with the ability to influence legislative outcomes.
What Kind of Licensing or Certification Do I Need?
First and foremost, if you wish to become a Certified Public Accountant, you must pass the licensing examination issued by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). As noted above, if you wish to sit for this exam, you must have completed 150 credit hours in pursuit of an accounting degree or multiple accounting degrees. This means you’ll probably need to have an advanced degree like an MS or an MBA. Most states in the U.S. require this license for you to even find employment as an accountant. Even for jobs and states that don’t require this certification, becoming a CPA will significantly improve your appeal to employers and your future earning potential.
You may also consider parlaying your accounting education into a separate but related field. If so, you might benefit from earning a certification in that area of specialization. For instance, managing payroll duties for a large firm may require you to become a Certified Payroll Professional (CPP), a status awarded by the American Payroll Association.
To become a practicing Actuary, you’ll need to obtain a license, which you can do either through the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) or the Society of Actuaries (SOA). Both require completion of specific certification courses and exams.
In some of the cases above, you can pursue your certification in tandem with your regular coursework. In other cases, such a CPA, you may be able to fold your certification and licensing work into your general accounting degree coursework. This would allow you to complete your graduate program with a certification already in hand.
What Can I Do With an Accounting Degree?
Stated simply, people with accounting degrees and certifications are in high demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 10% rate of growth in the ten years between 2016 and 2026, which is faster than average. The sector is projected to add roughly 139,900 new jobs in that span of time. In a field that is becoming increasingly complex and global in nature, there is a high premium on accounting professionals who are good at what they do. This means that companies are willing to compensate you for your value.
In addition to working as a CPA, your accounting degree can be the key to a wide array of Business and Finance Careers. Perhaps you’re asking, "What can I do with an accounting degree?" Read on to check out a few of the top careers in your field:
- Accountants and Auditors
- Appraisers and Assessors of Real Estate
- Budget Analysts
- Claims Adjusters, Appraisers, Examiners, and Investigators
- Cost Estimators
- Financial Analysts
- Financial Clerks
- Human Resources Specialists
- Insurance Underwriters
- Loan Officers
- Management Analysts
- Market Research Analysts
- Meeting, Convention and Events Planners
- Operations Research Analysts
- Personal Financial Advisors
- Purchasing Managers, Buyers and Purchasing Agents
If you need a little more motivation, consider the incredibly broad spectrum of business–related careers that you could enter after earning an accounting degree. Check out The 100 Best Business Careers.
What Kind of Salary Can I Earn With an Accounting Degree?
Accountants are in–demand, which means that you’ll have an opportunity to earn good money in this line of work. As with most fields, your earnings will depend on how far you take your studies. Each position outlined here below requires its own set of degrees and certifications. You can usually presume that the better paying jobs require more credentials. Here are a few stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on your future earning potential in the field:
|Bookkeeping, Accounting, and Auditing Clerks||$40,240 per year|
|Accountants and Auditors||$70,500 per year|
|Financial Analysts||$85,660 per year|
|Personal Financial Advisors||$88,890 per year|
|Actuaries||$102,880 per year|
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Are There Professional Accounting Associations or Societies I Should Join?
Professional associations are a fantastic way to make connections in your field, learn about valuable seminars or certifications, and improve your own credentials, either after or while you earn an accounting degree. The association or associations you choose to join will depend to an extent on the career path you take. Look for accounting or finance associations that correspond with your academic concentration or your intended professional path. Whether you plan to work as a practicing accountant or you plan to channel your accounting knowledge into another profession, there’s an association that can help you get on your feet and excel in the field. These groups are a good starting point:
- American Bankers Association
- The American Finance Association (AFA)
- American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)
- American Society of Women Accountants (ASWA)
- The Association of Accountants and Financial Professionals in Business (IMA)
- Association for Financial Professionals, Inc. (AFP)
- International Federation of Accountants (IFAC)
- National Association of Black Accountants
- Professional Accounting Society of America (PASA)