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 a degree in accounting. 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. As an accounting student, you'll learn how businesses measure, process, and exchange financial information, and you'll gain an understanding of the roles played by corporations, investors, regulators and other key players in an ever more complex global financial system.
If you're the kind of person that gets really 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 degree is the best fit for your interests and we'll give you a sense of what to expect in the job market.
If you already know what you're looking for, go ahead and jump to our ranking of The 30 Best Online Bachelor's in Accounting Degree Programs.
You might also be interested in checking out 25 Notable Online Accounting Programs here.
If you need a little more information, continue on.
Covered in this article:
- What do I need to know about accreditation?
- What kinds of Accounting Degrees Are There?
- What kind of Licensing or Certification do I need?
- What can I do with an accounting degree?
- How much can I make with an accounting degree?
- What Professional Accounting Associations or Societies should I join?
Let's start with the one thing you absolutely must be sure of before you proceed: accreditation.
What Kind of Accreditation Should My Degree Program Have?
The last thing you want to do is waste time and money on a degree that won't be taken seriously by future employers. That's why it is absolutely imperative that you make sure your school has the proper accreditation before you proceed.
Accreditation is granted by accrediting agencies that are formally recognized by the Department of Education. Only accredited colleges or universities are eligible for financial aid. Moreover, accreditation typically indicates that an institution is not only maintaining its standards but that it continues to advance and remain current within its field. As you proceed in your search, you'll find both institutional accreditation and program accreditation. The former refers to school wide accreditation and the latter refers to the accreditation conferred upon your specific discipline and degree program.
Regional Accrediting Agencies
The institutional accrediting sector is divided into regional and national accrediting agencies. Generally, regional accrediting agencies confer greater credibility and merit. When you’re investigating a college or university, you’ll want to look for the “stamp of approval” from one of the following regional accrediting agencies:
- The Higher Learning Commission
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
Programmatic accrediting is of particular importance in the field of accounting. Many places of employment will require that your 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 take a 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?
Now that you get the idea, let's take a look at some of your degree options.
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 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 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 a separate but related field 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 or you way to an associate degree. All of this will ease the process of eventually earning your bachelor's degree.
What Courses Will I Take?
- Accounting Theory and Applications
- Introduction to Business Law
- Business Ethics
- Business Mathematics
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 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.
Now that you know what to look for, check out 25 Notable Online Accounting Programs and get started on your path!
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 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, possibly even a 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 an of 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 the 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?
- Financial Reporting and Auditing
- Accounting Information Systems
- Applied Business Statistics
- Principles of Marketing
- Payroll Accounting
- Tax Law
- Investment Portfolio Management
- Entrepreneurial Finance
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 a program that places equal emphasis on accounting studies and general business topics, you should consider Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA).
Now that you know a bit more, check out The 30 Best Online Bachelor's in Accounting Degree Programs or take a look at 25 Notable Online Accounting Programs.
Master of Accounting
If you plan to become a CPA, this step is absolutely 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 degree is absolutely essential. That said, you do have a few options here.
Larger corporations seek candidates with either a Master of Science in Accounting (MS) or an Master of Business Administration with an emphasis in accounting (MBA). Either degree will help qualify you for an executive-level positions and allow you to site for the CPA certification exam. It may not be absolutely 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 Certified Public Accountant, a Tax Examiner, or a Financial Analysis.
What Courses Will Will I Take?
- Accounting in the Global Business Environment
- Financial Modeling
- Mergers and Acquisitions
- Corporate Tax Decisions and Strategies
- Quantitative Analysis and Business Decisions
- Advanced Public Sector Accounting
- Issues in Regulatory Enforcement
- Business Law and Ethics
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 programs are fairly 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.
Now that you know the difference, check out The 10 Best Online Master in Finance and MBA in Finance Degree Programs.
PhD in Accounting
You can earn your PhD in Accounting either after earning your master's degree or, depending on the program, you may even be able to skip right to your doctorate studies after earning a bachelor's degree. Typically, applicants will also have to provide GMAT scores as well.
However, you should be prepared for an extremely rigorous program, one that requires both extensive writing and mathematics. You'll learned 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 PhD 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 PhDs 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.
If you're not sure where to start on your program, check out 25 Notable Online Accounting Programs or The 30 Best Online Bachelor's in Accounting Degree Programs.
If you intend to continue on to graduate level studies, you might want to take a glance at The 10 Best Online Master in Finance and MBA in Finance Degree Programs.
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. 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 in order 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 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, accounting is hot these days. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 11% rate of growth in the ten years between 2014 and 2024. The sector is projected to add roughly 142,400 new jobs in that space 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 Careers in Business and Finance. Here are 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 into after earning an accounting degree. Check out the 100 Best Business Careers for an idea of just how diverse your opportunities could be.
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 BLS stats on your future earning potential in the field:
- Accountants and Auditors: Median Pay, 2016—$68,150 per year
- Bookkeeping, Accounting, and Auditing Clerks: Median Pay, 2016—$38,390 per year
- Financial Analysts: Median Pay, 2016—$81,760 per year
- JPersonal Financial Advisors: Median Pay, 2016—$90,530 per year
- Actuaries: Median Pay, 2016—$100,610 per year
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. 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 American (PASA)
Now that you now a bit more about how to earn a Degree in Accounting, jump to our ranking of The 30 Best Online Bachelor's in Accounting Degree Programs or The 10 Best Online Master in Finance and MBA in Finance Degree Programs and find the best school school for you!