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Here’s a rundown of the degree options available for accounting students.
Accounting is a diverse field full of professionals who work in private enterprise, in public accountancy, law enforcement, academics, and for governmental agencies.
Accountants often perform audits to assess how businesses organize themselves, their information technology systems and finances, too. Accountants are vital to every aspect of a business and they are constantly in demand, but you’ll need an accounting degree to practice your skill set. Here are some of the tasks an accountant might take on:
- Financial statement analysis
- Legal compliance
- Tax return preparation
- Financial record maintenance
- Management consultation
- Financial advisement
- Audit companies and seek ways to reduce cost and increase profits
- Uncover and prosecute fraud
Understanding the fundamentals of business and the bottom line is vital to every visionary who creates the next new mousetrap. Accounting skills and determination will bring your great product to completion and keep it viable in the marketplace. But accountants also work to keep inventories at sustainable levels, and price units to allow affordability and profits.
To become an accountant, you will need to start with the right education. Accountancy is a profession that relies heavily on academic achievement to qualify its best and brightest. You will need to be assured and knowledgeable, as that education will be tested with a rigorous professional examination of some sort, and then you’ll need to complete continuing education courses for the duration of your career.
Online vs. Traditional Accounting Programs
These days, there are many options for your accounting degree. There are community colleges, 4-year colleges, and universities, too. On top of this, there are now traditional and online accounting degree programs offered at all these institutions. Most schools have hybrid programs available—that is, a mixture of online and brick and mortar classes—in their curriculum. However, if you opt for a fully online experience, make sure the school adheres to the highest possible standards.
Online options open a lot of flexibility for students, which is particularly important if you are working or must take care of a family. In an online accounting degree program, you will be able to study course materials at your leisure and likely have a bit less rigidity as to when your assignments are due. You can also ask your instructor detailed questions by Email or chat if there are any aspects of your assignments or projects that are perplexing to you.
As a rule, traditional courses are not as flexible. You will need to be in class at specific times and deadlines are generally the same for the entire class. However, some people learn better in this environment. When you have a live professor to interact with, you may feel that there is more investment in the learning environment. Further, you will likely have more one-on-one interactions with your fellow students, which can be a great help when it comes time to study for a test or if you have a question about an assignment. Remember, the people you meet in online or traditional classrooms may become part of your business network of tomorrow.
When you make your decision about whether to enroll in an online college, make sure that you ask all the right questions. Most likely you’ve worked hard to earn good grades and you will want assurance that your credits will count toward state licensure, or will transfer to a four-year institution. Make sure you ask advisors at your college to confirm your online program’s accreditation. This will ensure your credits transfer, and that your school or program has been appraised by a regional or professional agency that evaluates the merits and quality of each educational institution. Most future employers will always choose to hire a graduate from an accredited school or accounting degree program as opposed to a candidate whose program is not accredited.
Why Accreditation is Important
Accreditation is essential, as it ensures that your school has passed a rigorous evaluation and peer review process. For a field like accounting, you can bet potential future employers will choose to hire someone who has attended a quality school rather than one that does not have accredited status.
Here are the things to look for when you consider your accounting school program:
- The two types of accreditation for schools include regional and professional; regional accreditation is granted by one of six regional accrediting organizations. Depending upon where your school is, check to see if it has earned regional accreditation from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) organization.
- The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) is the premier professional accreditation agency for the body of business schools. Getting more granular, the AACSB grants an accounting accreditation, which focuses specifically on the quality of a school’s accounting programs. Schools that make the grade are granted initial accreditation but undergo continuous review by the accrediting body, which is comprised of a peer group committee. This is called the continuous improvement review, and schools are re-evaluated every five years.
You can find out if your school is accredited simply by asking an admissions officer or visiting the school’s website. Most schools proudly post their accreditation status.
As you begin your research into accounting degree programs, consider your ultimate goal and what degree can help you attain it. Here are your degree options:
Associate of Science in Accounting
The most basic accounting degree is the associate’s degree. If you attend school full-time, you can usually complete your degree in two years. These degrees are most frequently found at community colleges, though a four-year institution may also offer the associate’s in accounting.
Before you set out on the path to a degree, make sure that there will be ample demand for your skills in your local area. Your school’s job placement office will be a good resource too. You will probably find that there is some sort of demand for entry-level bookkeepers, as these skills are needed by almost every business.
Reviewing your school’s course catalog may also help you assess your long-term goals. If it is your goal to become a full-time accountant, you may want to take as many accounting courses as possible that will transfer to a 4-year institution. If you are considering earning your CPA license, then study your state’s requirements for sitting for the CPA exam, as well as their guidelines for licensure, if they differ.
Some of the courses you might take on the way to completing an associate’s degree include these:
- Financial Accounting: You will learn to analyze financial statements and accounting records.
- Accounting Theory: You will learn Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and use them to identify and correct errors.
- Taxation: You will learn how to complete and file tax documents for individuals. The course will cover tax law as it pertains to individuals and sole proprietorships.
- Accounting Information Systems: You will learn how to use accounting software to create and maintain financial records.
- Payroll: Covers the tax issues related to wages and salaries.
- Financial Investigation: This course will introduce you to fraud investigation and includes issues related to inventory, liabilities, assets, and revenue, among other areas.
- Financial Markets: This course might introduce you to financial markets and institutions such as banks, funds, and corporate finance.
- Marketing: Covers the basics of how to analyze consumer behavior and market research.
As you review accounting programs, look at their course listings and make sure that they cover the most current accounting software on the market. You will want to have Excel and spreadsheet skills, but also knowledge of newer, feature-rich software packages that businesses are implementing. This will make sure that you are up-to-date in trade tools and experience.
An associate’s degree is a great place to start your accounting career if you want to enter the field quickly. With an associate’s degree, you can work as a bookkeeper for a small business or as an accounting clerk. You will be working in the field of accounting, but you won’t be considered a full accountant until you complete a bachelor’s degree program.
Bachelor of Science in Accounting
Once you earn a bachelor’s-level degree in accounting, you can begin to call yourself an accountant. Some states allow you to sit for the CPA exam with 120 hours and a bachelor’s degree, but make sure you check your state’s requirements first. Once you are a full accountant, many opportunities could open for you.
Make sure that you get the very best education possible, especially if you want to take one or more parts of the CPA examination. To take the exam, you must satisfy certain general criteria, but you will also need transcripts that fully meet your state’s requirements. At a minimum, states want to see transcripts from accredited colleges. Discuss this issue with your admissions counselor or your academic advisor. If you intend to sit for the exam in the same state, they should be aware of your state board’s requirements and can lead you in the right direction.
If you study full-time you can complete a bachelor’s degree in accounting in four years. Some students can complete a program in less time. If you need to take longer than four years, you might want to begin working in your field while you study. There is always a demand for bookkeepers and this is a great way to start gaining familiarity and experience with accounting methods. If you are able to find work in a public accountancy and work under a CPA, you will be mentored by a professional and potentially open doors for yourself once you’ve completed your degree.
Make sure that you take as many upper-level accounting courses as possible. Many states require 24 semester hours of accounting work to sit for the CPA exam, so use that as a guideline for your studies. You will want to take courses that cover these topic areas:
- Cost Accounting
- Financial Statements
- Accounting Information Systems
- Accounting Theory
You will also want to take business-related courses, especially if you have a CPA license in mind. These courses will help to round out your knowledge base so that you can work more effectively in business. The more you know about business the better able you may be to work as a consultant or in corporate finance. Some courses you might consider include, but are not limited to:
- Business Ethics
- Business Law
- Technical Writing
- Corporate Finance
Master of Accountancy
These days, employers are favoring advanced degrees more than ever, and for that reason, you will want to consider a master’s degree or at least a graduate certificate in accounting. Not only will you gain additional knowledge, but you will have undergone a program of intense work and focus that will serve you well in the fast-paced business world.
To complete a Master of Accountancy (MAcc), you will likely need at least two years to complete the program. Some programs are longer, or you might wish to continue working full-time, so may need to take more time to complete your degree.
You might also decide to get a highly specialized degree, such as a Master of Science in Taxation or a degree that specializes in accounting fraud and forensics. There are also MBA programs that are directed to accountants and the CPA exam. Though many states don’t acknowledge specific CPA review courses, some MBA programs provide a robust review that will prepare you to take and pass all four parts of the CPA exam.
Doctorate in Accountancy
You can even pursue your love of accountancy all the way to a doctoral degree. This degree is not seen very often in the business world, and is most often reserved for academia. If you practice for many years as a CPA with a master’s degree, you might consider returning to school to get a PhD.
There are even academics who achieve their CPA license without practicing in public accountancy. Many states will count work as a college professor toward the experience portion of the CPA licensure process. However, if you take this route to licensure you will likely have to spend more time working than those who are employed in a public accountant practice, for instance. Check your state’s CPA licensure requirements for specific details.
The CPA Exam
To qualify for a CPA license, most states require 150 semester hours on your transcripts. Of these hours, a significant number must be in upper-level undergraduate or graduate-level courses. Considering that a bachelor’s degree is 120 hours, you will have at least 30 hours to complete before you can achieve full licensure. Check your state’s Accountancy Board as many states will not let you sit for the CPA Examination until you finish the full 150 hours.
Note that if your state allows you to take and pass individual parts of the CPA exam with no more than a bachelor’s degree, you don’t necessarily have to pass all the tests. If you only pass one of the four parts, that achievement can still open doors for you. You can decide that you want to focus on one of these areas, as described by the test:
- Financial Accounting and Reporting–This section covers financial reporting frameworks from several industry experts. Candidates are asked to compare statements that reflect different reporting standards.
- Auditing and Attestation–This will test your knowledge of the International Standards of Auditing as well as U.S. standards.
- Regulation–Your ethical, professional and legal responsibilities are covered in this test.
- Business Environment and Concepts–This portion covers general business concepts and international business. Your writing skills will also be put to the test in this section.
If you wish to work in a specific area of accounting, you can take and pass the associated CPA exam section; for example, you might pass the Auditing and Attestation portion of the test and then work as an auditor. The Business Environment and Concepts exam may be helpful if you want to pursue a career in corporate finance. Note that you will need to pass each section of the test with a minimum of 75. Up to half of all test takers must retake one or more parts of the exam, so make sure that you study hard and are well-prepared.
Not only are there the standard degrees available for accountants, but there is a long list of certifications in addition to the CPA license. These certifications will enable you to specialize in an area of accounting. Each has its own set of requirements, which include relevant experience plus an examination. Here is a brief list of possible avenues to take in your accounting career:
- Certified Financial Manager
- Certified Fraud Examiner
- Certified Financial Planner
- Certified Internal Auditor
- Enrolled Agent
- Certified Government Financial Manager
Most likely you will need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in accounting to achieve any of these certifications. You will also need some sort of specific academic work to help meet the requirements of the body governing the certification process.