Introduction to Accounting Degrees
If you have an aptitude for accounting and business, the field of accounting can offer you a variety of job opportunities.
With a high school diploma or a two-year associate degree earned at a community or technical college, you could find employment as an accounting clerk. An associate degree could also land you a job as a bookkeeper for a local business.
To be an accountant, however, you will need a minimum of a four-year bachelor's (or baccalaureate) degree in accounting. With this bachelor's degree, you will have more job opportunities open to you and will likely earn twice the salary of a person with an associate degree. The bachelor's degree in accounting includes about 36 credits of difficult accounting courses as well as another 20 credits in business courses.
If you want to become a certified public accountant, you need to pass the Uniform CPA Examination (CPA Exam). Before you are approved to sit for the exam, however, you will need to earn a 150-credit degree as required by your state board of accountancy. You should be aware, however, that this is a challenging goal. Relatively few individuals complete the 150-credit degree program. Of those who attempt the CPA Exam, less than half will earn a passing score.
If you want to familiarize yourself with the type of material that is covered in beginning college accounting courses, browse through the 30+ topics we present on our free website AccountingCoach.com. Be aware that the subsequent college accounting courses will be much more difficult than what is presented on AccountingCoach.com.
If you decide to pursue an accounting degree, make certain that you enroll in a college or university that has a well-respected program. One indicator of a quality accounting program is the ability of its graduates to find employment through the campus placement office. In short, if an accounting program is excellent, employers will actively recruit the graduates. Find out the job placement rate for the college or university that you are considering.
Two-Year Associate Degree in Accounting
Many two-year colleges, community colleges, and technical schools offer an associate degree in accounting. With an associate degree, you will most likely find a job as an accounting clerk at a large company, or as a bookkeeper at a smaller company. You will be somewhat limited as far as opportunities and pay, earning perhaps only 50% of what an accountant with a four-year bachelor's degree might earn.
If your goal is to obtain an associate degree in accounting, be certain that there is a demand for this skill in the geographic area where you want to live. Before enrolling in an associate degree program, do the following:
- Visit the career services or placement offices of the schools you are considering.
- Review the percentage of graduates getting placed through the college's placement office into the positions being sought by the graduates.
- Visit the human services departments of the companies where you'd like to be employed. Discuss the opportunities that are available for people obtaining an associate degree in accounting.
- Visit several temporary staffing organizations (like Kelly Services or Manpower, Inc.) to see if they have clients in need of temporary employees with associate degrees in accounting.
- Be certain that your school's curriculum includes hands-on experience with popular accounting and business software. Technology keeps getting more efficient and less expensive, and employers want to hire bookkeepers who know how to use the latest in business and accounting software.
- Find out if your course credits will transfer to a four-year college or university in case you decide at a later date to obtain a bachelor's degree in accounting.
Four-Year Bachelor's Degree with a Major in Accounting
If you choose to major in accounting, there are many colleges and universities that offer a bachelor's degree program in accounting. These degree programs typically require a minimum of 120 semester-credits that include the following:
- Approximately 30-36 credits of accounting courses, such as financial accounting, cost accounting, income tax, consolidations, auditing, and accounting systems.
- Approximately 20-30 credits of other business courses such as organizational behavior, marketing, business statistics, information technology, business law, economics, and administrative policy.
- Approximately 60-64 credits of courses outside of business, such as social science, physical science, languages, and other liberal arts courses.
You should know that a 120-credit bachelor's degree in accounting will no longer qualify you to sit for the CPA Exam. See our discussion below on the 150-credit degree.
150 Credit Degree for the CPA Exam
Each state in the U.S. has a "state board of accountancy" that is responsible for licensing certified public accountants (CPAs) who practice in that state. Each board issues rules that govern what a person must do in order to become a licensed CPA. While having a 120-credit bachelor's degree in accounting was, at one time, enough to qualify a person to sit for the CPA Exam, most states now require that candidates complete a 150-credit college degree program. Exact rules vary from state to state. You can find your state's requirements with this link: State Boards of Accountancy
Colleges and universities with quality accounting degree programs will offer both a bachelor's degree in accounting as well as the more ambitious 150-credit degree, the latter one meeting the state's requirements for sitting for the CPA Exam. If you want to become a CPA, you will choose the 150-credit program. Within those 150 credits you are likely to also earn a bachelor's degree in accounting.
You should know from the outset that college accounting courses are difficult—they demand an ability to understand and manipulate complex financial concepts. You will be expected to attain above average grades in an environment known for its high grading standards.
Less than half of the students who enroll in a bachelor's degree program in accounting will succeed. The same is true for those who intend to earn the 150-credit degree. Of those students who succeed in qualifying to sit for the CPA Exam, less than half will successfully pass this difficult exam.
Learn more about the difficulty of the CPA Exam.
If your goal is to become a CPA, you should prepare early. While still in high school, be sure to enroll in courses that are part of the "college track." Completing one or more of the advanced placement (AP) or post-secondary enrollment option (PSEO) courses in high school will give you an advantage.
Meeting the Educational Requirements in Different Ways
Generally, colleges and universities will establish an accounting curriculum that guides students through the entire 150 college credits needed to sit for the CPA Exam. That being said, state boards of accountancy allow a measure of flexibility. Here are a few examples of people who took a different qualifying route to the CPA Exam:
- Obtained a bachelor's degree in accounting from a college or university noted for its outstanding undergraduate program. The student then attended a prestigious graduate school to earn an MBA degree.
- Obtained a bachelor's degree in accounting from a college or university noted for its outstanding accounting program. The student then attended another exceptional university and earned a graduate degree in taxation.
- Graduated from college in only four years with the 150-credit degree. This is because the student had a "head start" coming into college due to the AP (or PSEO) credits earned in high school.
Choosing a College or University
Since the cost of tuition, books, housing, and your time will be significant, be certain that your education is worthy of your investment. Find a college or university with an accounting program that is well respected by employers and that will prepare you for a successful career in accounting.
Here is some advice as to what you should look for:
- The college's undergraduate or 150-credit accounting program should be accredited by The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International). If the college does not have AACSB accreditation, check to see if your state's board of accountancy recognizes its accreditation.
- Ask the college to provide you with their accounting program's pass rates on the CPA Exams for the past three years (available in a publication from the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy entitled Candidate Performance of the Uniform CPA Examination). A high quality accounting program will produce (1) a high percentage of students who pass individual sections of the CPA Exam, (2) a high percentage of students who pass all sections of the CPA Exam, and (3) a small percentage of students who do not pass any section of the CPA Exam. (If the college only cites an impressive statistic from years ago, that isn't sufficient—perhaps the best professors have retired and their replacements are not at the same level of effectiveness.)
- CPA firms recruit from campuses that consistently graduate a significant number of high quality students. Ask the college placement office which firms show up on campus year after year to recruit graduates and listen for names like Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG, and Pricewaterhouse-Coopers (known as the "Big 4"). Listen for names of other national CPA firms, large regional CPA firms, and/or large corporations. Look at the college's career services and placement office statistics for its recent accounting graduates. Obtain the placement rate of accounting students in the accounting positions that they were seeking and the salary offers they received. A first-rate campus placement office combined with an excellent accounting program means that you will have an easier time of getting your first professional accounting position.
- In addition to a high grade point average, recruiters will want to know if you have skills in communication, leadership, and team dynamics. You can develop these skills through involvement in student organizations that operate within a college's accounting program, such as an accounting club or society, a chapter of Beta Alpha Psi, or a student chapter of IMA (Institute of Management Accountants). Ask if such organizations are active at the college or university you are considering.
Being a member (and later, being an officer) of a student accounting organization will teach you more about the accounting profession, help you develop leadership skills, and give you valuable experience interacting and networking with accounting professionals. Students who served as officers in accounting organizations are often sought after by firms that value leadership and communication skills in addition to excellent grades. Informing a recruiter that you are "just now getting involved" is not impressive. Instead, get involved early so you can list your non-academic achievements during the interview.
It should also be said that involvement in student organizations might help you to get to know your professors better—and vice versa—something that becomes increasingly important as you begin to use their names as references on applications.
- Inquire about accounting internships that are coordinated by the college's accounting department. Not only will a paid, full-time internship be an impressive addition to your resume, it will also give you valuable, on-the-job experience. Many people say that their internship was the best thing they did in college. Many students said it helped them to narrow their career focus, opened up new avenues of networking, and infused them with renewed motivation to finish their coursework and prepare for the CPA Exam. A successful accounting internship may also lead to an offer for a permanent position after graduation.
Another way to gain experience (and perhaps earn college credit) is through a campus-sponsored Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. VITA provides free help with income tax preparation for people with low or moderate incomes.
- The college faculty should consist of full-time professional instructors who are recognized as effective in teaching accounting. Ask to see a tabulation of students' evaluations of their accounting instructors from the most recent semesters.
In summary, make certain that you are enrolled in an accounting program that has demonstrated success with its students passing the CPA Exam. A weak accounting program staffed by undemanding professors who give easy exams and high grades may, in the end, be a waste of your time and money. High test scores in courses with easy professors may give you a false sense of confidence in your accounting abilities.