Accounting Degrees

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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. Becoming knowledgeable in QuickBooks and electronic spreadsheets can also lead to employment.

To be an accountant, however, you will need a minimum of a four-year bachelor's (or baccalaureate) degree in accounting. With this degree, you will have more job opportunities open to you and may earn twice the salary of a person with an associate degree. The bachelor's degree in accounting is likely to include 36 credits of difficult accounting courses plus 20 credits in other business courses.

If you want to become a certified public accountant, you must pass the Uniform CPA Examination (CPA Exam). To qualify to take the exam, you will need to earn a 150-credit accounting degree as required by your state board of accountancy. You should be aware that this is a challenging goal. Relatively few individuals complete the 150-credit degree program. Of those who take the CPA Exam, less than half will be successful.

To become familiar with the type of material that is covered in beginning or introductory 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 with 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 of that program. 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 may 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 to learn the percentage of graduates getting placed in positions sought by the graduates.

  • Visit the human services departments of the companies where you'd like to work. Inquire about the opportunities available for people with 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 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 the event you decide to pursue 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 in areas 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, human resources, marketing, business statistics, information technology, business law, economics, and administrative policy.

  • A minimum of 61 credits of courses outside of business, such as social science, physical science, languages, and other liberal arts courses.

Keep in mind that a 120-credit bachelor's degree in accounting is no longer sufficient for 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) to practice in that state. Each board issues the requirements for becoming a licensed CPA. In the past, a 120-credit bachelor’s degree in accounting was sufficient to qualify a person to sit for the CPA Exam. Today, most states require that candidates complete a 150-credit college accounting degree program (or a master's degree containing the required accounting credits). Exact rules vary from state to state.

Colleges and universities with respected accounting degree programs will offer both a bachelor’s degree in accounting as well as the more ambitious 150-credit degree or an appropriate masters degree. If you want to become a CPA, choose the 150-credit or masters degree program that meets the state’s requirements for taking the CPA Exam.

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 with high grading standards.

Less than half of the students who enroll in a college accounting degree program will graduate with an accounting degree. Of the students who earned the necessary accounting degree and took the CPA Exam, only half will earn a passing score.

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, enroll in courses that are part of the "college track." Completing advanced placement (AP) or post-secondary enrollment option (PSEO) courses in high school will give you an advantage in college.

Meeting the Educational Requirements in Different Ways

Generally, colleges and universities will design an accounting program that guides students through the college credits required to sit for the CPA Exam. That being said, state boards of accountancy allow some flexibility. Here are examples of how people met the education requirement for taking the CPA Exam:

  • Judy earned a bachelor's degree in accounting from a college or university noted for its outstanding undergraduate program. Judy then earned an MBA degree from another graduate business school.

  • Mike earned a bachelor's degree in accounting from a college or university noted for its outstanding accounting program. Mike then attended another exceptional university and earned a graduate degree in taxation.

  • James graduated from college in only four years with the 150-credit accounting degree. This was possible because James came to college with 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. Select 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:

  1. The college's undergraduate, 150-credit accounting program, or master's degree with an accounting emphasis should be accredited by The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International). If the college does not have AACSB accreditation, verify that your state's board of accountancy recognizes its accounting program.

  2. Ask the college to provide you with its students' pass rates on the CPA Exams for the past three years (available from the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy's 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 cites only an impressive statistic from years earlier, that isn't sufficient—perhaps the best professors have retired and their replacements are less effective.)

  3. CPA firms recruit from campuses that consistently graduate a significant number of high quality students. Ask the college placement office which firms come to campus year after year to recruit accounting graduates. 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 students 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 getting your first professional accounting position.

  4. In addition to a high grade point average, recruiters are interested in your communication, leadership, and team dynamics skills. You can develop these 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). Inquire whether 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 allow you to learn 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. Informing a recruiter that you are "just now getting involved" is not impressive. Get involved early so you can proudly discuss your non-academic achievements during the interview.

    Getting involved in student organizations often allows you to get to know your professors better—and vice versa—something that becomes important when you are asked for references.

  5. 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 accounting internship was the best thing they did in college. Students state 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 often leads 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.

  6. 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 during 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 be a waste of your time and money. Getting high grades from easy professors may give you a false sense of your accounting abilities.