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. Exact rules vary from state to state. You can find your state's requirements with this link: State Boards of Accountancy
In general, state boards require the following:
Colleges and universities with respected accounting degree programs will likely offer a bachelor's degree in accounting as well as the 150-credit degree or master's degree. If you want to become a CPA, you will choose the 150-credit program or the master's degree (provided they meet the state's requirements for taking the CPA Exam).
You should know that college accounting courses are difficult—they demand an ability to understand and deal with complex financial concepts. You will be expected to attain excellent grades in a competitive environment with high grading standards.
Less than half of the students who enroll in a college accounting degree program will end up graduating with an accounting degree. Of the students taking the CPA Exam, on average only half will earn a passing score in each part.
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 more options 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 many AP (or PSEO) credits that he earned in high school.
Once a state board of accountancy determines that a candidate has met the requirements to take the CPA Exam, the candidate will face the most difficult part of becoming a certified public accountant—the exam itself.
The CPA Exam is recognized for its low pass rates. This is the reason we recommend that you attend a college or university with a rigorous accounting program.
See our discussion under Accounting Degrees
As a general rule, you should sit for the CPA Exam as soon as you meet your state's academic requirements. It is advantageous to take the exam while your accounting courses are reasonably fresh in your mind.
We also recommend that you sign up for a CPA Exam review course before attempting the CPA Exam.
After passing the CPA Exam, but before a CPA license is issued, an ethics exam may be required. Learn your state's requirements regarding ethics at your State Board of Accountancy.
The experience requirements for obtaining a CPA license are determined by each state's board of accountancy.
Generally, if someone passes the CPA Exam the odds are great that the person will find a job that provides the required professional accounting experience. Of course, there will be times when economic conditions make it difficult to find a specific accounting position.
You must apply for your CPA license through your state's board of accountancy (or its designated licensing agency).
To maintain one's CPA license, most state boards of accountancy require CPAs to take a specified number of continuing professional education (CPE) hours within a stated period of time. Boards will specify the types of CPEs that will meet this requirement.
For more details, check with your State Board of Accountancy.
While membership in a state society of CPAs and membership in the American Institute of CPAs may not be a legal requirement, we believe it is a practical requirement for the reasons shown below.
State Societies of CPAs
Most certified public accountants join their state society of CPAs. A state society provides the following benefits:
Informs members about current issues within the state
Arranges for continuing professional education seminars on topics such as state taxes, state laws, federal taxes, and technology changes
Publishes monthly bulletins, newsletters, magazines, and email notices covering issues important to its members
Promotes the accounting profession to students and the general public
American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants is a national professional organization of CPAs. Surprisingly, not all CPAs join this organization, even though it offers significant benefits to its members ranging from technical accounting updates to discounts on products and services. The AICPA publishes the monthly magazine Journal of Accountancy, maintains a website with information on current issues, and provides continuing education resources.