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What is Accounting?
Accounting is the recording, reporting, analysis and audit of financial information for a given business. Individuals in this field are responsible for tracking the flow of money into and out of a company, business or personal account, making sure that all transactions are in line with tax law and policy, and meet the standards put forward by the employer. Accountancy has various specializations, that may be obtained through study and certified through examination. Such certifications are typically appealing to potential employers, who in turn may assist in obtaining such certifications by supplying study materials and/or paying for the exams.
An accounting degree prepares an individual by providing the skills and knowledge necessary to perform those tasks. Students interested in becoming accountants can pursue degrees from the associate's level to PhD, though the most common degree necessary for an entry level position is a bachelor's.
It is important to note that one does not necessarily need a degree in accounting in order to become an accountant. Similar degrees, such as business, economics, or finance, can be substituted for a degree in accounting when applying for a job. That said, a degree in accounting is preferential as an individual will be better prepared and require less overall training when entering a new job. When considering pursuing a degree in accounting versus another similar field, it is important to know whether or not one specifically intends to enter the field of accounting.
Some courses in an accounting curriculum may include:
- Financial Accounting
- Fundamentals of Finance
- Business Law
Online College Degrees in Accounting
As online accounting programs continue to proliferate across colleges and universities across the country, there remains an information gap. The gap between what students need to know and what higher education institutions offer needs to be reduced. We have added heft to our guide to help support these questions in an effort to help efficiently connect students to schools offering degrees in accounting. You will find below, four tracks for online students to earn a degree in accounting that include associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate. From public accountants to government accountants and internal accountants to management accountants, you will need a college degree to enter the field of accounting. As you analyze each type of degree option, understand these are starting points in your career. Additional training, certifications, and on-the-job training will be requisite to upskill and grow in your career.
Online Associate Degree in Accounting
The online associate degree program can be an entry-point for many students looking to get into the field of accounting. The most common reasons students consider an associate’s degree is cost, basic knowledge acquisition, a stepping stone to transfer to a 4-year college or university, and to acquire specialized skills. In many cases, the cost associated with attending a 2-year university or community college is less than a 4-year college, credit hour for credit hour. Thus, earning a degree from an accredited 2-year higher education institution may accomplish the goal of being less expensive. A related reason for attending an accredited two-year program is to set yourself up to transfer to a four-year college or university. Once you have earned your degree and met a set of requirements at a 2-year school, you can focus on upper-level accounting classes on a path towards an advanced degree. Students may also look to leverage a specific track within a 2-year program to acquire a specialized set of skills. Although limited in nature, students may be able to follow this path towards career advancement in accounting. The final reason students choose an online associate program is to have access to an array of programs in both accounting and general education. Your class load may include taxation, finance, and business law along with creative writing, philosophy, and English composition.
Online Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting
The benchmark many students and employers have established is the bachelor’s degree in accounting. An online program in accounting is a 4-year program that extends into topics deeper and wider than the associate’s degree program to help students think more rigorously about accounting and business principles. This, in turn, offers students the opportunity to think differently about their future and areas of interest within accounting. Accounting students should work towards a decision point in terms of areas of specialty along with organization types they would prefer to work with ranging from public, non-profit, or private. In the final two years of the online bachelor’s degree program in accounting, students will take upper-level classes in programs such as: business law, auditing, income tax, economics, accounting & bookkeeping, cost accounting, financial accounting, managerial accounting, and technology used by accountants to gather and report accounting data.
Online Master’s Degree in Accounting
The path to earning a master’s degree in accounting may differ from student to student. For example, some students earn an associate’s degree and transfer into a master’s program in accounting while others move from a bachelor’s degree into a master’s degree program. In either case, it is important to understand an online master’s degree program in accounting will take an additional 1-2 years to complete after successfully earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Accounting students may elect to pursue a more general path while others desire a deep dive into managerial accounting or forensic accounting. Select from the schools below to learn more about admissions, tuition, and coursework or use our proprietary matching tool here to learn more.
Online Doctorate Degree in Accounting
An online doctorate degree program in accounting is an eight-year program from end to end, for most students. The doctorate degree may be worth considering for students looking to perform research or teach after graduation. A common set of coursework for doctorate students includes variations of statistical modeling & design, research methodologies, game theory, advanced econometrics, and information systems management. Near the end of the program, doctoral students will begin to work on their dissertation. The dissertation process is an all-encompassing project that must be presented and defended in front of a panel of accounting professors and/or experts in the field.
- Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)
- Certified Quality Auditor (CQA)
- Forensic Certified Public Accountant (FCPA)
- Certified Forensic Accountant (CFA)
- Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE)
- Accredited Business Accountant (ABA)
- Certified Professional Environmental Auditor (CPEA)
- Certified Financial Services Auditor (CFSA)
- Accredited Financial Examiner (AFE)
- Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)
- Certified Bank Auditor (CBA)
- Accredited Tax Advisor (ATA)
- Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP)
- Certified Payroll Professional (CPP)
- Accredited Tax Preparer (ATP)
- Certified Bookkeeper (CB)
- Enrolled Agent (EA)
How Do I Become a CPA or CMA?
What is a CPA?
The most popular professional certification for an accountant is a CPA. A CPA is a Certified Public Accountant and is a widely known and highly respected designation within accounting. Certified Public Accountants can work in a number of areas of specialization that may include: tax, forensic accounting, audit, compliance, fraud examination, risk management, IT systems, and business appraisals to name a few. A CPA can be an independent agent or work for a corporation performing critical business activities. A common set of job responsibilities for a CPA include helping organizations: mitigate risk, minimize taxes, remain compliant with laws and regulations, refine internal processes, and organize data to help executive management make prudent business decisions.
To earn a CPA designation, you will need to meet the minimum requirements for your state of residence plus invest approximately 150 semester hours beyond your bachelor degree. Once qualified, you can sit for the CPA examination that is administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). The CPA exam is broken down into four pieces and each must be passed to earn your CPA designation. The sections include:
- Financial Reporting and Accounting
- Business Regulation
- Business Environment
What is a CMA?
A CMA is a Certified Management Accountant which tends to emphasize financial analysis, budgeting, and organizational financial health more so than a CPA. While there is distinct overlap between a CMA and CPA, the emphasis varies between the two certifications along with the process to earn the certification. Students must successfully sit for the CMA exam which is comprised of 4 sections broken down as follows:
- Business Analysis
- Management Reporting and Accounting
- Strategic Planning
- Business Applications
The CMA test is administered by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) and requires continuing education hours much like a CPA designation.
Employment Opportunities and Certification
Most businesses will look for potential accountants that have at least a bachelor's degree. An accountant filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) must be a Certified Public Accountant (CPA).The CPA examination is a national exam that allows for state licensing. Some states will have additional licensing requirements that must be met prior to licensure.
Other certifications and exams include:
- Enrolled Agents Examination (Required to work in front of the IRS)
- Personal Financial Specialist (FPS)
- Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP)
It is worth noting that tax codes and laws can change abruptly at the local, state and federal level. Accountants should be up to date on any changes made, as small mistakes can lead to large problems. Many accountants will utilize news services and internet resources to track any changes relevant to the business they are working with, and some will take continuing education courses to refresh and update information and methodologies.
Job Growth, Salary, and Related Fields
Job growth in accounting is expected to be better than average estimated at 11% as the economy improves and more businesses are formed. The BLS estimates that 142,400 new accounting jobs will be added for the ten year period ending in 2024. The median annual salary of an accountant is $68,150 per year in the United States, with the lowest 10% earning less than $39,000 per year. CPAs are necessary for public companies that have to report earnings to the SEC, and accountants who have earned a CPA will be in greater demand and higher earning potential than those that do not.
Additionally, even though job growth is expected to increase over the next decade, due to the large number of accountants in the United States, competition is expected to remain high for available positions. Due to this, individuals with certification or licensure, or individuals who have earned a master's degree are more likely to be hired and have a wider range of opportunities available to them.
For additional information about a career in accounting, read the Complete Guide for Accountants on our blog.