Accounting Degree

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Accounting Definition

Accounting is defined as the recording, reporting, analysis, and audit of financial statements for a given business or entity.  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 apply financial standards of a corporation.

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 accounting certifications by supplying study materials and/or paying for the exams.  In fact, employers may 1) provide tuition assistance to help employees earn an accounting degree, 2) allocate work time to take online accounting courses, or 3) time off to obtain an online accounting certificate.

Accounting Degree Online

As online accounting degree programs continue to proliferate across accredited colleges and universities across the country, there remains an information gap.  The gap between what students need to know and courses 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 the best schools offering degrees in accounting.

You will find below resources for four top degrees for online education in accounting.  A student can apply to any of the following distance learning programs after meeting  accreditation requirements: associate degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctorate degree.  From public accountants to government accountants and internal accountants to management accountants, you will typically a firm grasp of accounting principles plus 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, courses, and on-the-job training will be requisite to upskill and grow in your career.  The best online degree is determined by the principles and objectives that are most important to you.

Online Associate Degree in Accounting

The online associate accounting degree program can be an entry-point for many students looking to get into the field of accounting.  The four most common reasons students consider an associate’s degree is 1) cost, 2) learning basic knowledge, 3) a stepping stone to transfer to a 4-year college or university, and 4) 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 degree program is to set yourself up to transfer to a four-year college or university.

Once you have earned your degree and met basic accounting 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 business administration, taxation, finance, and business law along with core classes such as creative writing, philosophy, and English composition.

Online Bachelor Degree in Accounting

The benchmark many students and employers have established is the bachelor’s accounting degree.  An online bachelor degree 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  opportunities for students 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.  Would you prefer to work with a large public corporations, small non-profit, or family-owned private organization?

In the final two years of the online Bachelor of Science degree program in accounting, students will take upper-level classes with curriculum like: business law, information technology, financial administration, auditing, leadership, 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 (MBA) 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 accounting online degree program.  In either case, it is important to understand an online master’s degree (MBA) program in accounting will take an additional 1-2 years to complete after successfully earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

MBA 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 online degree matching tool here to learn more.

Online Doctorate Degree in Accounting

The best online doctorate accounting degrees are eight-year programs 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, information technology, advanced econometrics, and information systems management.

Near the end of these degree programs, doctoral students will begin to work on their dissertation.  The dissertation process is an all-encompassing project that must approved in advance by a department chair or designated school member.  Students must both present and defend their dissertation in front of a panel of accounting professors and/or experts in the selected accountancy field.

The culmination of the PhD in accounting is the successful completion of the years-long dissertation project required of most students prior to a degree being conferred by a university.  A PhD in accounting is a Doctor of Philosophy degree that is known as a terminal degree as there are no formal degree pathways offered by a university after earning a PhD.

Types of Professional Accounting Certifications

Accounting careers can often be accelerated by earning an industry or trade-specific certification.  As you would imagine, there are a number of accounting certifications in this dynamic industry for students to consider as they enter the accountancy field.  The list below represents a cross-section of certifications in accounting to help you better understand the breadth of the industry and professional certifications for accountants.

  • 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)

Should I Become a CPA or CMA?

Students interested in careers as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or Certified Management Accountant (CMA) must meet specific academic requirements before sitting for their respective standardized tests.  The steps below will help you understand what is involved with each track and what to expect with each respective accounting designation.

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.

How to Become a CPA

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:

  1. Financial Reporting and Accounting
  2. Auditing
  3. Business Regulation
  4. 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:

  1. Business Analysis
  2. Management Reporting and Accounting
  3. Strategic Planning
  4. Business Applications

The CMA test is administered by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) and requires continuing education hours much like a CPA designation.

Educational Requirements for Accountants

A higher education accounting program prepares an individual by helping gain the skills and knowledge necessary to perform those tasks. Students interested in becoming accountants can pursue degrees from the associate's level to PhD.  However, bachelor's degrees are the single most popular college degree in the field which is most frequently conferred as a Bachelor's of Science in Accounting.

It is important to note that one does not necessarily need a degree in accounting in order to become an accountant. Similar degrees programs such as business, economics, or finance may be substituted for a degree in accounting when applying for some entry-level jobs.

All things considered, a degree in accounting is preferential to better prepare students for a job in accounting.  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 directly or indirectly.

University courses you will find in an accounting degree program will vary by college.  You will, however, find a number of core classes in a typical accounting curriculum.  The most common classes include the following five elements:

  • Financial Accounting
  • Globalization
  • Fundamentals of Finance
  • Auditing
  • Business Law

Employment Outlook & Accountant Certifications

Most businesses will look for potential accountants that have at least a bachelor's degree or graduate degree plus relevant work experience. 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 for.  Others will  take continuing education courses to update skills, financial resources, understand best practices, financial health, leadership, ethics training, time management, accounting information, financial regulations, and business methodologies.

Accountant Salary and Accounting Careers

Job growth in accounting is expected to be better than average estimated at 11% as the economy improves and more businesses are formed.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 142,400 new accounting jobs will be added for the ten year period ending in 2024.

The median annual accountant salary 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.

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 program are more likely to be directly be hired by organizations.  As such, they will also tend to have a wider range of careers in accounting available to them given their unique experience.

Accountant Expert Interviews

Our team has gathered expert advice from accounting professionals around the country to help give you a leg-up after graduation.  Below you will find the best of the best interview excerpts to help you land a great accounting job after college.

President of the New York State Society of CPA's, J. Michael Kirkland, from NYSSCPA advises accounting students to earn your degree, pass the CPA examination, and join your state CPA society.  In addition, he provides the following insights to college students:

  • Be positive and learn to demonstrate your value
  • Become the CPA "Gold Standard" and stand out from other candidates
  • Do not be afraid of hard work
  • Be passionate about a career as a CPA

In addition to the hard-skills, it is important to possess vital soft skills as well.  Board member of the Louisiana Association of Tax Administrators, Gail Howell, reminds graduates to arrive for appointments and interviews early, dress professionally, and have exceptional communication skills.

AFWA regional chapter president Rachel Cully recounts her experience as a recent college graduate.  She recalls being pressed by employers to demonstrate her ability to link accounting principles to real life situations.  Additionally, she recalls the importance of being able to work collaboratively with others to complete a task.

Additional Accounting Resources

Those interested in a career as an accountant may also want to consider a degree in finance, business management, leadership, criminal justice, or international business.  For additional information about a career in accounting, read the Complete Guide for Accountants on our blog.

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Career Summary: Accounting Major




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