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Degrees for a Career in Accounting

a male professional discusses paperwork with a couple
a male professional discusses paperwork with a couple

There are four levels of accounting degrees, from associate to doctorate. Each has different prerequisites and coursework, and will prepare you for different roles and career options.

Before you begin your accounting education, it's important to understand what each degree offers and where it can take you. This allows you to make the best decision based on your interests and career aspirations.

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Accounting Degrees

Each accounting degree is designed to prepare students for a different career path. Here are the types of programs available:

Associate Degree

A good choice for anyone who wants an entry-level position below the role of accountant or to enter into the job market as soon as possible.

Bachelor's Degree

The most common degree for someone entering the accounting field, it offers a variety of job options for graduates.

Master's Degree

A graduate degree is helpful in rising to a management position and may be required for specialized certifications. Depending on your goals, you can pursue a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a focus on accounting or a master's in accounting.

Doctoral Degree

Mainly sought by people who want to teach at the college level or conduct research.

Online Programs

Many schools and universities offer online accounting degrees at all levels, so you should be able to find a good fit for your education and scheduling needs. Online programs are especially beneficial for people who need flexibility, including working parents. They also save time and money, especially if you live in a rural area because students don't have to drive to and from campus.

Today's online degree programs are designed to deliver the same level of education as their in-person counterparts. Some programs will have live lectures, but many will have pre-recorded lessons you can access at your convenience. Some will be a combination of recorded and real-time interaction.

Studying online is a popular option with many working professionals who are seeking a graduate degree, says Angel Chatterton, senior instructor of accounting at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She says the average age of her online students is around 40, although she's had students as old as 72.

Some programs will have live lectures, but many will have pre-recorded lessons you can access at your convenience. Some will be a combination of recorded and real-time interaction.

Many of Chatterton's online students have families and full-time jobs, and she says they're evenly split between men and women. To accommodate students' busy schedules, she and her colleagues hold online office hours on evenings and weekends.

As a bonus, studying online brings together people from a wide geographic area. Chatterton has had students from Australia, England, the Caribbean, and Indonesia.

"I love the fact that we get a global audience because we get some really great stories," Chatterton says. 

As you explore accounting programs, consider your lifestyle and what you envision for your career. Some things to think about:

How quickly do you want to enter the field? The higher the degree you seek, the longer you'll be in school and the more demanding the coursework will become.

How much do you want to spend on your education? The longer you are in school, the more tuition you'll pay. A variety of financial aid is available, so you'll want to explore whether you qualify for grants, scholarships, or loans.

What job do you hope to get when you graduate? For example, an associate degree will prepare you to be an accounting clerk, but if you want an accounting role or a managerial position, you'll need more education.

What kind of salary do you want? Generally, an accountant with a bachelor's will earn more than a payroll clerk with an associate degree. A certified public accountant (CPA) will typically earn even more.

Keep in mind you can continue your education as you are working in the field. Many colleges and universities have programs designed for working people so you can hold a job while studying for a higher degree. Many companies are supportive of employees continuing their education, and some offer tuition assistance programs or other incentives to earn a higher degree.

Accreditation

One of the most important considerations when selecting an accounting program should be whether the institution is accredited.

Accreditation means a school meets set standards of academic excellence and will deliver a quality education that will prepare you for your profession. Both traditional campus and online schools can earn accreditation.

Accreditation means a school meets set standards of academic excellence and will deliver a quality education that will prepare you for your profession.

Accreditation is crucial while you're a student and beyond:

  • You may not qualify for federal financial aid if the school you attend isn't accredited.
  • You usually can't transfer credits from an unaccredited school to an accredited school. That can be problematic if you want to earn a master's degree or certification later.
  • Many employers prefer job candidates who have graduated from an accredited school—some employers, including the federal government, require it.

In addition to institutional accreditation, which includes the entire school, there is accreditation for programs. It's usually granted by a professional organization. While it's not as standardized as institutional accreditation, it indicates a stamp of approval from a professional organization.

Accrediting Agencies

The following national organizations accredit accounting programs, and all list the programs on their websites.

  • Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) grants national accreditation to undergraduate and graduate business administration and accounting degree programs.
  • Accreditation Council for Business Schools & Programs (ACBSP) accredits business, accounting, and business-related programs at the associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctorate levels.
  • Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is an association of 3,000 colleges and universities. It recognizes 60 institutional and program-specific accrediting organizations, including AACSB.
  • Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) grants accreditation to online or distance learning programs that are at least 2 years old.

5 Tips to Make the Most of Your Education


 No matter which degree you choose, these tips can help as you move forward.

  1. Brush Up on Your Computer Skills. You must be computer savvy to be an accountant today. Accountants use computer software to do everything from processing financial records to analyzing budgets. 
  2. Gain Experience. Getting an internship will give you experience and introduce you to the world of professional accounting, offer opportunities to network, and show potential employers that you can apply your training to the workplace. 
  3. Stand Out by Focusing In. Accounting is divided into several major areas, including 
    public accounting, management accounting, forensic accounting, and government accounting. As you gain experience, try to decide on an area of focus. 
  4. Expand Your Business Knowledge. Take business courses outside of accounting to broaden your knowledge of related fields. For instance, taking a class in budget analysis, supply chains, business administration, or finance could increase your understanding of business operations. 
  5. Learn a Language. Knowing a second language can add to your professional opportunities. Accounting firms represent multinational companies and look for professionals who can communicate with these international partners.

Accounting Education FAQs

What accounting schools are available? Can I go to school online?

There are several nonprofit and for-profit traditional schools that offer accounting degree programs. If you're interested in the convenience of an online program, you're in luck. There are quite a few online accounting courses available at every degree-level, from associate to master's and MBAs. We can help you find online accounting schools.

What degree programs do accounting schools offer?

As an accountant, you'll need at least a bachelor's degree  to enter the field, though demand is especially strong for those who have earned a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation. Depending upon your area of interest, you should also consider taking technology, analysis, budgeting and forecasting courses. If you plan on pursuing a senior-level role or becoming an administrator, you'll need to complete an MBA degree program. 

What can I expect after I submit a request for information to a school?

First, you'll need to make sure you fill out the form correctly. For example, if your completed education level is high school graduate, you would need to complete a bachelor's program before applying to a master's degree program. So if you enter "high school graduate" and request master's degree information, your request may fail. Be sure to request information for the correct level of education you plan to pursue.

Once you've selected the schools you're interested in and submitted your information, you'll receive a thank you from the schools you chose. You'll be contacted by these schools either by email or telephone. The advisors who call you will ask you about the programs you're interested in, when you would like to start school, and talk about financial aid options, among other things. Feel free to ask questions!

How do I apply for financial aid?

Financial aid is available from a variety of sources. Government financial aid is the most common, but before you can be considered for aid, you'll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Other types of financial aid include scholarships, grants, private loans and PLUS loans.

How does the admissions process work?

Different schools work in different ways. But you'll need to be aware of dates and schedules, and make sure your forms and fees are sent in and paid on time. All schools have an admissions office with advisors who can help, so be sure to use their services.

What are some tips for success in my accounting school program?

You'll need to be the right personality fit to become an accountant, so it's important to learn whether this is the career for you before you jump into the time and expense of a school program. If you're detail-oriented, motivated, possess great reasoning and analytical skills, and have a high level of integrity, this might be the field for you.

U.S. News offers four top tips for adults going back to school:

• Use financial aid resources
• Carefully plan your study time
• Interact with other adult students
• Set some time aside for yourself


mj grenzow

Written and reported by:

M.J. Grenzow

Contributing Writer

angel chatterton

With professional insights from:

Angel Chatterton

Senior Lecturer of Accountancy, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign