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Accounting Degrees and Certification: What You'll Study in an Accounting Program

If you aspire to become an accountant, here are your curriculum and degree paths.


What degree levels are available?

Virtually every degree level opens a door into the world of accountancy.

An associate's degree can prepare you for a number of entry-level positions, while a bachelor's degree will give you the necessary tools to build a foundation of accounting knowledge, technical expertise, interpersonal skills and professional insight.

Both an MBA with a focus in accounting and a master's degree in accounting, such as the Master of Accounting (MAcc), will prepare you for managerial positions within the field.

We'll talk more about the differences between them, and how they can further your career, in the master's degrees section.

Associate's Degree Programs


Getting an associate's degree in accounting is one of the fastest routes you can take to an accounting career. Accounting associate degree programs allow you to bypass the traditional bachelor degree, and instead take 1-2 years of courses that will give you a solid base in career-specific accounting skills, including basic accounting, cost accounting, taxation, financial statement analysis and payroll accounting.

With an associate's degree in accounting under your belt, you will be prepared for a number of entry-level accounting jobs. Some options include:

  • Accounts Receivable Clerk
  • Accounting Assistant
  • Billing Clerk
  • Bookkeeper
  • Management Trainee
  • Payroll Clerk

Bachelor's Degree Programs


Specific courses and specializations differ from program to program, but it is reasonable to expect your accounting bachelors program to include the following:

  • Introductory, intermediate and advanced accounting courses
  • Courses devoted to taxation and auditing
  • General business and management classes

While a bachelor degree accounting program is often a stepping-stone to further graduate degree programs, it will qualify you for essentially all entry-level accounting jobs and many mid-level jobs as well. Graduates frequently enter into staff accountant positions at large accounting firms or at specific corporations and are well positioned to move up the ladder within just a few years' time.

As an example of a typical course load, University of Phoenix offers the following program of 120 credit hours of undergraduate courses for a Bachelor of Science in Accounting:

Examples of Core Courses

  • Business Communication for Accountants:
    This course introduces students to the foundations of communication in a business accounting setting. Topics include communication ethics, collaboration, information utilization, critical thinking, and professional competence and values.
  • Introduction to Computer Applications and Systems:
    Students learn to apply Microsoft® Office tools including work processing, spreadsheet, database, and presentation software to accomplish business objectives.
  • Principles of Accounting I:
    This course covers the fundamentals of financial accounting as well as the identification, measurement, and reporting of the financial effects of economic events on an enterprise.
  • Principles of Accounting II:
    This course introduces accounting concepts in a business environment.
  • Contemporary Business Law:
    This course reviews the U.S. legal system, common law and its development, organizational structures, and the regulatory environment pertinent to business.
  • Principles of Macroeconomics:
    This course provides students with the basic theories, concepts, terminology, and uses of macroeconomics.
  • Intermediate Financial Accounting I, II, III:
    This 3-part course examines the conceptual framework of accounting, including cash versus accrual accounting, the income statement and balance sheet, the time value of money, revenue recognition, statement of cash flows and full disclosure issues.

Other classes may include such topics as corporate, individual and estate taxation, cost accounting, government and nonprofit accounting, and classes in contemporary auditing.

Master's Degree Programs

Course work at the master's level will prepare you for management and administrative roles as well as often offer the credit hours required to sit for the CPA exam.  Generally, students can pursue an MBA with a focus in accounting or the MAcc, the Master of Accounting. Here are some of the differences between the two:

MBA with a focus in accounting

The MBA degree's broad curriculum teaches the client management and business strategy concepts that will help in jobs that are more geared towards management. The courses within the accounting concentration primarily emphasize the following:

  • Overlap between general management and business
  • In-depth accounting applications and concepts

Master of Accounting (MAcc)


The MAcc curriculum focuses more on preparing students for the CPA exam and the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) exam. Since some states demand a fifth year of education to sit for the CPA exam's 150 hour requirement, you'll still only be a few classes short of a master's anyway, so it provides a great reason to continue earning your MAcc. MAcc programs usually include courses dealing with the following subjects:

  • Research
  • Business Valuation
  • Cost management
  • Information Systems
  • Auditing
  • Policy
  • Taxation
  • Consulting Services
  • Financial and managerial accounting

What certifications will I need?

Robert Half International's Salary Guide states that the certified public accountant (CPA)— an accountant who is licensed by a state board of accountancy—designation remains the most frequently requested credential by employers, but as technology and finance become more closely intertwined, other certifications are becoming more relevant. Some of these may include the following:

  • CISA—Certified Information Systems Auditor
  • CFA—Chartered Financial Analyst
  • CIA—Certified Internal Auditor
  • CMA—Certified Management Accountant
  • CPP—Certified Payroll Professional

These certifications are awarded by distinctly prestigious professional associations, including the ISACA, the Institute of Management Accountants and the Institute of Internal Auditors.

What will I learn in my courses?


According to the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), students interested in becoming an accountant must abide by a code of ethics, in companion to completing their college coursework. The fundamentals that must be learned and complied with include these principles:

  • Integrity in professional and business relationships
  • Objectivity, lack of bias and no conflict of interest
  • Professional competence and due care
  • Confidentiality
  • Professional behavior and compliance with laws and regulations
  • Avoid actions that discredit the profession

How long will it take?

Depending upon your level of dedication, an accounting major can take the following time to complete:

  • Associate's degree programs, which provide entry-level opportunity, usually take two years
  • A bachelor's degree program generally takes four years
  • Master's degree programs and MBAs generally require one-to-two years
  • The CPA requires 150 hours of college credit in order to sit for the exam, which amounts to a bachelor's degree plus some graduate coursework

Are online programs available?

Luckily, online programs for accountants are readily available for all degree levels, including associate's, bachelor's, MBA and MAcc degree programs. Additionally, most distance learning business degree in accounting programs prepare you to sit for the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) examination. Refer to your state's Board of Accountancy for the specific requirements you will need to meet in order to be certified in your state.

Depending on degree level, course work will include the following subjects:

  • General or advanced studies of financial accounting and management
  • Cost accounting and management
  • Auditing
  • Taxation
  • Economics and information systems
  • Classes in business law, ethics and technology may also be part of a program's curriculum

After earning an online accounting degree, students will be prepared to create, analyze and verify financial documents in order to provide information to clients. Graduates go on to become public accountants, consultants, forensic accountants, management accountants and public sector accountants.

How much will my education cost?

The cost of bachelor's degree programs varies depending upon the institution you attend. According to College Board's Trends in College Pricing 2017-2018, the average annual cost* for a four-year, public institution runs over $9,900 for in-state tuition and $25,620 for out-of-state-tuition.

The average annual cost for a four-year private non-profit school is $34,740 and over $16,000 for a private for-profit school.

Tuition Cost


According to College Board's Trends in College Pricing 2017-2018

Average Annual Cost for a four year



in-state tuition


out of state tuition

Annual Cost for a four year



non-profit school


profit school

Master's degree program tuition at in-state public institutions cost an average of $8,670 per year, and doctorate program tuition cost $10,830 per year at in-state public institutions.


According to College Board's Trends in College Pricing 2017-2018

Average Annual Cost



in-state tuition


According to College Board's Trends in College Pricing 2017-2018

Average Annual Cost



in-state tuition

*Cost of tuition and fees only. Prices do not reflect books, room and board.
CPA exam costs vary by state for the initial application fee (generally from $30 – $200) but in general you can expect your application and exam fees to cost around $1,000. If you choose an exam test prep course, such as Becker CPA Review, Purdue University Global CPA Review or Yaeger CPA Review, expect an average of $1,500. You can expect your CPA ethics exam fee and your licensing fee to add another $300-$500 to your total costs.


A strong college preparatory high school education is a good start for your accounting degree program. Courses in English, speech, communications, math and accounting are important. If your school offers computer technology classes make sure you enroll, as these skills will be integral through college and into your career. Make sure you develop your leadership skills, as college admissions officers look for applicants who display such qualities. Join school clubs to help cultivate this skill, or volunteer in a community program.


A completed, four-year bachelor's degree in accounting or finance will prepare you for graduate school.


The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is not required for admission to degree programs in the U.S. However, you may submit a score for review with your admission materials.

What accreditation is there for my program?

Accreditation shows that an institution or program meets standards of quality set forth by an accrediting agency, and that it is committed not only to meet those standards but to continuously seek ways in which to improve the quality of education and training provided. There are two types of educational accreditation: institutional and specialized.

The three main specialized accreditors for business and accounting degree programs include:

The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB):

AACSB International accredits degree programs in business administration and accounting at bachelor's, master's and doctorate levels

Accreditation Council for Business Schools & Programs (ACBSP):

ACBSP accredits business, accounting and business-related programs at the associate, bachelors, masters and doctorate degree levels worldwide International

Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE):

The IACBE accredits business programs that lead to associate, bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees. It does not accredit institutions that only offer associate degrees in business

Institutional accreditation is provided by regional and national associations of schools and colleges, such as The Higher Learning Commission. Institutional accreditation is provided by regional and national associations of schools and colleges. There are six regional associations, each named after the region in which it operates (Middle States, New England, North Central, Northwest, Southern, Western). Learn more.

Attending an accredited school may allow you to apply for financial aid, whether the school you select is a traditional classroom or online program. Learn more about accreditation.

What should expect my student-teacher ratio to be?

Students in undergraduate accounting programs will find a higher student-teacher ratio as many preparatory classes are lecture-oriented and you can expect class size to be larger. As a rule, the further you progress in your education and field of specialty the smaller you should expect the ratio to become.

The ideal student-teacher ratio is around 14:1 according to U.S. News & World Report's Best Schools survey.


Online Programs

One classic criticism of online programs is that you're isolated from your teachers and classmates, but the opposite is often true. You may actually interact more with instructors and peers in online discussions, social media venues, and emails, than in a traditional classroom setting. The National Center for Education Statistics ranks the top 64 online universities on a number of factors, including student-teacher ratio. They found a range of 7:1–94:1 for their top 64 not-for-profit and for-profit schools.