Compiled and Written by Accounting.com Staff
Date Updated: May 2020

What Is an Associate Degree in Accounting?

Accounting deals with financial records and figures, helping organizations make efficient decisions based financial analysis. An accounting associate program often serves as the first step along this career path. A two-year associate degree in accounting builds foundational skills in math, business, and accounting principles, preparing you to enter the workforce or transfer into a bachelor's program.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that accountants earn an annual median salary of $71,550, and careers in the field are projected to grow at an average rate over the next decade. This page offers an overview of what to expect from an associate degree in accounting, including typical courses, admissions requirements, job opportunities, and salary potential. You'll also find information on the certified public accountant (CPA) exam as well as answers to frequently asked questions about the accounting field.

Why Get an Associate Degree in Accounting?

An associate degree in accounting offers a broad overview of accounting principles and serves as the first step toward a career in the field. While some students enter the workforce directly after earning this degree, many pursue further education, with some of the most common pathways outlined in the next section.

Future Accounting Education

After completing an associate degree most students pursue a bachelor's in accounting, commonly accepted as the minimum education requirement for most careers in the field. A bachelor's builds on the knowledge gained in an associate program, offering a comprehensive overview of accounting principles and practices.

Many accounting professionals pursue the certified public accountant credential, a requirement for many forms of accounting professional practice. The CPA exam requires 150 college credits to take. As most bachelor's programs are completed within 120-128 credits, many students elect to obtain a master's in accounting degree. A master's degree is typically the highest level of education required for a career in accounting.

Some professionals interested in specialized accounting practice, research, or teaching at the college level may pursue a Ph.D. in accounting. More commonly, accountants obtain specialized accounting certifications that indicate specific knowledge in areas such as fraud examination or forensic accounting.

Associate in Accounting Careers

Along with further education opportunities, an associate in accounting prepares you for a variety of entry-level careers, such as bookkeeper, payroll clerk, and accounting assistant. Generally, any career path with prospects of advancement requires at least a bachelor's degree, but some entry-level positions offer respectable average salary levels. For example, the BLS reports that financial clerks earn an annual median salary of $40,050.

Below, you'll find info on some of the top careers for associate in accounting programs, along with average salary levels and projected job growth.

Bookkeeper

JOB DESCRIPTION

Bookkeepers and bookkeeping clerks are responsible for maintaining an organization's financial records. This can include tasks related to recording cost and income transactions, creating financial statements, preparing bank deposits, and tracking accounts. This work exists in many industries, including professional services, insurance, wholesale, healthcare, and retail.

EMPLOYMENT OUTLOOK

Demand

The BLS projects bookkeeper, accounting, and auditing clerk employment to decline 4% between 2018 and 2028, due in part to increased automation within the field.

Trends

Software, like Quickbooks and Xero, along with general technological advances have a direct effect on many business operations, accounting especially.

Salary

The BLS reports the median annual salary for bookkeepers and accounting, and auditing clerks was $40,240 in 2018.

ADDITIONAL LEARNING

On-The-Job Training

Most companies provide some on-the-job training to new bookkeepers. This can include working closely with more experienced employees and supervisors to learn internal policies, procedures, and expectations for the role.

Certifications

Bookkeepers may choose to pursue the certified bookkeeper credential, offered through the American Institute of Professional Bookkeepers. This process includes an exam and documentation of relevant work experience.

Accounts Payable Clerk

JOB DESCRIPTION

This accounting role is usually part of a larger office or team working on finance-related tasks. Accounts payable clerks are responsible for maintaining records and filing reports, performing basic accounting functions, and issuing payments owed by the organization for products and services. These clerks may also have direct contact with clients and customers.

EMPLOYMENT OUTLOOK

Demand

The BLS projects employment for bookkeepers and accounting and auditing clerks will decline 4% between 2018 and 2028.

Trends

The increasing use of technology to perform accounting tasks requires clerks to periodically learn new systems and procedures. They may also be required to follow financial trends in their industry of employment (e.g., insurance, healthcare, manufacturing).

Salary

According to PayScale, the median hourly wage for accounts payable clerks is $15.91. Salaries range from $26,754 to $45,529 per year.

ADDITIONAL LEARNING

On-The-Job Training

On-the-job training provides the opportunity for new hires to work directly with more experienced clerks. Those entering accounts payable roles can expect to learn more about the organization and required tasks while performing their jobs.

Certifications

While not usually required for employment, accounts payable clerks with an associate degree and at least one year of experience may pursue the Certified Accounts Payable Associate (CAPA) designation through The Institute of Financial Operations.

Accounts Receivable Clerk

JOB DESCRIPTION

Accounts receivable clerks work within accounting and finance offices to maintain financial records and perform basic accounting functions related to collecting and recording payments made to an organization. These clerks may directly communicate with customers about payments and invoices.

EMPLOYMENT OUTLOOK

Demand

According to the BLS, the overall employment of bookkeepers and accounting and auditing clerks is projected to decrease 4% between 2018 and 2028.

Trends

The increased use of technology to assist with financial recordkeeping, data analysis, and automated billing are likely to affect the role of accounts receivable clerks. Persons working in these positions need to learn new systems and stay current within their industry, e.g. health care, insurance, loan and credit, banking.

Salary

In 2020, PayScale reports the median hourly wage for accounts receivable clerks as $15.70, with annual salaries ranging from $25,956 to $45,295.

ADDITIONAL LEARNING

On-The-Job Training

Accounts receivable clerks can expect to gain knowledge and skills through on-the-job training with more experienced clerks.

Certifications

There are no certification options specifically designed for accounts receivable clerks. However, those working in these roles may choose to earn professional development certificates through relevant associations like The Institute of Financial Operations.

Payroll Clerk

JOB DESCRIPTION

Payroll clerks assist with a variety of accounting tasks related to employee compensation. These clerks track employee hours, maintain administrative records, calculate wages, and distribute paychecks. This role is often connected to both finance and human resource functions within an organization.

EMPLOYMENT OUTLOOK

Demand

A 5% increase in financial clerk employment is projected between 2018 and 2028, according to the BLS.

Trends

Payroll functions and tasks are increasingly handled by automated systems and software applications. Clerks responsible for payroll and timekeeping tasks must develop technological skills to stay current and relevant in their roles.

Salary

The median annual wage for payroll and timekeeping clerks was $45,050 in 2018, according to the BLS.

ADDITIONAL LEARNING

On-The-Job Training

Many payroll clerks add to the knowledge and skills they learn in school with on-the-job training. This training is usually led by a more experienced clerk in the organization.

Certifications

The need for payroll certification varies by industry and employer. The National Association of Certified Public Bookkeepers offers multiple options, including payroll certification and QuickBooks certification.

Accounting Assistant

JOB DESCRIPTION

Accounting assistants perform a variety of tasks that support an organization's financial needs. These tasks can include general office tasks (e.g., filing, phone and email correspondence), bookkeeping, and billing. They often involve working with senior accountants.

EMPLOYMENT OUTLOOK

Demand

The BLS projects a 4% decrease in demand for bookkeepers and accounting and auditing clerks between 2018 and 2028.

Trends

Current employment announcements call for skills in basic accounting functions, office procedures, accounting software, and organization and communication. The accounting assistant role is often specific to each organization, requiring flexibility and a willingness to learn.

Salary

According to PayScale, the median wage for accounting assistants is $16.52 per hour in 2020, with annual income ranging from $27,329 to $49,782.

ADDITIONAL LEARNING

On-The-Job Training

On-the-job training, as conducted by experienced accounting assistants and supervisors, adds to the knowledge and skills accounting assistants can expect to acquire in school.

Certifications

Certification is not usually required to work as an accounting assistant, but relevant professional development is available through certification programs offered by associations like the National Association of Certified Public Bookkeepers and The Institute of Financial Operations.


How to Get an Associate in Accounting

As with most associate programs, an associate in accounting typically only requires applicants to hold a high school diploma or GED. A program offered at a traditional four-year college may maintain general GPA requirements or other admissions prerequisites, while those offered at community colleges typically feature open enrollment. Regardless of school, all applicants may need to complete assessments of their math and writing skills before being allowed to enroll.

Given that they are responsible for closely analyzing and interpreting complex financial records, aspiring accountants need a strong eye for detail. Communication skills can also help accountants share their work with other departments in an organization. Students can build many of these skills by enrolling in an accounting certificate program, which may also help them complete their associate degree faster.

The Associate Degree Experience

Associate degree coursework covers foundational accounting topics, as well as introductions to business and economics. Math courses are part of the curriculum, along with general education that provides knowledge in a wide range of disciplines.

The requirements to earn an associate degree vary, but typically include 60-65 credits of coursework. Some programs offer internships and other for-credit opportunities to gain practical experience. Full-time students can expect to complete the associate degree in two years, and there are some programs that offer accelerated one-year degree plans.

Degree Options

Accounting students can often choose between several types of associate degrees. This list outlines the major differences among associate degrees.

AA in Accounting
An associate of arts may offer slightly more freedom in electives, enabling students to complete a wider selection of courses.
AS in Accounting
An associate of science typically emphasizes math and science courses and may be the best choice for many accounting students.
AAS in Accounting
An associate of applied science is a professionally focused degree that prepares graduates to enter the workforce immediately, rather than transferring to a bachelor's program.

Core Concepts

Students graduating with an associate degree in accounting are expected to know and understand these central concepts:

  • Financial Statements: Provide documentation of financial data to managers and other stakeholders, such as shareholders and clients
  • Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP): A framework of practice and procedure guidance widely used by accounting professionals
  • Federal Income Tax: A government-issued tax that is paid quarterly and/or annually by both individuals and corporations, based on their income or revenue
  • Spreadsheet Functionality and Modeling: Use of software programs, such as Microsoft Excel, to format, store, sort, and analyze financial data, as well as predict trends
  • Data Management: Use of a variety of tools and systems to store and track financial information and monitor progress of accounting-related tasks within an organization
  • Cost Accounting: Provide analysis of costs associated with developing or providing services; provide managers with the information to make decisions on budget planning and cost reduction
  • Oral and Written Communications: Strategies for effective communication in professional business settings

Coursework

Each associate student works with an academic advisor to develop a degree outline that includes a specific course sequence. This plan covers topic areas in three primary categories: general education, accounting, and economics.

General Education

General education courses build fundamental skills that prepare students for more advanced coursework. These courses focus on broadly applicable skills such as research and communication, as well as general knowledge in areas such as humanities, social sciences, and information technology.

  • English composition
  • Business communications
  • Oral communication/public speaking
  • American history
  • Introduction to information technology

Accounting

These major courses introduce the fundamentals of accounting, offering a broad overview of the profession and preparing candidates for employment or further study. Accounting courses typically form a major portion of the associate degree curriculum.

  • Principles of accounting
  • Computerized accounting
  • Managerial accounting
  • Income tax accounting
  • Accounting internship

Foundations in Business, Economics, and Math

Supplementary courses give students a strong foundation in business, math, and economics, enhancing the skills and knowledge gained in accounting courses. These courses are applicable to a wide variety of business environments, preparing students to work with many different types of organizations.

  • Principles of microeconomics
  • Principles of macroeconomics
  • Business law
  • Principles of marketing
  • Introduction to international business

Should I Get My Associate Degree Online?

The affordability and convenience of online education make it a popular choice for accounting students, particularly those who wish to pursue a degree while maintaining their current career. Online learning offers several distinct advantages, including the ability to complete courses at any time of day without visiting campus. Almost all accounting work can be performed on a computer, making the field ideal for online study.

Earning an associate in accounting online offers a number of advantages, but distance learning isn't for everyone. Online courses offer more flexibility, but also require more independence, and some students prefer the structure of weekly classroom courses. However, for students who are highly organized and capable of directing their own studies, online learning offers a much greater level of flexibility. For those who are unsure about online learning, many schools enable students to "test drive" courses before enrolling.

Accreditation

Accredited programs have been evaluated by external reviewers to ensure a basic level of academic quality. This process assesses a program according to specific standards that cover areas related to curriculum development, faculty qualifications, student support services, financial resources, academic services and resources, and student achievement. It's important to confirm that an accounting program is accredited for a number of reasons.

  • Transfer Credits: Most schools will not accept transfer credit from institutions that are not accredited. This is critical if a student has earned credits they would like to transfer into an associate program, or if a student is interested in transferring associate degree credits into a bachelor's degree program.
  • Receive Financial Aid: The U.S. Department of Education does not provide federal financial aid to students attending schools that are not accredited by a recognized accrediting agency
  • Become a Certified Public Accountant: For students who plan to eventually take the CPA licensing exam, most states require completion of 150 credit hours from a school accredited through an agency recognized by the State Boards of Accountancy. It's important not to waste any time taking courses that will not count toward this requirement.

It is up to prospective students to confirm that the schools they are interested in attending have earned regional or national accreditation. Accounting programs should also be accredited by an agency that specializes in the field, such as one of the following:

Selecting the Best College for an Associate in Accounting

Several factors should be considered when selecting an associate in accounting program. Factors including cost, program format, location, school size, and professional preparation can all have an impact.

For many students, cost ranks among the top concerns when selecting a program. Typically, the most affordable route to an associate in accounting degree is to enroll at a community college. However, more expensive four-year public and private schools also offer associate degrees, which typically transition immediately into bachelor's programs. These schools may offer additional opportunities unavailable at community colleges, such as internships, networking events, and membership in student business organizations.

Along with networking and business opportunities, some schools offer increased professional preparation, with courses specifically designed to meet requirements for the CPA exam. If you're interested in becoming a CPA, research whether a school's accounting curriculum aligns with professional standards. Also be sure that a school holds regional accreditation from a reputable accreditation agency,

Regardless of your needs, plenty of schools offer strong associate in accounting programs. The two rankings below gather some of the top programs available both on campus and online.


Next Steps After Getting a Bachelor's Degree in Accounting

An associate in accounting degree is just the first step in your accounting career. Think about the following possibilities as you continue to develop your goals and choose a career path.

  • Enter the Workforce

    One option after earning your associate degree in accounting is to immediately enter the workforce. While your career options will be limited, you can still pursue a variety of entry-level positions, such as bookkeeper or payroll clerk. Entering the workforce after graduation offers the obvious benefit of immediately earning a salary, and you'll also build valuable professional experience. Some students accrue job experience before pursuing their bachelor's or master's.

  • Pursue a Bachelor's Degree

    Another popular option after earning an associate in accounting is to immediately move into a bachelor's in accounting program. Most schools offer academic pathways that enable you to seamlessly move from an associate program into a bachelor's without repeating any coursework. As mentioned earlier, earning your bachelor's offers increased job opportunities and salary potential. You'll also complete coursework that puts you closer to meeting requirements for the CPA exam.


Frequently Asked Questions

How do I start a career in accounting?
Earning an associate in accounting is a common first step toward a career in accounting. The degree prepares you for entry-level jobs or further education.
Is an accounting certificate equivalent to an associate degree?
An accounting certificate is not equivalent to an associate degree. Certificates typically require fewer credits and build less comprehensive knowledge.
How long does it take to get an associate degree in accounting?
Most associate degrees take about two years to complete, though some accelerated programs may enable you to graduate faster.
How much does an associate in accounting cost?
While tuition rates vary widely among colleges, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that the average cost of an associate degree at a two-year college comes to about $20,200.
How can I pay for my associate in accounting?
You have many options to finance your degree, including scholarships, grants, federal loans, private loans, and personal funds. Some employers may also partially finance your education.
Is an associate degree in accounting worth it?
An associate in accounting is an affordable degree that serves as the first step toward a career as an accountant, making it a worthwhile choice for students.
What can I do with an associate degree in accounting?
An associate in accounting prepares you to enter a bachelor's program or pursue entry-level careers such as bookkeeper, accounting assistant, or payroll clerk.
Can you become an accountant with an associate degree?
An associate degree in accounting does not enable you to become an accountant. Accountants must hold at least a bachelor's degree or even a master's degree.
What salary can you get with an associate degree in accounting?
Salaries for associate degree holders vary by position an experience level: for example, accounts payable clerks earn an annual median salary of $26,754-$45,529.

Accounting Organizations

Accountants depend on professional organizations to network, share knowledge, and find job opportunities. The list below features some of the most popular accounting organizations.


Program Database

Our program database allows you to filter search results based on your goals and interests, including type of program and institution, online or on-campus delivery, location, school size, tuition, and accreditation. Explore all of the options available through our interactive search and add the school profile pages to your research of associate degrees in accounting.