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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Accounts receivable clerks can expect to gain knowledge and skills through on-the-job training with more experienced clerks.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 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.
Oral communication/public speaking
Introduction to information technology
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
Income tax accounting
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
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.
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.
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.