New and experienced accounting professionals can enhance their skills and credentials through general and specialized accounting certificate programs. Many certificates take less than a year to complete and require less time and money than most degree programs.
Aspiring accounting professionals without undergraduate degrees often enroll in introductory certificate programs to prepare for jobs such as accounting clerk or bookkeeper. These professionals earn a median annual salary of $41,230, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and can serve as stepping stones to higher-paying positions.
Students often use graduate-level certificate programs to meet the educational requirements for professional certifications such as certified public accountant (CPA) or certified management accountant (CMA). Accountants and auditors made a median annual salary of $71,550 in 2019.
This guide covers various accounting certificates, including common requirements, curricula, and career benefits.
Why Get an Accounting Certificate?
Accounting certificates offer professional benefits to both new and experienced accounting professionals. Students without college degrees often use accounting certificates to qualify for entry-level clerking or bookkeeping positions, while college graduates may use certificates to help meet professional certification requirements.
Some bachelor's degree-holders pursue specialized certificate programs to prepare for professional certification exams, such as CPA, CMA, or CIA. To earn CPA certification, the most common certification in the field, candidates must pass a four-part exam. To qualify to sit for the exam, applicants need 150 academic credits. Candidates often meet credit requirements with a 120-credit bachelor's degree and an accounting certificate or master's degree.
Accounting Certificate Careers
Since almost all organizations require accounting services, graduates of accounting certificate programs can work in diverse industries. Many certificate-holders work as clerks or bookkeepers, who make median annual salaries of around $41,000. To work as accountants, who typically make higher salaries than clerks and bookkeepers, professionals need at least a bachelor's degree.
Financial clerks perform various transaction, customer service, and recordkeeping duties.
Payroll, new accounts, and credit clerk roles may decline due to growing levels of automation, but the BLS projects clerk jobs in billing and posting, insurance, and loans to grow between 2018-2028.
BLS salary data from 2019 indicates that financial clerks earn a median annual salary of $40,540.
Financial clerks typically undergo additional company-specific and/or industry-specific on-the-job training.
Bookkeepers record financial transactions, maintain fiscal records, create statements, and track customer or client accounts. The primary industries that hire bookkeepers include professional services, insurance, wholesale trade, healthcare, and retail.
There are no special training requirements for bookkeepers. However, workers may choose to earn additional professional development certificates from associations like the Institute of Financial Operations to increase their competitiveness in the job market.
The job title "accounting clerk" encompasses multiple finance functions within an organization, and can include office tasks and accounting responsibilities. Accounting clerks may work in specialized roles, such as:
Accounts Payable Clerks: Maintain and file financial records and receipts, issue payments owed by companies to outside organizations, and communicate with contractors.
Accounts Receivable Clerks: Maintain financial records and files, collect and record payments made to companies, and contact customers about invoices.
Auditing Clerks: Review records and reports for accuracy, make corrections, and document problems.
The increased use of spreadsheet applications, databases, and specialized accounting software packages means that accounting clerks need up-to-date computer skills.
The BLS reports that the median annual salary for bookkeepers, accounting and auditing clerks was $41,230 in 2019.
Special credentials and training are usually not required for these positions. However, many professionals receive on-the-job training, and some employers may want clerks to seek additional credentials through the National Association of Certified Public Bookkeepers.
How to Get an Accounting Certificate
Requirements for accounting certificates vary by program. Programs geared toward high school graduates typically require a high school diploma or GED and often require the completion of prerequisite courses, such as economics, English, introductory accounting, and statistics.
Certificate programs aimed at aspiring CPAs may require applicants to hold a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited school. These programs may also require candidates to complete prerequisite classes on topics like financial, managerial, and cost accounting.
Accounting certificate programs develop expertise on topics such as economics, auditing, and taxation. Many programs provide training for specific careers, such as bookkeeping or forensic accounting. The time it takes to earn an accounting certificate varies by program. Some programs take just a few months to complete, while others may take over a year to finish.
The Difference Between Accounting Certificates and Certification
An accounting certificate signifies the completion of academic coursework, usually as training for a specific career or as a partial prerequisite for obtaining professional certification. Certificate program graduates do not usually receive certification automatically — they typically must complete additional steps, such as pass an industry-recognized professional examination, before earning certification.
Professional certification requires candidates to meet education and experience requirements. For example, CPA candidates need 150 credit hours in accounting from accredited institutions and at least one year of relevant professional experience. To review the many types of general and specialized accounting certifications available, consult this overview.
General accounting certificates offer overviews of accounting fields and topics. Other certificates focus on developing accounting specialty knowledge and skills in areas such as auditing and assurance or accounts payable. The following list outlines several common accounting certificates.
Undergraduate Certificate in Accounting
Many schools offer this general certificate program, which covers foundational accounting topics, such as managerial accounting, financial accounting, and taxation.
Auditing and Assurance Specialist Certificate
This certificate program entails coursework on auditing principles, individual accounting, and business tax accounting. Other courses may include payroll accounting, managerial accounting, and business law.
Accounts Payable/Receivable Clerk Certificate
This certificate program trains students in clerical support activities such as payment processing, recordkeeping, and depositing. Students learn to use relevant software, such as QuickBooks.
College graduates often advance their accounting careers by pursuing CPA credentials. They may also pursue credentials like:
Certified Management Accountant
Certified Internal Auditor
Certified Fraud Examiner
Certificate students usually take a prescribed sequence of courses, though there may be some room for customization. Specific classes vary by school and program, but common topics include:
Accounting and Accounting Systems
Financial and Cost Accounting
Intensive Analysis of Accounting Principles and Practices
Federal Income Tax Concepts
Introduction to Corporate Taxation
Estate and Gift Taxation
Auditing and Analysis
Auditing and Attestation
Financial Statement Analysis
Introduction to Forensic Accounting
Business Ethics for Accountants
Management Planning, Control, and Effective Budgeting
Should I Get My Accounting Certificate Online?
Many busy students opt to pursue online accounting certificates that feature flexible attendance formats. Given that top online programs boast similar outcomes as their on-campus equivalents, distance learning constitutes a convenient, affordable, and quality alternative to on-campus learning.
Online learning allows students to attend the top programs in the country without relocating. It also typically gives students the flexibility to balance their studies with personal and professional obligations. However, distance learning requires significant self-discipline, drive, and focus. Some learners may struggle to remain engaged or accountable outside of a traditional classroom.
The accreditation process ensures higher education institutions and programs meet a minimum standard of academic quality. Independent reviewers use a set of established metrics to assess factors like faculty qualifications, student support services, financial resources, and student achievement. Many schools, credentialing bodies, and employers only accept degrees from accredited institutions, and only students at accredited schools qualify for federal financial aid.
Applying to Undergraduate or Graduate Programs: Undergraduate and graduate certificate programs typically require applicants to submit official transcripts of previous coursework, and nonaccredited courses are often not recognized.
Becoming a Certified Public Accountant: To take the CPA exam, most State Boards of Accountancy require candidates to hold 150 credit hours from accredited schools.
Students should verify their schools of interest hold regional accreditation. Programs within a school may also hold accreditation. Accounting programs may hold accreditation from one or more of the following organizations:
Given the diversity of accounting certificate programs available, researching and choosing the right program can feel overwhelming. Prospective accounting certificate students should consider factors like location, curriculum focus, and attendance format. Learners should prioritize certificate programs at regionally accredited schools, as these schools garner more respect and make it easier to transfer certificate credits to future programs.
Prospective students should define their career goals and allow these aspirations to inform their choice of certificate program. For example, aspiring CPAs should prioritize certificate programs focused on CPA examination preparation. Large schools often provide more options and resources, while small schools frequently provide smaller student-to-teacher ratios.
Lifestyle preferences and schedule constraints also factor into successful program selection. Online certificate programs typically give working students the flexibility to balance their studies with personal and professional obligations.
Next Steps After Getting an Accounting Certificate
It's never too early to begin planning your accounting career. Graduates with an accounting certificate can take the following steps to advance their careers.
Enter the Workforce
An accounting certificate prepares graduates for many entry-level accounting jobs.
Pursue an Associate, Bachelor's, or Master's Degree
Credits from a certificate program often transfer to degree programs, which can save students time and money on a degree.
Earn CPA or CMA Certification (For Experienced Professionals)
Higher-level certificates can help those with prior degrees meet CPA or CMA requirements.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I start a career in accounting?
Most students start working toward an accounting career by pursuing a degree or certificate in accounting.
Is an accounting certificate equivalent to an associate degree?
Associate degrees usually require more time and money than certificate programs. However, associate degree programs typically provide better preparation for bachelor's degree programs.
How long does it take to get an accounting certificate?
Certificate programs vary in length. Undergraduate certificates in accounting can take six months to two years to complete.
How much does an accounting certificate cost?
The cost of an accounting certificate varies by program, but these programs often charge $200-800 per credit.
How can I pay for my accounting certificate?
Most students pay for their accounting certificate partly through financial aid, such as loans, grants, and scholarships.
Can I get an accounting certificate without a degree?
Yes, new accounting students can earn introductory accounting certificates without a college degree, but some prerequisite coursework may be required.
Undergraduate accounting certificate programs prepare students for further education and for jobs such as bookkeeper, clerk, and accounting assistant.
Can you become an accountant with an accounting certificate?
To become full accountants, professionals typically need at least a bachelor's degree.
What salary can you get with an associate degree in accounting?
Graduates with an associate degree in accounting make an average annual salary of $51,000, according to PayScale.
Accounting certificate students and graduates benefit from joining professional organizations. The organizations below provide members with diverse resources including continuing education, networking, and professional development opportunities.
American Accounting Association The AAA advances accounting research and education by providing educational resources, academic conferences, and 17 world-class research publications.
The Institute of Internal Auditors Considered the authority in auditing, the IAA conducts research, produces professional standards, and provides professional development and continuing education opportunities for auditing professionals.
Institute of Management Accountants The IMA serves financial and accounting professionals through professional development opportunities, including continuing education programs, conferences, and networking events. IMA also certifies management accountants.
National Society of Accountants NSA advocates for and develops tax and accounting professionals by guiding professional standards and providing continuing education opportunities.
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