Types of Accounting Degrees

A degree in accounting can set students on a path to a strong career in business and finance. Accountants work for corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, and small businesses. They create financial reports, review income and expenses, prepare tax documents, and assure regulatory compliance. Some accountants even help track down financial criminals. Others take part in high-stakes investments. Accounting careers can either prove safe and predictable or exciting and dynamic, depending on the exact role.

Students at all levels can pursue accounting as their major. Lower-level degrees prepare graduates for entry-level positions, while bachelor’s and master’s degrees serve as the gateway to middle- and- upper-level posts. Many accountants aim to become certified public accountants (CPAs), a well-respected and high-paying designation that usually requires a master’s degree.

At nearly all academic levels, schools offer various specializations for accounting majors, including forensic accounting, management accounting, real estate, taxation, and international finance. Students can also earn a general accounting degree at the associate or bachelor’s level and then specialize in a master’s program later.

Once they’ve graduated, accounting majors can compete for accounting and auditing jobs. Many of these careers boast high pay and significant opportunity; the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 6% growth rate for accountants and auditors from 2018-2028.

The guide below provides an overview of the accounting profession, including types of accounting degrees, specific careers in accounting, methods of paying for an accounting degree, and a ranked list of the best schools for this major.

Accounting Degree Levels

Accounting degrees come in all different levels, from a six-month certificate to a Ph.D.

Career changers often choose certificate programs, and people looking for a quick entry point into a profession frequently apply to associate programs. A bachelor’s degree is the standard in the field, while master’s programs typically serve as a pathway to a CPA designation or other advanced credentials. A Ph.D. remains the purview of future college teachers and accounting researchers.

The information below gives prospective students a clear idea of what each program level offers, who it best suits, and what kind of careers it can open up.


  • Certificate

    A certificate in accounting can mean different things to different people. To clarify, a certificate does not equal certification. Schools issue certificates for completion of short academic programs, while professional organizations or state agencies provide certifications for meeting various requirements. For example, an accountant with a CPA designation holds a certification, not a certificate.

    That said, a certificate can make a smooth transition for midlife career switchers or people who want to try the accounting field before investing in a long and pricey degree program. Many applicants to a certificate program in accounting already hold a bachelor’s degree in a non-business field, and a certificate offers a quicker, less expensive option than a master’s degree. Students often aim to qualify for careers as bookkeepers or account administrators.

    Admission requirements vary by school, and prospective students should examine each certificate option on its own merits, since these programs often differ widely.

    • Cost: $200 per credit
    • Program Length: 3-4 months
    • Sample Courses:
      • Financial accounting
      • Managerial accounting
      • Taxation
    • Potential Careers and Salary:

    Learn More About Accounting Certificates


  • Associate

    Requiring two or fewer years in school, an associate in accounting can provide a quick and inexpensive start to a long and lucrative career in a financial profession. The associate degree can lay the groundwork for further education at the bachelor’s or master’s levels, or it can serve as the foundation for a whole new career.

    Most associate in accounting programs require 60 credits to complete, but many schools allow students to transfer in up to 45 credits, which can reduce the time to graduation to as little as one semester. Courses in associate programs include financial accounting, principles of finance, and applied marketing strategies.

    People eager to get started in a career or those who already hold several general education credits often find the associate degree a perfect fit. Admission usually requires a high school diploma or its equivalent, and many community colleges charge modest tuition rates, making the barriers to entry low.

    • Cost: $135 per credit
    • Program Length: 2 years
    • Sample Courses:
      • Financial accounting
      • Principles of finance
      • Federal taxation
    • Potential Careers and Salary:

    Learn More About Associate Degrees in Accounting


  • Bachelor's

    For many people, earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting marks the first step on a career journey into the world of accounting and finance. With this degree, graduates can interpret financial regulations, prepare financial reports, prepare tax returns, and audit a company’s financial records. The bachelor’s degree can also meet a major part of the criteria toward becoming a CPA or other certified accountant. Many accounting careers require a bachelor’s at minimum.

    Recent high school graduates, some career switchers, and people who already hold an associate degree in accounting make great candidates for a bachelor’s degree. This program usually requires 120 credits and four years of study. Many online colleges, however, permit students to transfer in up to 90 credits, which can shorten the time to graduation by up to three years.

    Courses in a bachelor’s program may include cost accounting, federal taxation, business law, and financial statement analysis. Some schools allow students to earn an accelerated BS/MS in accounting, and others offer help getting alumni started in their new careers.

    Learn More About Bachelor’s Degrees in Accounting


  • Master's

    A master’s in accounting can bridge the gap between an entry-level job in the field and a lifelong career as a CPA or other financial professional. Typically, prospective graduate students hold a bachelor’s in accounting, finance, or another business discipline and a high GPA. Many also enter master’s programs with several years of experience in the field.

    Some schools require applicants to submit GRE or GMAT scores, while others do not. In nearly all cases, however, students must show an academic background that demonstrates readiness for master’s-level coursework.

    Courses in a master’s program may include business law, communication in management, and advanced topics in financial reporting. Many programs also feature a capstone. Available concentrations may include auditing, financial accounting, forensic accounting, and taxation.

    Upon graduating with a master’s in accounting, aspiring accountants may qualify to take the CPA exam or earn a promotion to a new role in their current workplace.

    Learn More About Master’s Degrees in Accounting


  • MBA

    MBA programs often appeal to prospective students who already hold expertise in finance and accounting. This program helps learners move from mid-level management positions to leadership roles in management accounting, cost accounting, or budget analysis. Prospective learners usually choose an MBA over a master’s in accounting if their career plans focus more on business leadership than on finance and accounting.

    A typical MBA requires at least two years of study, but many schools now offer accelerated programs that last just 14-15 months. These degrees usually require 33-36 credits, and courses often last 7-8 weeks each. Courses can draw from diverse areas such as marketing, leadership, public policy, and operations management.

    Some schools require a standardized test such as the GMAT or GRE for admission to their MBA programs, while others do not. All MBA programs, though, require a bachelor’s degree for admission, and many require a business background or degree. After graduation, MBA alumni can compete for jobs as public accountants, auditors, cost accountants, or budget analysts.

    Learn More About MBA Degrees in Accounting


  • Ph.D.

    Students who pursue a Ph.D. in accounting typically plan to engage in deep, original research within the discipline. Usually, they possess an extensive academic background in accounting and finance before they apply for a terminal degree in the field.

    Doctoral programs often require students to hold a master’s in accounting or an MBA to receive consideration for admission. Prospective doctoral students also typically need three or more years of experience in the field, strong letters of recommendation, and qualifying scores on the GMAT or GRE.

    The road to a Ph.D. is long — usually 4-7 years — and requires about 60 graduate credits. Doctoral students take classes such as accounting theory research, empirical research design in accounting, financial accounting theory, and tax research and jurisprudence. Upon completing their coursework, doctoral students often must pass a comprehensive exam and either write a dissertation or complete a doctoral project.

    • Cost: $60,000-$80,000
    • Program Length: 4-7 years
    • Sample Courses:
      • Advanced research in accounting
      • Accounting in the global era
      • Forensic accounting
    • Potential Careers and Salary:

    Learn More About Ph.D.s in Accounting


Specialized Accounting Degrees

Prospective students can choose a general accounting degree or pursue a concentration for a specialized degree. Accounting offers many popular specializations, including auditing, financial accounting, forensic accounting, management accounting, and taxation. Other options include internal auditing and international accounting.

The diversity of available options depends on the school. Large institutions typically offer more diverse specialization options than small schools. Students who choose a specialization usually do so in order to get a jump start on a specific career. Accounting majors with an undefined career path may want to stick to a general degree.

Not every school offers concentrations. Community colleges and small liberal arts colleges often provide fewer majors than large universities. At some institutions, enrollees simply choose to major in accounting, or perhaps major in business and minor in accounting. In many schools, students studying for a master’s degree enjoy more concentration options than bachelor’s or doctoral learners.

Traditional Versus Online Accounting Degrees

In today’s technology-enriched educational milieu, prospective students can consider online accounting degrees, traditional on-campus programs, and hybrid options that combine both styles. All models present benefits, and students should carefully weigh each option before making a decision.

Online

Online education has continued to grow rapidly since the first internet-based distance learning courses emerged in 1989. Today, almost 35% of higher education students in the U.S. are taking one or more distance education courses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Why has online learning shown such significant growth? From the supply side, it’s often easier for schools to attract more students at a lower cost with online programs. On the demand side, professionals want to stay abreast of the latest knowledge in their field, and online programs offer convenience and flexibility.

Accounting lends itself particularly well to an online learning environment, since the coursework is largely fact-based rather than theory-centric. Furthermore, accounting does not require the lab-heavy courses of hard science majors. But do those reasons justify choosing an online accounting degree over a traditional campus-based program?

Each prospective student must answer that question according to their own situation. However, it helps to root this decision in research and quantitative data applied to a number of different factors, such as cost, location, prestige, length, and resources. Students should also consider whether a hybrid program that draws benefits from both online and in-person models might work best for them.

Traditional

Students who attend a traditional on-campus college receive the classic higher education experience — in-person classes, social events, access to athletic facilities, personal counseling, and hands-on help with studying. Many recent high school graduates choose on-campus programs because they look forward to the personal and social aspects of life at a traditional college.

While all students need to develop disciplined study habits, on-campus learners can benefit from face-to-face interaction and regularly scheduled classes in traditional classrooms. These students also get to ask spur-of-the-moment questions and engage in lively discussions with peers. They often get instant feedback or additional explanations when they don’t understand a concept in class.

Many older students enroll in online or hybrid programs, since these degrees often take less time, cost less money, and provide a more flexible schedule than their on-campus counterparts. That said, some adult learners relish the robust nature of in-person learning and sign up for night classes, summer school, or J-terms to complement their distance education.

Considerations When Selecting an Accounting Degree Program

Prospective students look at several factors when sorting through their options for online degrees in accounting. Most people first think about cost and location, but it’s also critical to look at other elements of an academic program.

School Size

Are you looking for a small school where you can receive more personalized attention from faculty? Or do you see yourself at a major university with a strong reputation or research opportunities?

Program Length

Are you interested in a part-time program that allows you to continue to work or meet other obligations? Or would you prefer to earn an accelerated degree to help you improve your employment options as soon as possible?

University Resources/Career Services

Earning a degree doesn’t guarantee a job. What career development resources does each school provide for online students? Can you take advantage of mentors or contacts in the alumni network?

Prestige/Reputation

Is this school recognized locally, regionally, or nationally? Is it an academic powerhouse or a well-regarded school with plenty of alumni in your community?

Earning Potential for Graduates

What is the average salary for recent graduates with accounting degrees? Schools should have alumni statistics readily available.

Accreditation

Does the school hold regional accreditation? What about programmatic accreditation through the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) or another business-related agency?

Why You Want an Accredited Accounting Degree

Prospective students should carefully examine information about accreditation. What is accreditation? Which organizations provide accreditation? And why should future accountants choose an accredited institution?

In the U.S., accreditation refers to a voluntary process by which schools demonstrate their financial, organizational, and academic strength and integrity. National accreditation applies primarily to specialized or vocational schools. Regional accreditation, the most reputable and valuable form of accreditation, applies to public and research-oriented colleges or universities. The U.S. has seven distinct geographic regions, each with its own regional accrediting body, and no regional accreditor outranks or outperforms another. Both national and regional accreditation apply to every department and program within a school.

In addition to regional accreditation, some universities may pursue programmatic accreditation with an agency such as AACSB International, which accredits business schools. All legitimate accrediting bodies, whether national, regional, or programmatic, have been recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Department of Education.

Choosing an accredited college can help accounting students access financial aid, ensure their degree’s credibility, and qualify to take certification exams.

Selecting Your Accounting Program

The factors listed above can all help prospective students determine the best school options for them. Finding the right school means asking pointed questions, digging into available research, and sometimes making campus visits. Still, ranking lists can be a great place to start sifting through the options for an online accounting degree.

What Can You Do With an Accounting Degree?

Professionals with an online accounting degree can follow a variety of career tracks, nearly all of which show a positive job outlook and a high annual salary. Career responsibilities and compensation packages generally increase in parallel with formal education. Overall, though, all accounting careers pay reasonably well.

The BLS reports the median salary for accountants is $71,550 as of May 2019. Accountants who work in finance and insurance typically earn the highest salaries, while those employed by the government often earn the lowest. Earning a CPA designation may increase an accountant’s annual salary, and accounting graduates who pursue careers as actuaries or personal financial advisors may also realize much higher than average salaries.


  • Accounting Certificate Holders

    Career Description Average Annual Salary
    Accounting Clerk Accounting clerks are detail-oriented people who work with a variety of financial documents, including payroll software and tax documents. Their responsibilities may include many diverse administrative and financial tasks. $33,523
    Bookkeeper Bookkeepers track, record, and monitor financial transactions. These professionals may keep track of vendor invoices, sales receipts, and other documents. Bookkeepers can work for small businesses, companies, or nonprofit organizations. $26,542


  • Associate Degree in Accounting Graduates

    Career Description Average Annual Salary
    Payroll Accountant Payroll accountants report on and take on tasks associated with payroll and other employer/employee financial transactions. Their work may involve maintaining payroll documentation to ensure compliance with relevant laws and regulations. $54,857
    Tax Preparer Tax preparers help individuals and corporations prepare tax returns and submit them to federal, state, and local agencies. These professionals use tax preparation software, but must rely on their own knowledge of tax law and regulations. $25,150


  • Bachelor's Degree in Accounting Graduates

    Career Description Average Annual Salary
    Auditor Auditors help identify and prevent risks, ensure compliance with applicable regulations, and review financial reports for accuracy. These professionals may work for corporations, government agencies, or public accounting firms. They may also operate their own consulting businesses. $56,867
    Tax Consultant Tax consultants can serve clients in a variety of industries and can serve many roles in tax preparation and advising. They may study tax policy and law, interview clients, use tax accounting software, and prepare advanced tax returns. $60,441


  • Master's Degree in Accounting Graduates

    Career Description Average Annual Salary
    Public Accountant Public accountants often work in junior-level posts at large accounting firms. They can also serve in small businesses, nonprofit organizations, or government agencies. They may handle a wide variety of financial reporting tasks and responsibilities. $55,740
    Forensic Accountant Forensic accountants use their specialized knowledge of the field to investigate financial crimes such as fraud, embezzlement, and money laundering. These professionals may work in law enforcement or as employees in an accounting firm. $67,927


  • Accounting Ph.D Graduates

    Career Description Average Annual Salary
    Professor of Accounting Accounting professors work at higher education institutions. Their responsibilities usually include teaching graduate or undergraduate students. These professionals may also conduct research, lead the department, or participate in university-wide academic or leadership committees. $88,214
    Chief Financial Officer The CFO is the top financial executive in a corporation. In this role, professionals manage all of the company’s financial actions, including tracking cash flow and projecting expenses and income. The CFO serves as part of the executive leadership team. $134,232


  • Explore More Accounting Careers

    Frequently Asked Questions


  • What are the different degrees in accounting?

    Students can earn an associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate in accounting. Graduate degree options include a master’s in accounting, an MBA with an emphasis in accounting, a Ph.D. in accounting, and a DBA with a concentration in accounting.


  • What qualifications do you need to become an accountant?

    Accounting careers can open up to people with associate, bachelor’s, or graduate degrees. Most accounting professionals hold either a bachelor’s or master’s degree, and becoming a CPA typically requires a master’s in accounting or a related field.


  • How much do accountants make?

    According to the BLS, the annual median wage for all business and finance careers stands at $69,820, about $30,000 more than the national median. Accountants earn a median salary of $71,550.


  • Why is accounting a good career?

    In both good times and bad, companies need accountants to keep track of financial matters. Accounting offers a growing, well-paying, and nearly recession-proof career for people with an analytical mind and an eye for detail.


  • How much does an accounting degree cost?

    The cost of an accounting degree varies by school. Private schools and for-profit institutions typically charge higher tuition than in-state schools. Graduate programs may charge more per hour, but require fewer credits than undergraduate degrees.


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