Returning to School

| Staff Modified on May 4, 2022

Returning to School

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Adults return to school for several reasons, including gaining experience to advance their careers, pursuing a career change, and earning a degree for personal enrichment. Adults considering an accounting degree may wish to increase their salary potential by meeting the educational requirements for a CPA license or want to change careers into a dynamic field with multiple job openings. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 10% increase in accounting jobs by 2026 and reports that in 2017, accountants earned a median salary of $69,350 per year.

Adult students face unique challenges when returning to school, such as the need to balance school with work and family responsibilities. Students returning to school may also worry about how to pay for their degree. However, adult students also possess the maturity and drive to succeed in an accounting program. Students may benefit from the flexibility of an online accounting program, which lets working professionals arrange coursework around their schedule. Adult learners may qualify for numerous financial aid opportunities, including federal financial aid and accounting scholarship programs.

This guide helps adult students find the best accounting program for their career goals. It covers the benefits of online accounting programs, the process of transferring credits to a new school, and how to earn college credits for work experience. It also covers financial aid options and provides a list of scholarships for accounting students. By researching the process before enrolling in an accounting program, students maximize their opportunities.

Benefits of Returning to School for Accounting

Returning to school for an accounting degree helps adult students change careers or advance to higher levels within the accounting profession. By earning a bachelor's degree, accountants meet the educational requirements for many accounting positions, including bookkeeping and personal and business accounting. And by earning a master's degree, accountants can complete the educational requirements to become a CPA. In 2017, CPAs earned a median salary of $73,800, which is a significant increase compared to professionals who hold an accounting bachelor's degree.

Professionals considering returning to school for an accounting degree may also receive support from their employer. Many companies encourage their employees to pursue degrees to advance their careers, and some offer tuition reimbursement programs to help cover educational expenses. Additionally, adults returning to school to complete their accounting degree demonstrate their commitment to the field to future employers.

Accountants earn higher salaries as they complete higher degrees. As shown in the following chart, on average, accountants with a bachelor's earn more than those with an associate degree, and accountants with a master's earn more than both.


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Online Accounting Programs for Returning Students

Students returning to school after a break may benefit from the flexibility and convenience of an online accounting program. The Online Learning Consortium reported that in 2017, over 6 million students took an online course, meaning that nearly 30% of higher education students took one or more online courses. And a National Center for Education Statistics study found that nontraditional students are six times more likely to complete a fully online degree compared to traditional students.

Many online programs offer flexible classes by using an asynchronous learning format where students choose when to complete coursework. Online students also save time and money on commuting and parking costs, and many online learning platforms let students log on from anywhere, including mobile devices. Online programs let working professionals with busy schedules earn a degree while continuing their job, and they also help students with family obligations. By considering online programs, returning students can choose from the top accounting programs across the country without the need to relocate.

Accounting students in an online program can also complete internship requirements at a local site approved by the program. For these reasons, many returning students opt for an online accounting program over an on-campus program.

Transferring Credits as a Returning Student

Returning students often go back to school having already earned college credits at another institution. For these students, the ability to transfer those credits to their new school can decrease the time to degree completion and tuition costs. However, colleges and universities create their own transfer credit policies, so returning students need to research the policies at each prospective school to maximize their transfer credits.

Schools do not automatically accept transfer credits. Instead, they evaluate transfer students' transcripts to determine which credits to accept. Some colleges only accept transfer credits from regionally accredited schools. Most also limit the number of credits students can transfer toward a degree. Additionally, while college credits never technically expire, some schools may decide to only accept credits earned within a particular time frame.

The type of credit also matters. General education credits tend to transfer most easily, while students may have to retake courses in fields that change rapidly, such as nursing or technology. Because transfer policies vary depending on the program or school, returning students should research transfer policies and speak to a transfer adviser for a transfer review.

Transferrable Credits

Schools use the transcript review process to determine whether to accept transfer credits. In general, transfers between public schools within the same state are the easiest and simplest. Students may also easily transfer community college credits into public schools in the same state using transfer agreements. Returning students should pay close attention to a prospective school's policies about course equivalency, course levels, and quarter system versus semester system credit transfers.

Course Equivalency: During the transcript review process, schools must determine whether a class taken at another institution is equivalent to the school's version of that class. For example, a student who took accounting 101 at a community college may receive credit for an accounting 101 course at a four-year university. Alternately, a school may grant elective credit for a course that does not have an exact equivalent at that institution.

Course Level: Course level also affects transfer policies. If a student took accounting 101, for example, they would not receive credit for a 300-level accounting class at their new school, even if the classes have the same title. In general, it's easier to transfer credits for 100-level and 200-level courses than for upper-division classes. Schools may require students to complete major requirements or specialized courses at the new institution.

Quarter vs. Semester Transfers: Students can transfer credits earned on the quarter system to schools that use the semester system, or vice versa. If students attended multiple schools using different systems, they can use a credit conversion formula to estimate how many credits they may receive. It's also helpful to ask a school adviser about transferring credits from a quarter system to a semester system.

College Credit for Work Experience

In addition to transfer credits, colleges also grant credits for work experience. Colleges acknowledge that adult learners gain valuable knowledge through workplace training, military service, examinations, independent study, and other means. However, colleges do not simply award credit for experience. Instead, they evaluate what students have learned and how it applies to specific courses. This process is known as a prior learning assessment (PLA).

While the PLA process varies from one institution to another, many use tools like standardized tests, challenge exams, and individual assessments to award credit for prior learning.

Methods of Assessing Prior Learning

Colleges and universities use several methods to assess a student's prior learning. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) identified common methods of PLA, which can help accounting professionals gain credit toward their degree and save significant educational expenses.

Standardized Exams: Many colleges use standardized exams to award credit for prior learning. For example, most schools award credits for Advanced Placement exams. In addition, many use the College Level Exam Program to assess a student's knowledge and skills in particular academic disciplines. Similarly, the DSST examination program offers more than 30 exams in college subject areas. Schools either automatically grant credit based on minimum scores or evaluate exams on a case-by-case basis.

Challenge Exams: While independent organizations offer standardized exams, some schools create their own challenge exams. These exams, also known as departmental exams, measure the student's knowledge in a specific course area. In most cases, a faculty member who teaches the specific course creates the challenge exam to determine whether students can test out of that course. If students pass the challenge exam, they receive college credit for that course.

Individual Assessments: In certain fields, colleges award credit based on individual assessments. The most common assessment is a portfolio review. As part of a portfolio assessment, qualified faculty members or an external portfolio evaluator examine the student's materials. The assessment may also include an interview component or a performance assessment, depending on the subject area. Colleges may also offer skill simulations for students to demonstrate their knowledge in a particular area.

Evaluation of Non-college Education and Training: Colleges also award credits for education and training obtained outside of the higher education system. This can include military training and education or workplace and volunteer training. In most cases, colleges follow the guidelines of independent, third-party organizations that create PLA recommendations. Colleges may also award credit for students who complete a certification or licensure process, which may help professional accountants meet credit requirements for a higher degree.

How PLA Credits Transfer

Colleges and universities handle the PLA credit transfer process differently. Some award credit for prior learning, while others may use prior learning to waive course requirements. If students receive credit for prior learning, it may count as an elective credit, a general education requirement, or a major requirement. Students with extensive prior learning experience need to research their prospective school's policies on credit for prior learning, including their policies on credit maximums and transferability. By selecting schools or programs with generous prior learning policies, students can decrease the time to degree and their educational expenses.

Paying for School as a Returning Student

Nontraditional students qualify for many financial aid options, including federal grants, loans, scholarships, and work-study programs.

Filling Out the FAFSA as a Nontraditional Student

Typically, high school seniors fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) after applying to colleges. The FAFSA determines a student's eligibility for federal grants, loans, and work-study programs, which provide financial support for students.

Many nontraditional students do not realize that they also qualify for the FAFSA. There is no age limit for receiving federal financial aid, so all students pursuing a degree should fill out the FAFSA. The application not only qualifies students for federal financial aid, but it also helps them qualify for state and school financial aid. Some private loan providers and scholarship organizations also use the FAFSA to determine a student's financial need.

Most students meet the eligibility requirements for federal financial aid. To qualify, students must be U.S. citizens or eligible noncitizens with a valid Social Security number. Students must also be enrolled or accepted in an eligible institution, and men must be registered with the Selective Service. Students fill out the FAFSA each year to qualify for aid, and the FAFSA becomes available in October.

As part of the process, students provide information on their income and assets. The federal financial aid program calculates the student's financial need based on this information.

What Information Do I Need to Provide for the FAFSA?

Social Security Number: To fill out a FAFSA, applicants must have a Social Security number, and their name and Social Security number must match the student's Social Security card. Undocumented students do not qualify for federal aid, but they may qualify for state or school aid.

Driver's License Number: The federal government requires a driver's license number as part of the FAFSA application if the student has a driver's license. Students who do not have a driver's license can leave this line blank.

Federal Tax Information: To determine financial need, the FAFSA application asks for federal tax information or tax returns with IRS W-2 information. Applicants must provide this information for themselves and their spouse if married. Nontraditional students who are not dependents do not need to provide tax information for their parents.

Records of Untaxed Income: In addition to federal tax records, the FAFSA requires records of untaxed income. This includes all child support payments received by the applicant, interest income, and veteran noneducation benefits. Applicants must provide these records for themselves and their spouse.

Information on Assets: Applicants also provide information on their financial assets, which includes cash, savings and checking accounts, investments such as stocks and bonds, and real estate other than the home where the applicant lives. Applicants who are dependents for tax purposes also have to submit asset records for their parents.

How to Determine Your Financial Need

Many financial aid sources, including some scholarships and certain federal grants, use the student's financial need to determine awards. The federal financial aid program calculates financial need using the cost of attendance (COA) and expected family contribution (EFC). The COA represents how much it will cost the student to attend school. Most colleges calculate the COA per school year by determining factors such as tuition and fees, living expenses, the cost of books, and miscellaneous expenses.

After determining the cost of attending school, many financial aid programs use your EFC to determine financial aid eligibility. This number varies from person to person based on the tax and income information reported on the FAFSA. To calculate the EFC, financial aid programs use a formula established by law. This formula considers taxed and untaxed income, assets, benefits, and family size. Students can look up the EFC formula on the federal financial aid website.

If the cost of attendance exceeds the expected family contributions, students may receive need-based aid. However, students cannot receive more need-based aid than their financial need. Need-based aid includes Pell grantsFederal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grantssubsidized loansPerkins Loans, and federal work study. Students may also qualify for non-need-based aid, which is calculated by subtracting all financial assistance awarded from the COA. The federal non-need-based aid programs for accounting students include unsubsidized loans and PLUS loans.

Types of Financial Aid for Returning Students


  • Scholarships: Scholarships do not need to be repaid. These educational support awards help students cover the cost of a degree.
  • Grants: Students do not need to repay grants. They may be offered through private organizations, the federal government, or other sources.
  • Federal Loans: Students qualify for federal loans by filling out the FAFSA. Federal loans offer several perks, including loan deferment while in school, loan forgiveness programs, and lower interest rates than private loans.
  • Private Loans: Some students require additional financial support after taking out federal loans. While private loans typically offer less competitive terms, they can help students pay for school.


  • School Aid: Schools often provide financial aid packages for their students, including scholarships, grants, and loans. Some of these funding sources are only available to students at that particular school.
  • Federal Aid: By submitting the FAFSA, students qualify for subsidized and unsubsidized loans, PLUS loans, and Perkins loans. The federal government typically partners with schools to disburse the loans.
  • State Financial Aid: Some states offer financial aid, including funding geared toward particular degrees or career paths. State financial aid may include scholarships, grants, loans, and loan forgiveness programs.
  • Privately Funded Scholarships: Scholarships funded by individuals, foundations, or professional organizations help accounting students pay for their degree.

Financial Aid for Graduate Students

Graduate students benefit from several sources of financial aid. At the federal level, graduate student aid includes loans, grants, and work-study programs. Graduate students qualify for up to $20,500 per year in unsubsidized direct loans. After meeting the maximum amount, students may also apply for a PLUS loan, which requires a credit check. The federal work-study program also helps graduate students with education expenses. Qualifying students work part-time, often in a position related to their course of study, and earn money for educational and living expenses.

In addition to federal sources of funding, graduate students may qualify for financial aid through their state, school, or employer. Some states provide financial aid such as grants, loans, and loan forgiveness programs aimed at graduate students. Many schools also offer financial aid packages for graduate students. Accounting programs may offer specialized scholarships, grants, and fellowships for their students. Working students may qualify for financial aid through their employer. Some employers offer tuition reimbursement programs, particularly for employees pursuing career advancement with a degree.

Graduate students also benefit from scholarships offered by accounting foundations and organizations, such as the ones listed below.

Scholarships and Grants for Adult and Mid-Career Students

NSA Scholarship Foundation Awards
Who Can Apply: Offered by the National Society of Accountants, these awards fund undergraduate accounting majors, including part-time and full-time students. Applicants must have a minimum 3.0 GPA and attend an accredited institution Amount: up to $2,200

Ritchie Jennings Memorial Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Awarded by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, the scholarship funds full-time students at the undergraduate and graduate level who plan to pursue a career in fraud examination. Applicants must submit two recommendation forms.
Amount: up to $10,000

AICPA John L. Carey Scholarship
Who Can Apply: This award funds liberal arts and non-business majors earning a graduate degree in accounting. Adult students returning to school for a career change meet the requirements if they plan to pursue a CPA license. Amount: $5,000

AFWA Accounting and Finance Scholarships
Who Can Apply: The Accounting and Financial Women's Alliance provides several scholarships for students earning an accounting degree, including adult students returning to school. For most of the scholarship opportunities, applicants do not need to be AFWA members, but they must be women. Amount: $2,000-$4,000

AICPA Scholarship for Minority Accounting Students
Who Can Apply: This scholarship funds minority students earning an undergraduate or graduate degree in accounting. The renewable award selects recipients based on academic achievement, leadership, volunteerism, and dedication to becoming a CPA.
Amount: up to $5,000

Tips for a Successful Return to School

Returning to school as an older student presents challenges and advantages. While adult learners have the maturity to succeed academically, they may need to brush up on certain skills before returning to the classroom.

Brush Up on Tech Skills: Today's college students use a variety of technologies during the learning experience. Many accounting programs expect students to already be familiar with accounting technology. By brushing up on tech skills, such as accounting software and online learning platforms, adult learners will be best prepared to enter school.

Find a Support Network: Students juggling work, family, and school especially need a support network. Unlike some undergraduate students, who can often organize their lives around school, adult learners typically have to balance academics with more demands. Building a support network helps returning students complete a degree.

Choose a Flexible Program: Adult learners often benefit the most from flexible programs, including online accounting programs. Self-paced or independent learning programs may best accommodate the student's lifestyle.

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