Just because accounting is one of the fastest online associate degree programs you can enroll in – able to be completed in as little as 20 months in some accelerated program formats – doesn’t necessarily mean you can be an accountant. Prospective students often wonder if they can develop the full array of skills and topics of accounting knowledge needed to be a competent accountant in such a short amount of time. There are a lot of factors to consider when making this decision, including weighing different standards of competency, examining the core curricula you are likely to find in accounting associate’s degree programs and thinking about your unique career goals and plans.
The Education Needed for a Career as an Accountant
This question of whether or not you can develop competency as an accountant through an associate’s degree is hard to answer. On one hand, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) advises that the minimum level of education you need to become an accountant is a bachelor’s degree. The most highly credentialed accountants often have a year of graduate study – if not a full master’s degree – under their belts.
On the other hand, data reported from real accountants suggest that a four-year degree may not be as necessary as the BLS suggests. Just 42 percent of accountants and 48 percent of auditors actually have a bachelor’s degree, according to O*NET. Around 14 percent of accountants report an associate’s degree as their highest level of education, and 39 percent report having some college education but no degree. This data offers some hope of a full-fledged accounting career, rather than jobs as bookkeepers or accounting clerks, for students contemplating an associate’s degree program but not planning to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Although the BLS lists the same requirements for accountants and auditors, O*NET data shows auditors are more highly educated. Nearly half of auditors have a bachelor’s degree, but 10 percent have a post-baccalaureate certificate and 43 percent have a master’s degree.
Standards of Competency in Accounting Programs
How do you determine what coursework is required to produce a competent accountant? There are no universal curriculum requirements that distinguish between programs that produce competent accountants and those that do not, according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), one of the professional organizations that accredit accounting programs.
It is worth noting that both the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP) and the AACSB only accredit accounting degree programs at the bachelor’s degree level or higher. Associate’s degree programs in accounting aren’t eligible for accreditation, no matter how strong the curriculum may be. Both accreditation organizations have high standards for accounting programs.
To achieve ACBSP accreditation, these programs must cover financial accounting and reporting for business, government and nonprofit organizations. The curriculum should also include courses in taxation, fraud examination, auditing and attestation, financial statement analysis, managerial accounting or cost accounting, accounting information systems and research and analysis in tax and accounting. However, a program that includes coursework in some, but not all, of these topics may still qualify for ACBSP accreditation.
AACSB-accredited programs also cover certain topics. Among the requirements are studies in the recording and analysis of financial data, tax policy and strategy, international accounting issues, ethics and regulations pertaining to accounting, internal controls, project management and the roles and duties of accountants. The AACSB also looks for coursework that encourages students to think critically, ask questions, analyze and interpret data, assess risks and clearly express conclusions.
Undergraduate programs that receive ACBSP accreditation cover topics in the functional areas of marketing, business finance, management, business communications and accounting, as well as coursework in the business environment and in business ethics.
Accounting Coursework in an Associate’s Degree Program
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How do the curricula found in associate’s degree programs in accounting measure up to the standards set by accreditation bodies like the ACBSP and the AACSB? Meeting these standards in just half the amount of coursework – 60 credits, typically, compared to the 120 credits for a bachelor’s degree – would be an ambitious goal.
Because they have a shorter duration of time to work with, associate’s degree programs in accounting often focus on the foundations of the field. You will likely take courses such as Principles of Accounting 1 and 2 and, perhaps, a course in major topics such as cost accounting and accounting information systems. To help fit your accounting coursework into the context of the broader business world, you may take classes management principles, global business perspectives and practices, business computer skills, business law and economics.
You probably won’t find as many specialized accounting courses in an associate’s degree program as you would have to choose from in a bachelor’s degree program. Instead, the rest of your studies will likely revolve around meeting general education requirements.
Evaluating Competency in Accounting
The core curriculum of an associate’s degree program in accounting usually won’t meet all of the competencies you would expect to acquire in a bachelor’s degree program. However, there are plenty of practicing, and presumably competent, accountants who don’t have a bachelor’s degree. If you want to start off your career with an associate’s degree, you may have to work your way to a staff accountant role from an entry-level position like accounting assistant, bookkeeper or accounting clerk. With experience and an employer who values performance and motivation over formal education, you can prove your competency and advance into an accountant position. However, you will have an easier path to a true accounting role if you choose to spend a couple more years in school. If you intend to work for a prestigious firm, not having a bachelor’s degree will be more detrimental to you than it would be at a less widely known firm or working for yourself. Ultimately, whether your associate’s degree education is enough to competently prepare you for your career in accounting depends on what you want your career path to look like.
In fact, if you aim to earn the certified public accountant (CPA) credential, you will need 150 college credits, or 30 credits above what is usually required for a bachelor’s degree. Many aspiring CPAs use these extra credits toward a master’s degree.