While you know a college education is important, you’re eager to finish school and get started with your career. Aspiring accountants and auditors might wonder how long it will take them to earn the degree they need to get to work in their career field. However, the answer can be more complicated than you might think. A four-year degree can be enough for certain accounting roles, but for other positions, you will need to plan on at least one additional year of school.
Bachelor’s Degrees in Accounting
Generally, the minimum level of education needed to become an accountant is a bachelor’s degree, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Bachelor’s degrees are undergraduate degrees offered at four-year colleges or universities that typically require 120 semester hours of coursework, or four years of full-time study. In a bachelor’s degree program in accounting, students learn the principles and practices of financial reporting, including the creation of tax forms and balance sheet statements.
The coursework for a bachelor’s degree program in accounting includes studies in the principles of financial accounting and managerial accounting, intermediate financial accounting, financial accounting for governmental and nonprofit organizations, advanced issues in financial accounting, cost accounting, taxation, auditing and accounting information systems. As part of a business school or college, an accounting program will often include studies in core business coursework in subjects such as business administration, management, marketing, economics, finance and human resources.
What about associate’s degrees? These two-year options exist at community and junior colleges, but they won’t qualify you for the same accounting roles that a bachelor’s degree would. Typically, graduates of associate’s degree programs in accounting start out in positions such as bookkeeper, timekeeper, payroll clerk, auditing clerk or financial clerk. With years of experience and exceptional on-the-job performance, a bookkeeper or clerk with an associate’s degree may be able to work his or her way up to an accounting role, but that career path is the exception rather than the rule.
Associate’s degrees in accounting are less lucrative than bachelor’s degrees, with bookkeepers and clerks earning median wages of just $39,240 compared to an accountant’s $69,350 median wage.
Education Requirements for CPAs
Though you can get your first entry-level accounting job and even move up to a staff accountant role with a bachelor’s degree, there are some accounting roles that you can’t fulfill with just a four-year undergraduate education. One of the most popular of those roles is certified public accountant (CPA).
CPAs are accounting professionals who are licensed with their state’s Board of Accountancy and thus are legally permitted to perform tasks that accountants without the credential cannot do. In particular, CPAs are able to file annual and quarterly reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which is a requirement all publicly traded businesses must meet. CPAs work in both public and private accounting, and they enjoy benefits such as better job prospects and salaries 10 to 15 percent above that of accountants without the credential.
If you want to be a CPA, there’s a good chance that you will have to spend at least five years in college. Most states require CPA candidates to have a minimum of 150 semester hours of college studies as opposed to the 120 hours needed for a traditional bachelor’s degree. Earning those extra 30 credits will typically take students an additional year.
Having a CPA license can also help you gain clients for your own accounting firm or attain a promotion to a senior-level role in an established accounting firm.
Graduate School for Accounting
You don’t technically need a master’s degree to become a CPA, even in states that require 150 semester hours of study. Some students choose to take an additional year of undergraduate work, either as part of a double major or a non-degree option. However, many students figure that, while they are completing an additional year of school anyway, they might as well put that year of study to work toward earning a master’s degree.
Graduate school programs in accounting and auditing cover advanced coursework in the field of accounting as well as specialized studies. Some graduate accounting specializations include consulting services, corporate finance and investments, managerial accounting, international business, entrepreneurship, CPA exam preparation and tax accounting.
While a master’s degree typically requires two years of study, many accounting schools offer five-year dual degree programs that allow students to earn their bachelor’s and master’s degrees faster, the BLS reported.