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 many years of college to be an accountant are required. While this sounds like it should be a simple question, the answer can be more complicated than you might think. There are different levels of degrees in accounting, not to mention different formats and structures found in accounting degree programs. There are also different roles in accounting, and which role you’re pursuing plays a big part in determining how long to get an accounting degree.
Graduation from some kind of college-level accounting program is at least a year away, and very likely several years away. Although having to wait years to get into the accounting workforce can be frustrating, remember that pursuing a degree in accounting is an investment in yourself and your future. By the time you complete your degree, you will have learned, at a minimum, the foundational concepts and technical skills needed for some form of career in the field of accounting. Without this knowledge, you would have a hard time finding success in a role as an accounting support paraprofessional, an accountant, an auditor or an accounting manager.
How Long Does It Take to Become an Accountant?
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). This means that most students will spend at least four years in college to prepare for an accounting career. Depending on your career goals in accounting, you may need one or more additional years of study beyond the bachelor’s degree. All in all, it can take between four and six years of full-time accounting study to be qualified for senior-level and managerial accounting roles.
One point to clarify is that earning a degree in accounting is not the same thing as becoming an accountant. Degrees at the lower levels of study, including associate’s degrees and undergraduate certificates, are quick to earn, but they don’t qualify you to work as an accountant or auditor. Instead, these degrees would most likely result in you finding a role as an accounting clerk, bookkeeper, accounting assistant or accounting specialist – roles that are not the same, in terms of job duties or earning potential, as a full-fledged accountant position.
How long to become an accountant is also dependent on whether you’re seeking any accounting credentials. For example, if you’re aiming to become a rectified public accountant (CPA), you’re going to take longer than if you wanted only to become an accountant without any specific credentials. There are two reasons it takes longer to become a CPA than an accountant without this highly regarded qualification. Eligibility for credentials like the CPA may include more extensive accounting coursework than the average bachelor’s degree, and there is an additional licensing or certification process involved in acquiring the credential that takes time.
There’s no downtime required between earning your accounting degree and starting work as an accountant. Since accountants aren’t required to be licensed unless they are planning to do the work of a CPA, you can start calling yourself an accountant and seeking job opportunities for accountants right away. You don’t have to wait to take a licensing exam, go through a lengthy licensing process or spend years acquiring supervised work experience, as you would have to do for jobs in some other fields.
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.
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, according to the BLS. Despite the title of the credential, CPAs work in both public and private accounting. Certified public accountants enjoy benefits such as better job prospects and salaries of up to 15 percent above that of accountants without the credential, according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)’s This Way to CPA website.
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.
The Types of Accounting Degrees
Accounting educational programs exist at every level, from vocational postsecondary certificates to doctoral degrees. The most common types of accounting degrees include degrees at the associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. These programs require different commitments of time and equip students with different levels of accounting knowledge and skills, preparing them for a variety of job roles in the accounting field.
The Timeline to Earning an Associate’s Degree in Accounting
Associate’s degrees are the first level of undergraduate degrees available and typically encompass 60 college credits, although some associate’s degree programs have higher credit requirements. These degrees are offered at community and junior colleges, technical schools and vocational schools. A student who takes a full course load can complete a 60-credit associate’s degree program in two years if studying in the fall and spring semesters only.
These two-year options may sound appealing, 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, accounting assistant, accounting clerk, 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 $42,410 in 2020 compared to an accountant’s $73,560 median wage, according to the BLS. While you’re saving time and tuition costs by shortening your education, the tradeoff is that you won’t make as much in the sort of accounting support role that you’re likely to land with an associate’s degree as you would with a higher level of accounting education.
Keep in mind that actually graduating with your associate’s degree in two years is not a guarantee. To stay on track, students need to take the full course load required for their degree plan, not simply enough classes per term to qualify as full-time students. They need to avoid having to repeat courses due to poor performance and make sure they take all required classes on schedule, without wasting their time on classes that don’t fit into their program and won’t count toward graduation.
If you’re considering an associate’s degree program in accounting, do some research on the type of degree awarded and the intention of the program. Generally, Associate of Applied Science degrees are vocational degrees in accounting, which provide students with the technical skills to work in accounting support roles. Associate of Arts and Associate of Science programs tend to cater more toward students who are starting out their college education at the community college level and plan to continue their schooling at a four-year school.
How Long Does It Take to Earn Bachelor’s Degrees in Accounting?
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. Besides covering twice as many courses as an associate’s degree, the curricula of bachelor’s degree programs are more advanced, including intermediate through advanced undergraduate-level studies taken in the form of upper-level courses.
In a bachelor’s degree program in accounting, students learn the 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.
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. Whether you complete these extra studies at the undergraduate or graduate level is up to you.
The Timelines for Graduate School for Accounting
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. Master’s degree programs can take anywhere from 30 to 60 credits, which equates to one to two years of study.
At the graduate level, accounting students are likely to be interested in one of two types of master’s degree programs:
- Specialized master’s in accounting programs, like Master of Accountancy (MAcc) and Master of Science in Accounting (MSAC) degrees
- Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree programs with a specialization in accounting
Either graduate degree program can improve your career prospects, but which one is right for you depends on your goals and interests. Generally, master’s in accounting degrees tend to have a narrower focus on accounting and cover more advanced and specialized topics in accounting. MBA programs have a broader scope, combining core business coursework in different areas of study with graduate-level classes focused on accounting.
You might choose to pursue a specialized master’s in accounting program if your goal is to become a senior accountant, in which you need a greater assortment of high-level accounting skills and in-depth specialized knowledge. If your objective is to become an accounting manager, an MBA program may be a better option because of its emphasis on management theory and skills and on other aspects of business administration.
Generally, specialized accounting degrees tend to be shorter programs, often requiring 30 credits. Traditional MBA programs are often two-year programs and can take 36, 45, 51 or even 60 credits.
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.
Meeting the 150 Credit Hour Requirement for CPA Certification
Aspiring CPAs need 150 semester hours of study to qualify for licensure, although some states may permit students to take their CPA licensing exam before they complete their 150 hours. It’s not difficult to determine how long it will take you to meet this requirement. Beyond a traditional 120-credit bachelor’s degree, you need 30 additional credits, or the equivalent of one full year of additional full-time study.
Many students who plan to become CPAs 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. Despite this 150-credit hour requirement, you don’t technically need a master’s degree to become a CPA, which means you don’t need to go to graduate school. Some students choose to take an additional year of undergraduate work, either as part of a double major or a non-degree option.
If you choose to earn a master’s degree to meet this 150-credit hour requirement, be aware that some master’s degree programs take longer than others. Students who want to keep their schooling to five years should make sure they choose a degree program that is intended for completion in one year.