Accounting professionals with a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license have plenty of advantages over those who don’t have the credential. They earn more money, have more opportunities for advancement and enjoy greater prestige associated with their career. However, getting your CPA license isn’t easy. To attain the credential, you must have a college degree as well as meet important other education and experience requirements, not to mention earn a passing score on the difficult four-part Uniform CPA Examination.

What Degree Does a CPA Need

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Education Requirements for a CPA License

The requirements for attaining CPA certification vary from one state to another. However, most states have some combination of three types of education requirements: degree requirements, academic content requirements and semester hour requirements.

You might be surprised to learn that the only degree you need to become a CPA is a bachelor’s degree, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Technically, you don’t even have to major in accounting, business or finance to meet the education requirements to take the CPA exam. However, most states require students to have taken a minimum number of semester-credit hours of accounting coursework, business coursework or both. These academic content requirements differ depend on the state in which you plan to seek licensure. CPA candidates in Pennsylvania, for example, must have 24 semester credit-hours of coursework in accounting, auditing, finance, tax and business law, including introductory principles of accounting classes and for-credit internship experience. To sit for the CPA exam in California, students need 36 quarter units (or 24 semester units) of accounting and 36 quarter units of business studies.

The final educational requirement needed to become a CPA is the most complicated. Most states in the U.S. now require CPAs to have 150 semester hours of college education, the BLS reported. The typical bachelor’s degree requires just 120 semester hours, so aspiring CPAs must complete an additional 30 credits, or the equivalent of one extra year of full-time studies, to meet this requirement.

In a few states, accountants who have no college degree but meet a set minimum amount of years of experience working in public accounting can substitute their work experience for the college degree requirement, the BLS reported.

Meeting the 150-Semester Hour Requirement

If you need to go to school longer than it takes to earn your bachelor’s degree, doesn’t that mean that a graduate education is a requirement for CPA licensure? While that may seem to be the case, students actually have choices as to how they fulfill this requirement, the Association of International Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) reported.

Some students choose to use their additional year of study to attain a master’s degree. Having a Master of Accountancy, Master of Taxation or Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree can be beneficial in several respects. An advanced degree can offer you a better salary, further opportunity to move into management and senior-level roles and more specialized skills. Some master’s degree programs are designed for students preparing to take the CPA exam and focus on the subject matter tested in the examination.

If you decide not to go to graduate school, you can still meet your CPA licensing requirements by studying an extra year at the undergraduate level. Double majoring is a popular choice that allows students to expand their knowledge base without having to pay graduate tuition costs, which are usually higher than undergraduate programs. You can also take courses as a non-degree seeking student, which can save you money by avoiding degree fees. Some students complete their fifth year of undergraduate study at a community college, which again helps to make the extra year of school affordable.

Your accounting education doesn’t end once you attain your CPA license. To maintain your license, you must complete CPAs must complete 80 hours of Continuing Professional Education (CPE) courses in accounting, auditing and ethics every two years.

Accounting Education and CPA Exam Preparation

Although the requirements to become a CPA are different from one state to the next, the exam is the same for all CPA candidates across the United States. The four parts of the exam test candidates’ knowledge of Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) and Regulation (REG).

In an accounting degree program, students complete coursework in both general business subject matter and introductory through intermediate accounting. An accounting major is likely to take coursework in business administration, economics, finance, marketing, organizational behavior and management as well as principles of accounting, financial accounting, management accounting and auditing.

Even students who got excellent grades during their accounting education may need a great deal of preparation for the difficult CPA exam. The national average pass rate for this challenging exam is only 52.9 percent.

Additional Resources

What Are the Benefits of Becoming a CPA?

How Long Do You Have to Go to School to Become a CPA?

How Advanced Does My Degree in Accounting Need to Be to Become a CPA?

What Is the Salary Potential for a Certified Public Accountant (CPA)?

What Should You Know When You Interview for a Job as a CPA?