An associate’s degree is quicker and cheaper than a bachelor’s degree, so it can be an appealing choice for students interested in accounting. However, there are many benefits of spending the extra time and tuition dollars needed to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Going to school for another two years can mean the difference between a paraprofessional bookkeeping role and a true professional accounting role, which offers considerably better earning potential and job prospects.
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Professional Vs. Paraprofessional Career Paths
The biggest benefit of going for your four-year degree in accounting is the opportunity to become a full-fledged accountant. Graduates of an associate’s degree program in accounting are qualified to fill paraprofessional roles such as bookkeeping and accounting clerk. Paraprofessionals are workers who, while not fully qualified in an occupation like accounting, are sufficiently qualified to complete certain tasks in support of professionals in the field. An accounting paraprofessional, like a bookkeeping or accounting clerk, can occasionally advance to a professional junior accountant role with a great deal of experience. However, most employers look for candidates who have at least a bachelor’s degree to fill their entry-level junior accountant jobs, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported.
The differences between accounting and accounting clerk positions extends beyond job titles. Bookkeepers and accounting clerks typically handle basic financial reporting tasks. They oversee the general ledger and record day-to-day financial transactions, such as credits and debits. On the other hand, accountants understand both the theory and practice of financial reporting as it pertains to public accounting, management accounting, auditing and other aspects of the field. The work they do often relates to big-picture goals such as minimizing an organization’s tax burden, complying with financial laws and regulations, improving business operations and striving toward financial goals.
Accountants may work in public accounting, in which they are part of an accounting firm that prepares legally required financial documents on behalf of their clients, or private accounting, in which they prepare financial reports and recommendations for internal use.
Salary Potential for Accountants
What it comes to earning potential, the difference between an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree is considerable. Bookkeeping and accounting clerks earn a median annual wage of $39,240, according to the BLS. That salary is somewhat above the $37,690 median wage for all occupations, but still well below the $69,350 median wage for accountants and auditors. Going to school for an extra two years could raise your annual income by $30,000. Experienced senior-level accountants and senior accounting managers, in particular, have lucrative earning potential, with salary ranges in or near the six-figure range.
If you really want to maximize your earning potential, you can spend a fifth year in college so that you can attain your Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license. This extra education can be at the undergraduate level or it can be a part of earning your master’s degree.
Growing Opportunities in Accounting and Auditing
Another area in which you will find a big discrepancy between bookkeeping and accountant roles is job outlook. For accountants and auditors with a four-year degree or higher level of education, the job outlook is excellent. The BLS currently is predicting a faster than average rate of job growth in this occupation and expects opportunities for accountants to increase by 10 percent over a decade, resulting in 139,900 new jobs.
The future does not look so bright for bookkeeping and accounting clerks. Rather than job growth, the BLS is predicting a one percent decline in job opportunities in this occupation. That slight decrease in opportunities could translate to a loss of more than 25,200 jobs. New bookkeepers who do find work in the field may need more advanced skills than they once did, including stronger analytical and advisory skills, according to the BLS. However, given the large size of the bookkeeping and accounting clerk occupation – which currently includes 1,730,500 workers across America – the BLS also expects opportunities to remain plentiful in spite of the job losses. This optimism is due in part to the expectation that some of today’s accounting clerks will soon be leaving the occupation.
One reason accounting jobs are growing while bookkeeping jobs are declining is because accountants’ work is more complex. It is a myth that accounting jobs will be replaced by automation, but technological advances are the reason many basic bookkeeping tasks are diminishing.