If you’re seeking an accounting degree, you might wonder if there is really a substantial difference between an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree. Graduating faster and with less expense is certainly an appealing option, but will an associate’s degree cover the same subject matter and offer you the same job opportunities as a longer and more expensive bachelor’s degree? Unfortunately, students who opt for a two-year degree in accounting will find their knowledge and career opportunities more limited than those who attend a four-year school.
Accounting Degree Requirements for Associate’s and Bachelor’s Programs
The biggest differences between the curricula of associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs in accounting are the length of the program and the depth of the course content. Associate’s degrees typically require 60 semester hours of study, or about two years of full-time study. Bachelor’s degree programs are twice as long, requiring 120 semester hours or four years, so they include more studies in accounting and business subjects.
How does an associate’s degree program cover enough accounting subject matter in just half the time of a bachelor’s degree program? Some of the classes taken in an associate’s degree program are similar to those in a bachelor’s program, such as principles of accounting, managerial accounting, taxation, accounting information systems and intermediate accounting. You may even complete an accounting capstone course at the end of your two years of study. However, the number of accounting and business courses you will take is less than it would be in a bachelor’s degree program, and the purpose of the program might even be different.
Often, associate’s degrees in accounting – especially those with the title Associate of Applied Science in Accounting – are career-focused. They emphasize the technical skills and practical applications needed to perform basic financial reporting tasks. Associate’s degree programs are unlikely to spend as much time on the theories and concepts of accounting, auditing and financial analysis as bachelor’s degrees are. They also may take just one level of important subject matter, such as a single intermediate accounting course, rather than a full sequence of Intermediate Accounting I, II and III courses.
Students of both associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs in accounting also study general business topics, but again, students in a two-year program tend to take fewer courses and cover less extensive subject matter than those in four-year programs.
Accounting Jobs With Associate’s and Bachelor’s Degrees
Students of an accounting associate’s degree program learn the basics of accounting practice, but typically not enough to work as a professional accountant. The minimum education normally needed to become an accountant or auditor is a bachelor’s degree, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For some senior-level roles, or to attain a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license, you might benefit from going to graduate school for accounting, as well.
What accounting work can you do with an associate’s degree? Most graduates of accounting associate’s degree programs go on to become bookkeepers, accounting clerks, auditing clerks, payroll clerks and similar occupations. These roles are paraprofessional positions, in which workers do some basic aspects of the tasks that a licensed professional might do but without the license requirement. Bookkeeping and accounting clerks typically work in-house as part of a company or organization’s office and administrative support staff. Accountants, on the other hand, are business and financial professionals who may work for a company, as part of a public accounting firm or for the government.
Because the accounting work they perform is more basic in nature compared to an accountant’s complex financial reporting and analysis, bookkeeping and accounting clerks earn less money. The median wage for a bookkeeper is $39,240, compared to $69,350 for accountants, according to the BLS. Accountants also enjoy a better job outlook. The BLS expects jobs for bookkeepers and accounting clerks to decrease slightly, while opportunities for accountants and auditors are growing at a faster than average rate of 10 percent.
A major reason for the decline in jobs for bookkeepers and accounting clerks is that evolving technology has allowed many bookkeeping tasks that once required human personnel to be automated and performed by computer software.
Transitioning from Two-Year to Four-Year Accounting Education
For some aspiring accountants, starting out with an associate’s degree and pursuing a bachelor’s degree later could offer the best of both worlds. By choosing a two-year degree, you can get out into the workforce faster and begin gaining work experience as well as earning a living. When you find that you’re ready to work toward a more advanced accounting education, you can enroll in a bachelor’s degree program that will transfer the credits you earned for your associate’s degree, so you’re not starting over from the beginning. Some schools even offer accounting degree completion programs intended for adult students who, like you, already have an associate’s degree in the subject.
You can even save money or time by going back to school after joining the workforce. A competency-based degree program could award credit based on your prior work and life experience. An employer’s tuition assistance benefits might pay for part of your education.