Skip to main content

Sorting Out the Options in Accounting Education

Sorting Out the Options in Accounting Education

Accounting is hot, but if you want to move into the field without getting burned, it’s important to choose the right educational program. Your choices include an accounting certificate, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Each takes you to a different career starting point.

Certificate: A Good Start

An accounting certificate provides the baseline education for an entry-level accounting job. Keith Gatto, program director of the University of California Berkeley’s accounting certificate program, says students also use the certificate as a bridge to the next step in their career.

“Ninety-nine percent of our students are working professionals,” he explains. “Someone may have graduated with a BA in liberal arts and then taken a job as a bookkeeper. They’re doing well and want to move on and up to the next phase of their career.”

A certificate can also prepare you for an advanced degree in accounting or help improve your understanding of accounting at work. For instance, a company director who wants a better understanding of auditing procedures may benefit from a certificate program, Gatto says.

Full-time Berkeley certificate program students typically take between one-and-a-half and two years to complete the seven required courses. Part-timers have up to five years to finish the program. Total tuition for the program was about $5,000 for the 2007-08 academic year.

Choose a certificate program from a prestigious university, and the school’s name recognition will add cachet to your resume. Community colleges, for-profit universities and technical schools also offer accounting certificates.

Certificate holders can easily find work at small companies, says Jonathan Claggett, president of DellBridge, a Columbia, Maryland, accounting recruitment firm. But without further education, your certificate may limit you to a particular niche or company.

“I know of an accountant who doesn’t have a degree [or certificate] and makes $55,000 in a project accounting role on a construction site,” he says. “But her next project with this company will involve an hour-long commute, and she can’t find anything with a comparable salary outside construction.”

If your budget is limited, an accounting certificate makes a great first goal, says Dr. Raef Lawson, CMA, professor-in-residence for the Institute of Management Accountants. “A certificate or associate’s degree is a great place to find yourself and see what you’re interested in at a reasonable cost, but don’t stop there,” he says. If money is an issue, use the certificate to find work at a company that will cover the cost of further accounting education.

BA Will Get You into Corporate Accounting

Most accountants end up working in management accounting, rather than public accounting, and a bachelor’s degree in accounting is the ticket to an entry-level position in that field, Lawson says. A four-year degree will also help qualify you for the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) designation.

However, if you wish to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), you’ll likely need a fifth year of school, because most states require 150 hours of education, and a bachelor’s typically requires only 120 hours. Some schools offer a five-year program combining a bachelor’s and master’s, while others clearly differentiate between graduate and undergraduate programs.

Two Kinds of Master’s

Schools offering master’s of accounting programs typically target one of two types of students: Those with accounting BAs and those who are new to the field.

Michigan State University’s MS in accounting program is typical of master’s programs targeting accounting undergraduates. “We provide the additional 30 credits in a one-year experience to fulfill the requirements for the 150 hours needed to sit for the CPA exam,” says the program’s director, Shannon Mulally.

“Most of our graduates go into public accounting in Michigan or the Midwest,” she adds. “The Big Four recruit heavily on our campus, as do the regional firms. We also have students who are in managerial accounting tracks and looking at becoming chief financial officers and CMAs or [Chartered Financial Analysts].”

While students can opt for part-time, the program is geared to full-time students who can attend weekday classes. For the 2007-08 academic year, tuition for 30 credit hours is just over $11,000 for in-state students and $24,000 for out-of-state students.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Master of Accounting (MAC) program, meanwhile, enrolls absolutely no accounting majors, explains Kathleen Lowman, director of MAC Career Services. “We like the liberal arts undergrad or the general business major,” she says.

About 60 percent of the students in the UNC program are right out of undergraduate school; the other 40 percent have been out from two to eight years. The program starts in mid-May and lasts for 12 months, with four short vacation breaks.

After graduation, 90 percent of program graduates go into public accounting with Big Four or regional public accounting firms. The other 10 percent go into corporate accounting. “Our students go into finance and accounting leadership or rotational program positions,” Lowman says.

For the 2007-08 academic year, the tuition at UNC runs $17,000 for in-state and $32,000 for out-of-state students. That seems like a lot, but Lowman points out that the program has had a 90 percent to 100 percent placement rate since the mid-1990s.

Just Take the Classes

If you already have a bachelor’s degree in something other than accounting, another option is to take 30 hours of accounting classes, points out Dennis Reigle, CPA, director of academic and career development at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. “It’s going to take a little longer, but they can keep their job and do it over a period of time with less economic depravation,” he says.

You could also go for a second BA. If the cost of the BA is lower and the courses are offered at more convenient times, that option may work better for you, Claggett says. “It depends upon how far along you are in your career,” he says. “If you’ve been an engineer for 20 years, you’re better off getting a BA because you’re going to take a pay hit.”

Not surprisingly, those running master’s programs disagree. “Do you want to go back to school for a less powerful degree or a more powerful degree, which is a master’s degree?” Lowman asks.

Learn more about accounting careers.

Education programs to fit your profession