Accounting is an employment powerhouse in just about every region of the country. The four largest public accounting firms — Deloitte, PwC, EY and KPMG — employ nearly a million people between them. On top of that, a 2002 law known as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has been increasing demand for skilled and precise oversight in corporate finance for nearly two decades, creating more opportunities for well-trained accountants.
Although accounting is a type of finance profession, accounting degrees differ in important ways from degrees in general finance. One of the primary differences is that many accounting degree programs are dedicated to teaching the fundamentals of how to become an accountant, while study plans in finance may also focus on banking, credit management and big-picture economic ideas.
Accounting degree programs are available at just about every level of higher education, from associate degree programs and skill-specific accounting certifications at community colleges to Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) programs at the highest level of scholarship. Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) need a bachelor's degree or higher.
On this page, we'll discuss some details of accounting programs, provide an overview of accounting as a job field and give you a list of featured colleges for accounting across the country. Read on to learn more about earning an accounting degree or certificate online.
Just about every employer of accountants expects job candidates to have some type of formal education. A bachelor's degree is the most common education level for professional accountants in 2020, but it's still possible to get your career started by completing an associate degree program or other type of college program.
What is accounting, really? You may think of it as the simple process of recording figures and making sure they add up, but that's not the whole story by any means. There are a wide range of situations where accounting skills might apply, and programs at the best accounting schools can give you the knowledge you need to navigate the professional accounting world.
Subjects like mathematics, economics, law, administration and communication are commonly taught in accounting program courses, as well as the specific methods and terminology of several different types of accounting. Below, we'll take a closer look at two common levels of accounting degree programs.
How long does an associate accounting degree program online take?
Most associate degree programs take approximately two years of full-time study to complete, but accountancy schools can often provide flexibility when setting your schedule. Accelerated plans may be able to reduce your total time in school, and part-time plans can allow you to take less intensive semesters and still graduate within four years.
What are the requirements to start an associate accounting degree program online?
Admissions requirements tend to depend heavily on the policies in place at each individual institution, but here are a few common requirements to look for:
Some schools may also require prerequisite courses. Check with your advisor for details.
Why earn an associate accounting degree online?
Online study can allow you to more easily integrate your degree program into your day-to-day life, providing opportunities to attend lectures and hand in assignments through the institution's distance education portal rather than traveling back and forth to class. There also may be some overall cost savings for online degree programs, particularly in terms of textbooks and campus fees.
Your first-year courses are likely to provide an introduction to important accounting principles as well as cover general education subjects like business administration and English composition. You may also take entry-level courses in more advanced disciplines, such as business law and taxation.
The second two semesters of your program typically contain higher-level explorations of the concepts you were introduced to in your first year. Tax accounting, business accounting, personal finance and more may be on the menu as you get closer to graduation. This portion of your program may also be a good time to mix in elective courses that can help you round out your skillset.
How long does a bachelor's accounting degree program online take?
Most online bachelor's degree programs in accounting require four years of full-time study, with the first two devoted to general education and introductory accounting principles and the second two reserved for more advanced accounting courses. Students who have completed an associate degree program can typically earn their bachelor's in two years or less.
What are the requirements to start a bachelor's accounting degree program online?
First-time college students in four-year degree programs are usually required to provide documentation of successful high school graduation or equivalency, along with any requested standardized test scores and records of any college credit earned during high school. In most cases, transfer students or associate degree holders can submit prior college transcripts in place of their high school records.
Why earn a bachelor's accounting degree online?
The bachelor's degree is the baseline educational requirement for most full-fledged accounting jobs, making it the most stable building block for a new career in accounting. The online environment can make it possible for even busy working adults to earn a degree by allowing them to adjust their college schedule to fit their existing lifestyle.
Lower division (years one and two)
Along with general education subjects like math, communications, history and natural science, lower-division accounting students tend to study basic principles of accounting, finance, economics and other foundational elements of the profession. Some programs may include statistical reasoning, business administration or introductory business law.
Upper division (years three and four)
Deeper explorations of key accounting concepts take place in your junior and senior year, once you've got a strong foundation for more advanced knowledge. If you're hoping to specialize in a particular type of accounting, you can begin focusing on that specialty in upper-division courses. Financial reporting and federal tax accounting are common subjects.
There are several specialties in which you can choose to concentrate your career efforts once you graduate. Here's a list of a few specialized types of accountant:
Once you graduate and make the move to the workforce, you are likely run across a wide range of potential accounting careers. You could learn the details of what differentiates the many accounting fields from one another while you're earning your degree, but there may not be specific info about what you can expect once you're hired on and begin working.
In this section, we'll take a closer look at three positions that are generally available to graduates of accounting programs. Read on for a quick rundown of the day-to-day duties performed in each, as well as some tips that might help you in your job search.
Put simply, accountants prepare and analyze an organization's financial records to ensure compliance and help improve efficiency. Here are some common responsibilities that may be expected of accountants, depending on the specialty they choose:
The first step to an accounting career is earning a bachelor's degree in accounting from an accredited college or university, although some employers may prefer applicants with more advanced degrees. Once you've met the education requirements, you can go on to earn industry certifications that make it clear to employers that you're capable of handling the challenges of the job. Here's a short list of accounting certifications:
Candidates with associate degrees or other non-bachelor's undergraduate credentials may be able to find a foothold in the profession by beginning their career as an accounting clerk or assistant and working their way up within the organization.
Budget analysts work directly with management teams to assess and adjust the financial operations of a business or other organization. They may advise institutions in either the public or private sector, from small businesses and large corporations to nonprofit agencies and the federal government.
Here are some of the duties that may be expected of budget analysts on any given day:
Most employers require candidates for budget analyst positions to have at least a bachelor's degree. Accounting is near the top of the list of degree subjects that can prepare you for a career as a budget analyst, but jobs are often open to graduates who concentrated on related subjects like these:
Budget analysts who work for government agencies can earn a certification that demonstrates their ability to work with the difficult budgetary challenges of local, state and federal governments. The Certified Government Financial Manager (CGFM) credential is offered by the Association of Government Accountants (AGA) and covers functions like governmental accounting, financial reporting, internal controls, auditing and more.
CGFM candidates enroll in an instructor-led preparation course and can purchase a study guide to help ensure that they're ready for the exam.
When personal finances get too complex, personal financial advisors step in and help people organize their money in a way that makes it work for them. The specific duties they perform can vary quite a bit from one situation to another, but here's a general list of things they may be called upon to do for clients:
The four-year degree is once again the most common level of education among professional financial advisors, with the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) reporting that around 57 percent of those working in the U.S. in 2019 held a bachelor's. A specific course of study is not typically required, but degree programs in accounting, finance, business, mathematics, economics or law can all prepare you for the job.
A nonprofit organization called the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards offers a certification that can help aspiring financial advisors show their expertise to employers and potential clients. Requirements for the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) credential include documented coursework in financial planning, a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university and a passing score on the 170-question CFP exam.
The CPA credential is probably the most famous of all accounting certifications. It shows that you have a firm grasp on essential accounting concepts and can be trusted with clients' finances.
Requirements: Requirements vary from state to state, but candidates must typically hold at least a bachelor's degree and have one or more years of professional experience.
Exam Format: Four exam sessions of four hours each; includes multiple-choice questions, task-based simulations and written communication tasks.
How long does the certification last?: Must be renewed every one, two or three years.
Offered by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), the CMA credential focuses on critical practice areas like cost management, risk management, analytics, corporate finance and professional ethics.
Requirements: IMA membership, two continuous years of work experience and a bachelor's degree or other professional accounting certification.
Exam Format: Two four-hour sections, each including 100 multiple-choice questions and two short essays.
How long does the certification last?: No formal expiration date is listed by the IMA.
Offered by the Internal Revenue Service, the EA certification focuses specifically on tax preparation and is the highest level of credential available from the IRS.
Requirements: Candidates must obtain a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN) from the IRS and take the Special Enrollment Examination (SEE).
Exam Format: Three exam sections of 100 questions each; sections have a four-hour time limit.
How long does the certification last?: EA holders must complete at least 72 hours of continuing education every three years to keep their certification current.
Organizations of like-minded professionals can provide a range of benefits to accountants, whether they're just starting out or already have an established career. Here's a list of a few such organizations you might consider joining: