What Is the Best Degree Path to Becoming an Accountant?

When it comes to major decisions, like choosing a college program of study, it’s always good to consider the details of your future plans, including salary potential. For aspiring accountants, the news is good. Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is among the top five highest-paying jobs for business majors, with experienced accountants earning a median annual salary of $73,800. Becoming an accountant, and especially a CPA, requires an education path that includes years of study and successful completion of an exam.

An Accounting Education

The first step to becoming an accountant is to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting from a college or university. Though accreditation may not be a requirement for state licensure, depending on the state in which the candidate plans to work, accreditation is required for additional certifications that could advance the accountant’s career. Students who intend to apply for special certifications in the future may want to select one of the more than 180 accounting programs accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).

Unlike bachelor’s degree programs in other subjects, undergraduate degree programs that prepare students to become CPAs require that students complete 150 semester hours of study rather than 120, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s because state CPA requirements typically mandate that candidates complete the additional 30 semester hours of education. Students who aspire to become CPAs should expect to spend five years earning their undergraduate degrees. To give themselves a further advantage in the job market, some students enroll in accelerated degree programs, through which they receive both a bachelor’s and master’s degree upon completing five years of study. Whether students pursue a bachelor’s or combined degree program, they should take advantage of any opportunities they have to gain hands-on experience in accounting through internships with accounting firms.

The Path to a CPA License

In addition to five years of study and a bachelor’s degree, candidates pass the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)’s four-part Uniform CPA Examination. Candidates have 18 months from the time they pass the first part of the test to pass the remaining parts. Of course, these aspiring accountants don’t have to wait 18 months to begin working in their chosen field. They may get hired for entry-level or junior-level positions in accounting, and then their employers will often pay for the expense of taking the CPA exam. Even after a student passes the CPA exam and receives the license from their state’s Board of Accountancy, they typically must still fulfill continuing education requirements to maintain their license.

Becoming an accountant and especially a CPA requires commitment to five years of study and the successful completion of a long, multi-part exam. For candidates who enjoy the mathematical, analytical and organizational challenges of accounting, though, the rewards of the profession are well worth this investment. For the right candidate, work as an accountant can be as personally satisfying as it is profitable.

Brenda Rufener

Julie McCaulley

Carrie Sealey-Morris