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Online Accounting Degrees and Schools

There's a case to be made that accounting is one of the most important unsung careers on the job market. Accountants help small businesses, giant corporations and private citizens make sure that their finances are in order and compliant with whatever complex system of codes apply to their situation, helping individuals and organizations stay on the right side of the law without having to know every last detail of it.

As complex as accounting can be, it should be no surprise that choosing one of the several types of accounting degrees available is required to start a career in the field. Here's a table of data from the National Center for Education Statistics that shows how many accounting colleges there are in different subregions of the U.S.:

Region No. of colleges that offer accounting degrees No. of schools that offer at least one online accounting degree
Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI) 113 20
Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO) 78 26
Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK) 167 34
Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD) 224 74
Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV) 409 78
Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI) 309 52
Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.) 261 35
New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME) 104 24
Total (all 50 states) 1,665 343

Entry-level accounting degrees

Most jobs in accounting require at least an undergraduate degree in the field. Here's some detail on the types of accounting degrees available to undergraduates and the sort of coursework you're likely to see in various degree plans at accounting colleges:

  • Associate degrees - If you're looking to pick up a solid understanding of the fundamentals of the accounting profession and take some introductory business administration courses as well, a campus-based or online accounting degree at the associate level might be just what you're looking for. Coursework for these degrees typically includes fundamental accounting concepts, payroll accounting, individual taxation, macroeconomics, personal finance, basic marketing and workplace communication.
  • Bachelor's degrees - A bachelor's degree functions as the minimum educational requirement for most accounting careers, in that those who work through all four years (or so) of undergraduate accounting study tend to emerge prepared for the challenges of the profession. Bachelor's degrees from accounting colleges build on the associate degree curriculum with courses in federal taxation, advanced accounting, financial statement analysis, private sector finance principles, auditing, accounting information systems, accounting research, quantitative business analysis and more.
  • Non-degree study - Undergraduate certificates in accounting are typically designed for students who already have a bachelor's degree but have developed an interest in accounting and want to study it at the bachelor's level without signing up for an entirely new undergraduate degree. Certificate programs may require anywhere from 15 to 36 credit hours to complete, and earned credits can often be transferred into more intensive programs if you choose to further pursue your study.

Accounting is counted among subjects that lend themselves well to online instruction, since it lacks a great deal of necessary hands-on instruction and lecture sessions can typically be converted to multimedia without losing much instructional content. It's also common that online accounting degrees come with slightly lower price tags than their campus-based alternatives, which can be a welcome advantage to students with other financial responsibilities.

Advanced-degree accounting programs

The types of accounting degrees diverge somewhat more rigidly at the graduate level, when study often narrows its focus and deepens its exploration of certain concepts in the discipline. If you choose to go on to graduate or postgraduate study in accounting, here's some of what you can expect to see:

  • Master's degree programs - Graduate programs in accounting offer layers of academic insight on top of the sturdy fundamentals learned in pursuit of undergraduate degrees. Courses include financial reporting, information systems auditing, accounting for non-profit and government agencies, managerial accounting, accounting theory, business law for accountants, advanced financial accounting, professional ethics and estate planning. Students looking to also broaden their understanding of the business climate may opt instead for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree with an accounting concentration.
  • Doctorate programs - The application of accounting principles in business and other organizational contexts may be the most common way for trained accountants to use their educations, but Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) programs exist for those who want to contribute their energies to educating the next generation of accountants or conducting and analyzing original research toward the end of improving the accounting field as a whole. Most doctoral programs in accounting take approximately four years to complete and culminate in the presentation and defense of an extensive research dissertation.
  • Certificates and credentials - The Certified Public Accountant (CPA) title is the most widely known and sought after of the credentials available to graduates from accounting colleges, but it's far from the only certification that professional accountants can pursue. The list of other credentials includes Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), Certified Financial Planner (CFP), Certified Internal Auditor (CIA), Certified Government Financial Manager (CGFM) and Certified Financial Analyst (CFA). The requirements to qualify for each are relatively similar but have some important differences — check the websites of credentialing organizations or your state's accounting board for more details.

Online accounting degrees are also available at the master's and doctoral level, although it may be advisable for all but the most dedicated online student to seek out a post-graduate program that takes place at least partly at a campus or other academic location. Dissertation work can be grueling, and unless you're deeply self-disciplined and innately comfortable communicating online, it can be easier to have some of those meetings in a face-to-face environment.

Q&A with an expert

Mark Forsyth, faculty in the Master of Accounting program at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School

Mark Forsyth, faculty in the Master of Accounting program at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business SchoolWhy would you encourage someone to consider a degree in accounting?

Three reasons:

        1. You want a career in public accounting.
        2. You want to advance your career to, ultimately, land in a senior corporate finance role (CFO, VP Finance, Controller).
        3. You want to sit for the CPA exam.

What would have been helpful to know about the value of accounting when you were looking into your own education?

Most of all, the job prospects. Because public accounting firms recruit directly from graduate accounting programs at top universities, students at these institutions have a nearly 100% chance of receiving a full-time job offer before they graduate.

How much education is typically necessary to get started?

Most firms favor students with a Master of Accounting degree over those with undergraduate accounting degrees. In order to sit for the CPA exam, you typically need more education credits than you'd receive in an undergraduate program.

Are there particular accounting specialties that have greater flexibility or career potential than others?

Not really. Tax and audit specialties typically dominate the public accounting landscape, but corporate finance, advisory roles and more unique roles (forensic accounting, for example) are also in high demand.

Would you recommend that students work to take the CPA exam as soon as they possibly can or is it wise to gain more than just the minimum amount of work experience before doing so?

Yes, it is generally advised to take the CPA exam as soon as possible.

What's some advice you would have for a student who's just starting out on the path to an accounting degree?

  1. Pursue internships in accounting firms. These are an excellent way to test the waters.
  2. Take on a variety of leadership roles in your academic and extra-curricular circles. Firms and corporations are looking for leadership qualities above all else.
  3. Choose a program carefully. The top-ranked universities tend to be preferred recruitment schools for the big firms, which greatly increases your chance of securing a great job while you are in school.

Types of accounting careers

The slate of careers available to graduates of accounting colleges has more variety on it than might be obvious to the uninitiated. Here's some data from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics that shows average salary and employment figures for a handful of accounting careers that may be accessible to you with a campus-based or online accounting degree:

Occupation title National mean annual salary
(2015)
Projected job growth
(2014-2024)
Total U.S. employment
(2014)
Entry-level education
Accountant $75,280 11 percent 1,332,700 Bachelor's degree
Financial analyst $95,320 12 percent 277,600 Bachelor's degree
Budget analyst $75,150 3 percent 60,800 Bachelor's degree
Financial examiner $88,310 10 percent 38,200 Bachelor's degree
Insurance underwriter $72,650 -11 percent 103,400 Bachelor's degree
Personal financial advisor $118,050 30 percent 249,400 Bachelor's degree

Common misconceptions about accounting degrees

It can be hard to get an accurate picture of a degree plan unless you've been through it, but that doesn't stop people from repeating certain mistaken ideas often enough for them to compete with the truth. Make sure you're not laboring under any of these misconceptions as you're looking into campus-based and online accounting degrees:

Misconception: Accounting is just a hyped-up version of basic math.

  • Fact: Accurate arithmetic is indeed highly important to accountancy, but it's patently untrue to presume that addition and subtraction are all that goes on in the accounting profession. Depending on the position they're hired to perform, accountants may need knowledge of corporate tax law, financial and managerial principles, business information systems, federal income tax code and methodologies that make it possible to analyze complex financial statements and draw conclusions from patterns in the numbers.

Misconception: Specializing in accounting can lead to low-paid MBA jobs.

  • Fact: Education and experience are two of the prime factors in determining a professional's salary, and accountants with master's degrees are likely to have plenty of each. BLS data show that the top 10 percent of accountants earned more than $118,930 in 2015, a figure that's nearly triple the national average annual salary across all occupations the same year, and that those employed in the five highest paying industries earned more than $90,000 each year on average. The largest accounting firms in the U.S., incidentally, also tend to hire accountants straight out of master's programs, so job prospects for accountants who hold MBA degrees are likely to be quite good.

Misconception: Employers won't hire candidates with online accounting degrees.

  • Fact: Online degrees have become more and more normal in the decades since they first came on the higher education scene. Current reporting suggests that employers do still look at the name of the school where you got your education, but that a vast majority of them care little to not at all whether you attended classes in person or on the Web. As long as you attend a reputable online business college, your online degree shouldn't hold you back at all on the job market.

How can I enroll in an online accounting degree program?

If you're ready to learn more about what it takes to get officially on the path to an accounting degree, the best thing to do is take your search for information into your own hands. Check out the listings we've provided below, reach out to a couple of schools that look like they might be right for you and get an idea of how you can take the next step toward a strong and stable career.

Sources:

  1. College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed April 12, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
  2. School pages, accessed April 27, 2016: Accounting Associate Degree, Baker College, https://www.baker.edu/programs-degrees/accounting-associate/; Online Associate Degree in Accounting, Penn Foster College, http://www.pennfoster.edu/programs-and-degrees/accounting-and-finance/accounting-associate-degree; Online Bachelor's Degree in Accounting, Colorado State University Global Campus, https://csuglobal.edu/undergraduate/programs/bachelors-degrees/accounting; Online Accounting Degree, Southern New Hampshire University, http://www.snhu.edu/online-degrees/bachelors/bs-in-accounting; Online Undergraduate Accounting Certificate, Penn Foster College, http://www.pennfoster.edu/programs-and-degrees/accounting-and-finance/accounting-undergraduate-certificate; Undergraduate Certificate in Accounting, Liberty University Online, http://www.liberty.edu/online/certificate/accounting/; Undergraduate Certificate in Accounting, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, http://ualr.edu/accounting/undergraduate-certificate-in-accounting/; Online Master of Accounting Degree, University of Alabama at Birmingham, http://businessdegrees.uab.edu/accounting-degree-masters/; Master of Science in Accounting, Sam Houston State University, http://catalog.shsu.edu/graduate/college-departments/business-administration/accounting/accounting-ms/; MBA in Professional Accounting Program, Rutgers University, http://www.business.rutgers.edu/pamba; Ph.D. in Accounting, University of Arkansas, http://gsb.uark.edu/phd-programs/accounting/; Accounting, PhD Program, Stanford University, http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/programs/phd/fields/accounting; PhD in Accounting, Rutgers University, http://www.business.rutgers.edu/phd/programs/accounting; Accounting Certificates - Graduate, Seattle University, https://www.seattleu.edu/albers/graduate/certificates/accounting/; Online Accounting Graduate Certificate, Saint Leo University, http://online.saintleo.edu/academics/graduate-certificates/accounting.aspx; Graduate Certificate in Accounting, Seton Hall University, http://www.shu.edu/academics/certificate-graduate-accounting.cfm;
  3. Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed April 18, 2016: Accountants and Auditors, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Business-and-Financial/Accountants-and-auditors.htm; Financial Analysts, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/financial-analysts.htm; Budget Analysts, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/budget-analysts.htm; Financial Examiners, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/financial-examiners.htm; Insurance Underwriters, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/insurance-underwriters.htm; Personal Financial Advisors, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/personal-financial-advisors.htm;
  4. May 2014 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm
  5. Credentialing organizations, accessed April 27, 2016: CPA Licensure, American Institute of CPAs, http://www.aicpa.org/BecomeACPA/Licensure/Pages/default.aspx; CFA Program, Certified Financial Analyst Institute, https://www.cfainstitute.org/programs/cfaprogram/Pages/index.aspx; Become a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), Associate of Certified Fraud Examiners, http://www.acfe.com/become-cfe-qualifications.aspx; CMA Certification, Institute of Management Accountants, Inc., http://www.imanet.org/cma-certification/cma-certification-overview; Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) Certification, The Institute of Internal Auditors, https://na.theiia.org/certification/CIA-Certification/Pages/CIA-Certification.aspx; CGFM Examinations Requirement, Associate of Government Accountants, https://www.agacgfm.org/cgfm/exams/; CFP Certification Requirements, Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, http://www.cfp.net/become-a-cfp-professional/cfp-certification-requirements
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