Accounting is one of those majors that can open the doors into virtually any industry. From government agencies to private corporations, everyone needs an accountant to take care of their finances.
But working as an accountant is just one of the many things you can do after studying the field. Depending on your concentration, you could work as a financial analyst, investment banker, financial advisor, auditor, controller, or credit analyst, to name just a few.
With so many possible directions, it comes as little surprise that job prospects are solid for those with an accounting degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts a 4% growth through 2029 in jobs for those working in accounting-related fields. Besides that, accountants bring home a solid paycheck. They earn about 38% more than the average worker in the U.S., with a median base salary of $71,550.
Getting a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting Online
With its focus on solving complex mathematical problems, accounting is a highly technical field that requires mastering specific skills. This is why, for many years, people were skeptical about learning accounting principles online.
“Online used to have a very negative connotation,” says Stephanie Bryant, executive vice president and chief accreditation officer at the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the oldest and largest accreditor of business schools in the U.S.
Bryant says that, a few years back, there was a lot of resistance toward online programs, including from the faculty itself, mainly due to concerns about the quality. “Eventually, the world kind of caught up, and saw that online learning can be very good, and can be done very well,” she adds.
Now online accounting degrees are considered just as valuable as those earned the traditional way, as long as they’re from an accredited institution. “If you’re accredited by AACSB, your online program has to meet all the same standards that your face-to-face program meets,” says Bryant. “It has to be the same quality,” she adds.
One of the biggest advantages of getting a bachelor’s in accounting online is the ability to manage classes and coursework around your schedule. While some online programs do offer students the option to attend live sessions, most offer pre-recorded classes that you can access at any time.
Jeffrey Buck, dean of the School of Business and Information Technology at Purdue University Global, says that this not only gives you the opportunity to watch the lectures at your convenience, but it also allows you to rewatch the content as many times as you need to, helping you better understand each concept.
Another benefit: Some online degrees make it easier for you to finish faster, which can save you time and money. Colleges like Thomas Jefferson University have accelerated programs that allow you to complete your degree in two or three years, instead of the usual four it would take you on campus.
Since online programs are usually divided into quarters, instead of semesters, there are also more starting dates throughout the year. Although some programs, like the one at Arizona State University, do require students to submit SAT or ACT scores or have a minimum GPA to apply, the majority of these programs have flexible requirements. In many cases, you’ll only have to submit a copy of your high school diploma or GED certificate, in addition to your transcripts to be considered for admission.
Of course, there are cons to balance out those pros. Quarterly classes means they are shorter in duration than the average semester-long campus class, so coursework can be heavier. “It’s going to require a huge commitment and focus,” says Buck.
You will also miss out on traditional campus experiences, especially when it comes to networking and interacting with your peers. That’s not to say there won’t be any group projects, internships, and other opportunities to interact with your classmates, but it will be much more limited than when you attend a physical institution.
Finally, it can be hard to find program-specific outcomes like graduation rates or job placement rates for any major. But with online programs there’s another hurdle: there’s no federal data that looks specifically at how graduates of online programs fare compared to graduates of similar in-person programs. This means that you will have to research thoroughly each of the institutions you’re considering to make sure they’re worth your investment. (We’ll give you more details on how to do that below.)
How Do Classes Differ from In-Person Programs?
The average college class lasts about 15 to 16 weeks, and you’ll usually take at least four classes per semester if you’re a full-time student. In online programs, classes last eight to ten weeks, and you’ll take an average of two courses per quarter.
The course structure will vary depending on the school. Mona Stephens, accounting faculty lead at Southern New Hampshire University, says the school’s online courses are all asynchronous, meaning they consist of pre-recorded sessions and materials, and students must complete a predetermined set of projects and assignments every week.
Meanwhile, students at Purdue University Global have access to both pre-recorded classes and weekly live sessions. The live sessions are optional and last about an hour each. They usually take place in the evenings and, just like the pre-recorded sessions, they are archived for students to view at their convenience. Classes at Purdue University Global also require students to submit weekly assignments, and group projects and class discussions are used to promote engagement between students.
You’ll have to invest 15 to 20 hours per week between lectures and coursework, according to Buck. In terms of curriculum, there isn’t much difference between the classes you’ll take as an online student vs an on-campus student. Those courses include managerial accounting, federal tax accounting, auditing, cost management, and accounting ethics.
How Much Will it Cost?
The average cost for an online credit hour ranges from $225 all the way to over $600, based on Money’s review of several online degrees. Most bachelor’s degrees in accounting require students to take a minimum of 120 credits for completion. That means you can expect to pay anywhere from $27,000 to more than $72,000 for your degree.
The good news is that if you live with your parents, a family member, or a spouse that can cover the cost of rent and other living expenses while you study, you can reduce how much you may have to borrow in student loans. Room and board fees cost between $11,510 and $12,990 a year on average, according to the College Board.
You may also be able to save money by attending an online program at a public four-year college in your state. For example, Arizona State University’s online bachelor’s in accounting costs $13,698 per academic year for in-state students, and $15,972 for out-of-state students. Other schools, like Southwestern New Hampshire University, offer tuition discounts for members of the military who are in active duty.
What Can You Do and How Much Can You Earn with an Online Bachelor’s in Accounting?
One of the main concerns regarding online programs is whether alumni have the same outcomes when it comes to finding a job as on-campus students.
Jodi Chavez, group president of Tatum, which is a management and consulting agency, says that what matters isn’t the delivery method, but whether you obtained your degree from a reputable, accredited institution. “Those two things really do take priority from an employer’s perspective,” says Chavez.
Here are some of the most popular careers you can pursue with a bachelor’s in accounting:
- Accountant – accountants analyze financial records for both companies and individuals to make sure everything is in order and in compliance with the law. The average salary of an accountant is $71,550.
- Financial analyst – if you’re into stocks, bonds, and other investments, this may be your ideal job. Financial analysts analyze risk and recommend investments to both companies and individuals. The average salary of a financial analyst is $81,590.
- Auditor – working as an auditor entails gathering and analyzing a company’s financial information and tax records to detect any deficiencies, areas of non-compliance, or fraudulent procedures. The average salary of an auditor is $71,550.
- Personal financial advisor – if you like budgeting and planning for the future, you should consider this career path. Personal financial advisors can work either independently or as part of a company. They analyze people’s finances to come up with a financial plan to help them achieve their goals. The average salary of a personal financial advisor is $87,850.
Besides working on any of these positions, you can also take the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam with a bachelor’s in accounting. However, you will need to complete at least 150 credit hours to obtain your license. Keep in mind that most bachelor’s degree programs only provide 120 credits, so if being a CPA is your end goal, you’ll want to look for options, like earning your master’s degree, to hit the 150-credit requirement. The average CPA holder in the U.S. earns $86,468, according to PayScale.
Getting a Master’s Degree in Accounting Online
If you already have a bachelor’s in accounting, or if you’re close to finishing and thinking about ways to advance your career, then a master’s degree is one option.
Chavez, from Tatum, says that having a master’s is especially important if your goal is to move to an executive role, such as a corporate controller or a chief financial officer. “If you want to be in a leadership, or executive level role in your career, then a master’s degree tends to be looked at, from that employer’s perspective, with a stronger level of importance,” Chavez says.
A master’s degree can also boost your earning potential. The salary for someone with a bachelor’s in accounting ranges between $47,000 and $95,000, according to PayScale. Meanwhile, master’s degree holders can earn up to $136,000 a year.
Still, Chavez points out that oftentimes a master’s degree alone is not enough to get to an executive position.Employers will also take a look at how many years of work experience you have in the field to make their decision. This is when getting your degree online can come in handy.
With an online program, you don’t have the usual schedule restrictions that come with attending classes on campus. This means that you can take classes and do coursework at your convenience, making it easier for you to continue gaining work experience while you study.
On the other hand, working while you get your degree is also one of the main challenges of online learning. Buck, from Purdue University Global, says that the time commitment for graduate students is between 20 to 25 hours a week.
How Long Will It Take?
You can complete a master’s in accounting online in one to two years, which is about the same time it would take you to get your degree on campus. Programs typically consist of 30 to 36 credit hours, although some, like the one offered at Purdue University Global can have as many as 52 credit hours.
Traditional programs are usually divided into semesters, meaning that classes last about 15 weeks each, and you’ll have to juggle multiple courses at a time. But like with the undergraduate online option, classes for online master’s programs are quarterly. Most students take one course per six-week interval, for a total of two courses per quarter. Classes can be synchronous, asynchronous, or a mix of both, depending on the school where you enroll.
Requirements to Enroll in an Accounting Master’s Program
One of the best things about getting your degree online is that most schools offer at least four starting dates each year, giving you more flexibility to prepare before you apply.
Each school has its own admission requirements, but here are some of the usual things you’ll need to apply for a master’s in accounting:
- Bachelor’s degree in any major
- Completed courses in financial accounting, taxation, statistics, microeconomics, and others, if you don’t hold a bachelor’s degree in accounting, business administration, or finance
- GRE or GMAT test scores (some institutions may waive this requirement upon passing an interview if you have five years or more of work experience, or a high GPA)
- A copy of your resume
- A personal statement (this should explain why you want to apply to that particular program and how it could benefit you)
- Two personal references
- Some work experience
Popular Specializations for a Graduate Degree in Accounting
Specializations allow you to focus and develop knowledge in a particular area or field. They can be especially valuable if you already know which career path within accounting that you’d like to take, as they can make you more attractive to recruiters in that area.
Here are some of the most popular specializations you can get in a master’s in accounting:
- Tax accounting – this specialization is for those who crave organization and accuracy. You will learn how to prepare local, state and federal tax returns, plus all the necessary rules and regulations to help organizations stay compliant.
- Supply chain management – if you’re obsessed with planning and logistics, supply chain management is for you. With this specialization you’ll learn about inventory valuation, cost of goods, and budgeting.
- Economics and finance – this specialization is for those who are interested in the markets and want to work at banks or investment firms. You will learn about how financial markets behave and how to manage a portfolio and assess risk, among other things.
- Forensic accounting and fraud examination – if you’re interested in a mix of accountancy and investigative work — think FBI style, this specialization is for you. You will study the basic principles of accounting, along with law and how to handle evidence.
How Much Will it Cost?
The cost per credit hour will vary from one institution to the next. Purdue University Global, which offers one of the most affordable online master’s in accounting, charges graduate students $485 per credit hour. Meanwhile, UNC’s Kenan-Flagler, which is one of the top business schools in the country, charges over $1,400 per credit hour. However, students at UNC get access to more resources than the traditional online student, including webinars, personalized career support, and experiences like global immersions to major business centers in cities like Shanghai, Buenos Aires and London.
The average master’s degree in accounting has 36 credit hours. This means you can expect to pay anywhere from $17,460 to more than $50,000 for your degree. That doesn’t include application, registration, or technology fees. Other things you’ll have to factor in are the cost of the GRE or GMAT exam (if required by the institution), as well as books and other materials.
On the plus side, some online programs, particularly those from public colleges, offer in-state students, veterans and members of the military discounted tuition rates, just like they do for undergraduate students.
How to Choose a Good Online Accounting Program
The AACSB, which is the largest and oldest business school accreditor in the country, accredits over two dozen undergraduate programs and more than 50 graduate programs in accounting that are taught exclusively online. So, how do you choose the one that’s the right fit for you personally?
Bryant, who used to run a school of accountancy before working at the AACSB, says that the first thing you need to look at is the college’s accreditation. There’s regional accreditation, like the Higher Learning Commission, which is a regulatory type of accreditation. Colleges must be regionally accredited in order to be eligible to receive federal funds and offer students federal financial aid.
Then, there’s specialized accreditors, like the AACSB, the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP), or the International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE). These specialized accreditors only examine the institution’s business schools to make sure their curricula, student outcomes, student participation in the programs, and distinctiveness are up to par with current business and accounting standards.
Choosing a program that’s vetted by a business school accreditor not only ensures quality education, but it will put you in a better position with recruiters. Recruiters typically don’t pay attention to whether you completed the program in-person or online, as long as the diploma comes from a business school that’s accredited by a specialized entity.
If you start at an online program and later decide that you’d be better off switching to a traditional institution, going to a school that’s accredited by a specialized entity should make it easier to transfer your credits. This means you’re less likely to waste your time or money on credits that won’t follow you. Besides that, you will need a diploma from an accredited business school to obtain your CPA license.
Stephens, from Southwestern New Hampshire University, says that a good accounting program, whether it’s a bachelor’s or a master’s, should focus on teaching students the aspects of accounting that are most important in the real world, like financial analysis and budget planning. The program should also offer opportunities for career preparation, including offering students regular access to networking opportunities through the school’s career services and preparing them for professional certifications, like the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or Certified Management Accountant (CMA).
One way to assess if a particular program will be able to do that for you is taking a look at its courses and comparing them to that of other accredited business schools. You’ll also want to check out the faculty. Buck, from Purdue University Global, says that it is important to have professors that not only have plenty of academic experience but also professional experience in the accounting field, so they can give you a practical perspective in addition to a theoretical one.
Since accountants usually work in teams, Chavez, from Tatum, says it’s important to choose a program that offers you some level of interaction with faculty and peers in the form of group projects or discussions.
A good online program should also give students similar support services as they’d have if they were to enroll for on-campus courses. Look for programs that offer tutoring sessions, virtual office hours with professors, and access to a career services department.
Another way to find out whether a program can help you accomplish your goals is to see what it did for other students. You can do this by contacting the school’s admissions office and asking them about that particular program’s student outcomes, including graduation rates, job placement rates, and which companies are actively recruiting at the school. You can also reach out to alumni on social networking sites, like LinkedIn, and ask them about their experience and if they feel the program really helped them advance their career.
Watch out for programs that lack accreditation or are accredited by a questionable entity. You can check this by looking up your school in the Department of Education accreditation database to look for regional accreditation, and by checking the AACSB, ACBSP, or IACBE’s list of accredited business schools.
You should also be wary of schools with very few professors or those whose programs cost dramatically less than the average online bachelor’s or master’s degree.These are all indicators of low-quality education, Chavez says.
Paying for Your Accounting Degree
Whether you’re pursuing a bachelor’s or a master’s degree in accounting, the first thing you should do is fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This will determine your eligibility for federal student aid. For undergraduate students this can be in the form of grants, work-study programs, and loans. Graduate students are only eligible for federal work-study programs and student loans.
The next step is to check for scholarships. You can do this by contacting your school’s financial aid office to see which scholarships you may be eligible for. Some schools, like Arizona State University, even offer a scholarship search tool to make things easier for students.
You can also check for scholarships at organizations or associations related to your field of study. For example, the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), which is the largest member association of accountants in the country, offers scholarships of up to $12,000 per year for students majoring in accounting at both undergraduate and graduate levels.
If after exhausting the “free money” of scholarships and grants, you still need some help paying for your degree, federal loans should be your first option. Federal loans typically have lower interest rates than private ones, plus they offer more flexible repayment plans.
Undergraduate students have access to Direct Subsidized and Direct Unsubsidized federal loans. These have annual borrowing limits ranging from $5,500 to $12,500, depending on your school year and dependency status, and they currently have a fixed interest rate of 2.75%.
Graduate students are eligible for Direct Unsubsidized and Direct Graduate PLUS loans. Direct Subsidized loans have a $20,500 limit per academic year for graduate students, and currently have a fixed interest rate of 4.3%. Direct Graduate PLUS loans can be taken out for the full cost of attendance and currently have a 5.3% interest rate.
Finally, if you have a job, you can also ask your human resources department about whether your company offers tuition assistance through reimbursements or by helping you repay your student loans.