Considering an Accounting Degree? Courses, Careers, Salaries

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An accounting degree could be right for you if you're looking to work in finance or business. Find out more about what it takes to earn one.

[Featured Image} Accountants review spreadsheets and graphs on a desk

If you have a knack for numbers and love to tell the stories behind them, an accounting degree may be a good fit. As an accounting professional, you review and create reports, process transactions, identify errors, and help people and companies manage their finances. It's a surprisingly versatile major that can lead to jobs in private and public organizations in many industries.

Whether you're beginning your path toward an accounting career or are ready to expand your skill set, exploring the different types of accounting degrees may be helpful. Understanding the differences between accounting degrees and what you can do with them can help you choose the degree program that best meets your personal and professional goals.

What is an accounting degree?

An accounting degree is an undergraduate or graduate-level degree with coursework designed to teach you the knowledge and skills you need to work in the accounting field. Along the way, you’ll learn about financial statements, tax laws, and the tools you’ll need to analyze an organization's finances and present this information to executives and other stakeholders. You also have opportunities to learn about different software and tools used in the field.

Some of the skills you’ll develop when pursuing an accounting degree are:

  • Analysis: Review and manipulate raw data, and find errors and evidence of fraud.

  • Business acumen: Understand the function of other departments, collaborate with team members in and across departments, and develop strategies for decision-making.

  • Communication skills: Present information in a simple format.

  • Critical thinking: Identify trends and irregularities in spreadsheets and financial statements, and develop strategies based on the data.

  • Leadership: Adapt to changes from regulating authorities and company policies, assume senior roles as needed, and mentor other staff members.

  • Mathematical reasoning: Use basic computations (add, subtract, multiply, and divide), and locate errors in calculations.

  • Organization: Keep track of numbers in multiple financial statements and different projects, and meet deadlines.

  • Software: Use Excel, SAP, Oracle, QuickBooks, tax software, and data analysis tools.

What is the difference between a finance and an accounting degree?

The main difference between a finance and an accounting degree is the focus of the coursework—a finance major typically spends time learning about managing money, while an accounting major usually studies how to track money. Finance graduates tend to pursue work in investment banking, securities trading, and hedge fund management. Accounting graduates are more likely to find employment as accountants, auditors, or tax advisors.

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Types of accounting degrees

You can earn an accounting degree at all levels, including associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctorate. When choosing which type of degree to pursue, it helps to consider your personal and professional goals. If your dream job is as a certified public accountant (CPA), you'll probably earn at least a bachelor's degree.

The following list outlines the different types of accounting degrees and the types of jobs you may qualify for with each one:

Associate degrees in accounting

You can typically complete an associate degree in about two years if you attend school full-time. The classes you’ll take to earn this degree will cover accounting concepts and topics like federal tax law and statistics. In addition, you’ll likely take general education courses to complement your concentration coursework.

Consider getting an associate degree if you want to start working in the field before completing a bachelor's degree. You’ll have the opportunity to work an entry-level job, like an accounting clerk or billing specialist, to gain professional experience. In many cases, you’ll be able to apply your associate degree toward a bachelor's degree and use it to transfer to a university when you're ready to attend.

Bachelor's degree in accounting

Bachelor's degrees usually take about four years to complete. Courses in a bachelor's degree program look like the courses you take in an associate program. You have general education courses to complete, usually during your first two years. In addition to foundational accounting courses, you'll have time to study advanced topics like auditing, intermediate and advanced accounting, and quantitative tools.

People who work as accountants—including CPAs—usually have a bachelor's degree. By the time you complete the degree, you may have enough hours to take the CPA exam (or you may need a few more courses to qualify). That's not your only option, though. With a bachelor's degree, you may be eligible for more advanced positions within a company, like budget analyst, procurement manager, or data analyst. 

Master's degree in accounting

At the master's level, you could earn a Master of Accounting (MAC or MAcc), Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a concentration in accounting, Master of Professional Accounting, or Master of Science in Accounting. You can complete these degrees in about two years. However, if the program offers accelerated schedules, you can finish the degree in as little as one year. 

The courses you’ll take at this degree level will be more specialized. You'll see courses like strategic cost management, advanced UCC (Uniform Commercial Code) and commercial transactions, and investment management. For this reason, some schools may ask you to complete a set of prerequisite accounting courses if your bachelor's degree is in a different major. With a master's degree, you could work as an accountant, auditor, financial analyst, or chief financial officer.

Doctorate degrees in accounting

Doctorate degree (PhD) programs may take from three to seven years to complete, but people usually finish them in four to five years. You can choose between a PhD in accounting or a doctor of business administration (DBA) with a concentration in accounting. If you want to work mainly in academic research, you’ll typically benefit from a PhD. However, if you prefer working in public or private organizations to apply theories, then you should pursue a DBA.

Both programs require a fair amount of research. You may write a thesis or complete a capstone project. In your courses, you may have opportunities to create your own experiments. Your coursework could include the following: quantitative methods, econometrics, and business research design and methods. After earning a doctorate, you may decide to teach at a university or pursue a leadership position within an organization.

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Accounting degree classes: What coursework can you expect to take?

As an accounting major, you can expect to take courses in accounting theory and practice, business management, and technology. The exact courses you take will depend on the school's curriculum and the type of degree you're pursuing. Additionally, if you're in an associate or bachelor's degree program, you’ll likely take general education courses like English, history, and science. In a master's and doctorate program, you’ll likely take concentration courses from the beginning, which could include accounting and business courses.

Accounting courses

Accounting courses cover a range of topics, such as budgets, financial statements, tax law, and production costs. In your accounting courses, you’ll explore the accounting cycle, how to prepare financial statements, create and manage budgets, and collect and document financial evidence. You’ll also interpret and analyze financial documents, use accounting to make business decisions, and prepare federal tax returns for individuals and corporations. Some accounting courses you’ll take could include the following:

  • Auditing

  • Cost accounting

  • Emerging technologies in accounting and auditing

  • Federal taxation 

  • Financial accounting

  • Financial statement analysis

  • Forensic accounting

  • Intermediate accounting

  • Managerial accounting

  • Tax planning and decision-making

Business courses

In many schools, accounting falls under the broader category of business. You may take business courses that cover topics like theories of leadership and management, business law, and analysis tools. In these courses, you’ll learn terminology related to business finance, how to use statistical methods to analyze financial problems, and how to apply theories to solve those problems. You could see the following courses in your degree plan:

  • Business law

  • Forensic accounting and litigation support

  • Law for accountancy

  • Managing and leading in business

  • Management functions

  • Business math and statistical measures

  • Quantitative business tools

How much does an accounting degree cost?

The cost of an accounting degree ranges from around $4,000 to more than $60,000. What you pay depends on several factors, like the school's tuition, the type of degree you pursue, the format you choose, and the length of time it takes you to finish the required coursework. For example, earning an associate degree typically costs less than earning a doctorate degree. You also may find that going to school online costs less than attending an on-campus program.

The chart below gives you an idea of what you can expect to pay for an accounting degree. However, you may find schools that cost more or less than this, and tuition and fees may change from year to year. The school you plan to attend can give you their current rates and help you calculate what it will cost you to earn the degree.

Degree typeTypical cost per credit hourTotal cost
Associate degreeLess than $100 to more than $300$4,000 to more than $22,000
Bachelor's degree$320 to $700$38,000 to $84,000
Master's degree$600 to $1,000$20,000 to $40,000
Doctorate degree$650 to $1,100$35,000 to $66,000

Accounting degree jobs and accounting job salaries

In addition to working as an accountant, you can get a number of jobs that involve working with numbers, including auditor, billing specialist, and bookkeeper. Organizations of all shapes and sizes rely on the work of accounting professionals to create budgets, maintain financial records, record transactions, and more. The analytical and critical thinking skills you develop as you earn your degree apply to a variety of industries and roles within them.

Accounting jobs require organization and time-management skills. You should also be able to follow rules, including tax codes, regulations, and company policies for processing information. Depending on your education and experience, you can consider the following accounting-related jobs:

Accountant

As an accountant, you’ll manage a company's finances by analyzing data, preparing financial statements, and keeping track of financial records. You can choose to work as an employee within a company or work in your private practice. Some of your duties could include managing payroll, preparing tax documents, and advising senior staff about the company's financial situation. The annual median salary for accountants is $77,250 [1].

Auditor

If you work as an auditor, you’ll review a company's financial statements and processes to identify inefficiencies, errors, and signs of fraud. You’ll also offer suggestions to improve the company's financial practices. You could work directly for the company as an internal auditor, or for the government or regulatory agency as an external auditor. Auditors earn a median salary of $77,250 per year [1].

Bookkeeper

As a bookkeeper, you’ll keep track of a company's income and expenses and manage its financial records. Additionally, you’ll record income and expenses, follow up with overdue accounts and pending invoices, process checks, and complete forms. You also may provide reports to the company's accountant. The median annual salary for bookkeepers is $45,560 per year [2].

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Budget analyst

Working as a budget analyst, you’ll assist an organization by analyzing and managing its budget. You’ll also prepare and consolidate budgets, monitor the company's spending, and review funding requests to ensure they comply with local and federal laws. In addition, you could work with managers and executives to evaluate spending habits and estimate future financial needs. The annual median salary for this position is $84,240 [3].

Buyer

As a buyer, you’ll work with managers and vendors to purchase supplies, raw materials, and products for the company. Your role could include negotiating deals, maintaining relationships with vendors, coordinating deliveries, and monitoring stock levels to ensure the company has the inventory it needs to operate successfully. The median salary for buyers is $75,410 [4].

Financial advisor

As a financial advisor, you’ll work with individuals to advise them on various financial topics, including insurance, investments, and tax laws. You’ll also help clients set financial goals, create plans to meet those goals through budgeting and investing, and recommend investment products. Financial advisors earn a median salary of $94,170 per year [5].

Financial analyst

In the financial analyst role, you’ll help individuals and companies make financial decisions, primarily about investments. You’ll research and analyze market trends, review financial statements, and recommend investment products. The role will also require you to determine a company's value and work with management to help them understand their financial options. The median salary for financial analysts is $95,570 per year [6].

Financial manager

In your role as a financial manager, you’ll oversee a company's finances—you could also be the CFO in some businesses. You’ll be in charge of the company's long-term financial planning, which can include reviewing financial statements and forecasts, ensuring compliance with regulations, and looking for growth opportunities. Financial managers earn a median salary of  $131,710 per year [7].

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Payroll specialist

As a payroll specialist, you’ll handle the payroll processing for a company. This includes collecting employee tax documents and timesheets, calculating wages, entering data into payroll software, and distributing paychecks. You could also be responsible for preparing payment statements, processing payroll taxes, and preparing reports for the company's accountant. Payroll specialists earn, on average, $49,560 per year [8].

Tax preparer

Tax preparers help individuals and businesses put together federal and state tax returns. In this role, you’ll advise these individuals and businesses on what documents and information they need, review receipts, enter data into tax preparation software, help them file the return, and ensure they follow tax regulations. Tax preparers earn a median salary of $51,080 [9].

Ready to earn your accounting degree?

No matter where you are in your accounting career, you can find an array of courses designed to help you explore accounting topics, theories, and practices. Consider Fundamentals of Accounting Specialization from the University of Illinois or Introduction to Finance and Accounting Specialization from the University of Pennsylvania to build on your knowledge of accounting concepts and applications. Expand your skill set with the Intuit Bookkeeping Professional Certificate.

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Article sources

1

US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupational Outlook Handbook: Accountants and Auditors, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/accountants-and-auditors.htm#tab-5." Accessed July 2, 2022.

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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