Find Accounting Schools and Degree Programs
Accounting is a line of work with a lot more career diversity than is sometimes appreciated, even among people with a head for numbers and an interest in the field.
Everyone has that picture in their head of the big-time positions, the corner offices in the big glass skyscrapers where the elite CPAs with the Big 4 firms live, analyzing the books for the Fortune 500 and making multi-million dollar decisions every day… and getting paid for it.
But there are also the long-haul jobs for local and regional firms, places where your salary is a bit lower but your reputation is sterling as the smart, honest professional who can sort out any tangled financials, figure any tax angle, help fix any payroll mess. And the government… legions of auditors, going through tax and compliance issues both internally and externally to maintain the public trust. Even the FBI needs accountants… around 15% of special agents at the Bureau have an accounting background, recruited for their integrity and attention to detail.
And for anybody that has what it takes to go solo, going into independent practice managing assets and tax liabilities for wealthy individuals and families is the dream. There’s always room for another shingle hanging on main street.
You need the right education and credentials to get into any area of accounting, but that’s where the similarities end. You need to get in where you fit in, as they say, and pick a path that makes sense for you and your skills and interests. Consider your personality, lifestyle, interests, social skills – all those elements of who you are come together to give you near-perfect clarity as to which one of those paths you should head down.
But a little thoughtful introspection of this sort isn’t going to do anything to help you figure out the right school to go with as you head down the path to earning your degree, or degrees as the case may be.
With thousands of accounting programs coast to coast, our goal is to help simplify the process for highly motivated students like you. Ultimately, accounting is a field that’s all about managing and exploiting information, and any accountant will tell you how powerful data can be when you have the knowledge to put it to work. As the web’s most extensive accounting resource, we set out to provide exactly the information you need to make smart decisions about how to get started or advance a career in a field commonly referred to as the language of business.
What is Accounting?
Accounting is the process of analyzing, verifying and reporting the results of financial information to an organization, government agency or individual. But outside the ledgers and balance sheets of small business finance or the software used to manage the terabytes of financial data that comes streaming back from commerce into corporate accounting departments, accounting as a field is essentially a collection of specialized areas of expertise uniquely suited to different applications.
The field embraces dozens of specialized roles, all concerned with the measurement, calculation, and communication of financial and other enumerated data: stockpiles, shipping information, manufacturing statistics. It is, in a very real sense, the science that makes modern business possible. And that means it has a hand in almost every facet of industry, government, and non-profit work.
There are dozens of specialty areas and hundreds of different accounting roles, some more general, and some highly specific. And although most jobs are corporate-focused, there is plenty of room for individuals who want to strike out on their own in the accounting world, starting their own business or working as consultants in tax accounting, small business accounting, or in other innovative areas like cryptocurrencies or fintech.
In the most fundamental sense, understanding the field starts with parsing the four main areas – public accounting, management/corporate accounting, government accounting, and auditing.
What is Public Accounting?
Public accounting is the face of the field that most people are familiar with… your neighborhood CPA (Certified Public Accountant), who handles a wide variety of tasks and clients, ranging from individuals to large business to non-profits and government agencies. According to Bureau of Labor Statistic data from 2020, public accounting and related jobs like bookkeeping and payroll account for a full 24% of total employment for accounting professionals.
They offer services like:
- General accounting and auditing – The nuts and bolts of tracking financial information and ensuring the books balance is something that both businesses and individuals need, but don’t have the expertise to handle themselves. Public accounting firms step into this role on-demand to maintain records or audit internal books for clients.
- Tax advising and preparation – The tax code is a complex field that takes specialized experience and the most current knowledge of tax code. Public accountants both keep clients on the rails for compliance purposes and handle general preparation and filing duties, as well as representing clients in any tax disputes they might encounter.
- Consulting and planning – Both for tax purposes and general financial considerations, clients often need planning assistance and expert advice on the implications of various business decisions that can only come from qualified CPAs.
What Kind of Education Do You Need for a Career in Public Accounting?
Anyone who is serious about a career in public accounting is almost certainly going to need a master’s degree in the field. That’s because CPA licensure requires 150 semester credits of college… which is about exactly what you wind up with if you stack a graduate degree on top of your bachelor’s.
The master’s also gives you the kind of advanced accounting principles and instruction that clients are looking for. And it’s possible to specialize by picking graduate degrees in either accounting specifically or through specialized MBA programs that blend accounting instruction with business-specific courses that prepare you to work with small or large businesses.
Of course, you can also start out small with a two-year associate’s degree that will land you a bookkeeping position. You can always build on that transfer degree with the other two years of college courses it takes to earn a bachelor’s that will take you higher and further in the field.
What Kind of Salary Should You Expect in Public Accounting?
Public accounting salaries tend to range from very solid to really substantial. According to Robert Half’s 2020 Salary Guide in Accounting and Finance, junior public accounting professionals get starting offers as high as $76,000 annually, while senior managers and directors are well into six figures, making from $115,000 to over $200,000 to start, and on up from there. The middle ranks of managers and senior staff pull down starting salaries in the mid-range from $70,000 to low six figures. These are the starting rates not including bonuses and benefits, so it only goes up from there.
What is Corporate and Management Accounting?
This specialty accounts for the nuts and bolts of organizational operations in both financial and general terms. It tracks resources that include cash and credit expenditures, but also other assets such as time, inventory, and property. It’s the window into how an organization is running in real time, allowing managers and executives to make adjustments to operations to improve efficiency and profitability.
Management accounting is deeply involved in tracking, recording, and reporting an organization’s financial information to internal and external users. These can include other managers and staff, investors, creditors, or government agencies. It’s the key feedback function in any serious business organization that allows for planning and directing operations to the maximize profits and reduce risks.
About 7% of accounting jobs are found in this field according to BLS.
What Kind of Education Do You Need for a Career in Management Accounting?
Many management accounting professionals get their start with bachelor’s degrees in the field. This can easily land you in corporate jobs like budget analysis, compliance, or business intelligence.
The senior ranks in any corporation will all hold master’s degrees, however, and often master’s in business administration (MBA) with accounting concentrations. This unlocks jobs such as financial project manager, senior cost and tax accounting positions, and even a seat in the C-suite, as a Chief Compliance Officer or that holy grail of corporate accounting roles, the Chief Financial Officer.
There are also rank-and-file positions such as payroll and accounting clerks that are open to those with two-year accounting degrees. These degrees can often form the basis for a transfer to a four-year program, and a step up the ladder in corporate accounting later on.
CPAs are in big demand in corporate accounting, but with at least a bachelor’s degree, plus some experience and passing scores on the right tests, you can boost your career with other professional certifications offered by:
What Kind of Salary Should You Expect in Management Accounting?
A huge range of pay rates mark the management accounting field, and they can depend as much on the size of the organization you work for as your own qualifications and specialty. According to Robert Half, the mid-point starting salary is $116,500 for a credit manager.
At the top end, the sky is the limit. Many mid-to-senior level accountants make low-six-figures as property accountants, cost accountants, analysts, and auditors. C-suite participants are generally making between $150,000 to $271,000 to start, but the top ranks can be pulling in a cool half million or more depending on compensation structures.
What is Government Accounting?
According to BLS, about 8% of accountants work in the public sector, handling all the many accounting needs of government agencies.
These positions handle everything from the traditional managerial and internal auditing aspects of those agencies, to managing the regulatory structure of taxation and oversight of private companies and individuals. They ensure alignment of government budgets with legislative requirements and conduct strict auditing to make sure government remains accountable at all levels, from local to state to federal organizations.
They may also play important roles in helping to draft and define laws and regulations that affect private sector accounting.
What Kind of Education Do You Need for a Career in Government Accounting?
Just because it’s a government job does not reduce the requirements for higher education in accounting. You will still need a bachelor’s degree at a minimum for most roles, and a master’s for the positions of higher pay and responsibility.
The CPA weighs as heavily in government ranks as elsewhere, but you may also seek other professional certifications, all of which require college education, including:
- Certified Government Financial Manager (CGFM) – Association of Government Accountants
- Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP) – Institute of Internal Auditors
What Kind of Salary Should You Expect in Government Accounting?
Government accounting salaries, like other government jobs, are governed by fairly rigid rules set by law in the relevant entity, whether a city, county, state, or the federal government.
Drawing on data from the Office of Personnel Management, the site also calculates that the average accountant makes $114,553 in federal employment, combined with generous pension and benefits. And at some agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, which engage in high-caliber regulatory and investigative work, the average goes up over $200,000.
Both the GS wages and those for state and local agencies can vary based on your location in the country, as well. You can expect to make more in high cost-of-living regions.
What is Forensic Accounting and Auditing?
You don’t have to be in government to get into investigative accounting. Auditing and forensic accounting is a specialty that is in-demand for every other area of accounting. Forensic accounting might be generally associated with legal investigations into white collar crime, but it’s also akin to traditional external auditing and frequently a part of routine compliance checks. Both areas offer independent verification of the numbers and practices that are being used… an important consideration in an industry where everything absolutely, positively has to add up at the end of the day.
This specialty area is a great fit for puzzle-solvers and mystery-lovers. You aren’t always cracking a big case, but you are always looking at everything from a new angle, figuring out potential flaws and real-world mistakes, both assisting your clients in evaluating risk and reporting mechanisms, and improving the state of the industry as a whole.
What Kind of Education Do You Need for a Career in Forensic Accounting and Auditing?
Auditors must have impeccable knowledge and a sterling reputation for their assessments to stick. That comes with advanced education, and many of them will have master’s degrees in either business or accounting. You will also find specialized degrees in auditing at both the master’s and the bachelor degree levels, which can give you an immediate leg up in the field.
Because of the significant responsibilities in this field, you’ll probably also need a professional certification. Some of the most widely recognized are offered by the Institute of Internal Auditors. The basic cert, the CIA (Certified Internal Auditor) requires both a bachelor’s degree plus 24 months of auditing experience… which you can reduce to 12 if you have a master’s. Specializations are available in financial services (CFSA), government auditing (CGAP), and control self-assessment (CCSA).
What Kind of Salary Should You Expect in Forensic Accounting and Auditing?
Accounting and compliance careers are legendarily lucrative. According to Robert Half, Chief Compliance Officers and Chief Audit Executives get starting offers between $135,500 and $290,750 depending on experience and education, while directors and senior compliance officers are almost all working in the six-figure range.
Even low-level auditors, those who may only have a bachelor’s degree, can start as high as nearly $100,000 at senior levels, or more in certain specialty areas like IT auditing. And this is all before accounting for industry-related differences… auditors in heavily regulated industries like finance can expect to make considerably better than average.
Career Outlook for Accounting Professionals
As goes the business world, so goes accountancy. The big demand in accounting is from businesses, of all stripes and sizes. So it’s not surprising that the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that the job outlook for accountants and auditing professionals between 2018 and 2028 will be about as fast as the average rate of growth for labor in the country, around 6%.
But that’s still a lot of jobs… more than 90,000 in those roles alone. And that’s even before you get to other roles, like cost estimators, who will grow by 9% during that same period, or personal financial advisors, whose ranks will expand by 7%.
According to BLS, you’ll find most accounting positions in industries such as:
- Accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping, and payroll – 24%
- Finance and insurance – 8%
- Government – 8%
- Corporate management – 7%
You will find there are tremendous options for professional growth within the accounting industry itself. It’s very common for professionals to start out in bookkeeping with a two-year degree and eventually, by improving their education and working their way up the ladder, to end up in high-paying positions as a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) or controller.
There are dozens of specialty areas and hundreds of different accounting roles, some more general, and some highly specific. And although most jobs are corporate-focused, there is also plenty of room for individuals who want to strike out on their own in the accounting world, starting their own business or working as consultants in tax accounting, small business accounting, or in other innovative specialty areas like cryptocurrencies or fintech.
Other Resources That Will Help You Get Started in an Accounting Career
While picking your school and program are some of the most important tasks to launch your accounting career, everyone benefits from getting in touch with people who have already walked that path. That’s why getting involved with national organizations that have a handle on how accounting is practiced today is always a good idea:
All three of those organizations have chapters or members nationwide. You can always find solid advice and mentorship from fellows who understand how the business operates today, and a clear vision of where it is heading tomorrow.