Getting To the Bottom Line of What Your Degree In Accounting is Worth

Your Complete Guide to Figuring Out Your Return on Investment With a Degree in Accounting

Let’s face it, you’re starting off with a real edge over people in other professions. As the kind of person who is considering a career in accounting, numbers are pretty much your jam. You don’t have to think twice before firing up Excel to crank out a quick cost/benefit analysis, so we probably don’t have to tell you how to run a return-on-investment calculation for the accounting degree you’re thinking about getting.

The basic formula is simple:

Total Lifetime Compensation Above Base Rate Expected

– Total Cost of Education

———————————————

Total Return on Investment

That is, the total amount you expect to make over the course of your entire career as a result of the degree, after you subtract the cost of the degree itself – including tuition, room and board, fees, plus the opportunity costs that come with going to school to earn a degree instead of heading straight into the workforce to earn a paycheck.

The base rate noted in the equation just refers to what you could expect to earn if you went and got a job that didn’t require you to have that degree. It doesn’t do you any good to spend tens of thousands on college if you could do just as well for yourself without it… but even in the unlikely event that the idea that’s being floated for a $15/hr national minimum wage went into effect, it wouldn’t come close to what that degree is worth. Still, those years you aren’t in the workforce while getting your education still gets a line item in the ledger.

But there are different levels of accounting education to consider, certification options, and, of course, the ultimate prize of the accounting world, the illustrious CPA license. And along with all that are the different salary levels you will unlock with the jobs all those things allow you to access. There are also substantial regional differences in both of those numbers to be factored in. But if you’re like other accountants, and the thought of tallying up all those little disparate data points to arrive at your total return on investment is something that makes you go all warm and fuzzy inside, this comprehensive accounting degree ROI guide is right up your alley.



Skyrocketing College Costs Make ROI Calculations More Important Than Ever

You’ve probably seen the headlines: the country is in the midst of a student loan crisis as a result of rapidly increasing college costs. Those costs have gone up by 25 percent over the past decade. And according to Forbes, that has led to outstanding student debt reaching $1.5 trillion in 2020.

You don’t have to take out loans to pay for college, but some 44 percent of students do. With the average cost of a bachelor’s degree ringing in at over six figures, not too many people can pay out of pocket. And if you had a rich aunt footing the bill, chances are you wouldn’t be all that concerned with your return on her investment anyway.

The scholarships and grants you might qualify for can help make up the difference, but it’s rarely enough to leave you debt free at the end of your degree program. So understanding how you will pay for your degree will affect how much you pay for that degree. Figuring that part out is going to be the first step in your ROI calculation.

Interest on Loans Increase Your Expenses, But May Still Be Worthwhile

As a future accountant, you are no stranger to the reality of interest rates. Although most student loans use simple rather than compounding interest, a loan of any kind still means paying back not only the principal but between three and six percent extra.

That really adds up, especially if you tack on additional costs by going for an advanced degree after earning your bachelor’s. The National Center for Education Statistics found the average loans taken out for undergraduate degrees as well as master’s and MBAs as of 2018:

  • Associate – $26,400 (private, non-profit); $16,600 (public)
  • Bachelor’s – $33,900 (private, non-profit); $28,600 (public)
  • Master’s – $62,300 (any master of science)
  • MBA – $66,300

Keep in mind – that’s not the average cost for one of these degrees, but the average loan that’s taken out.

Naturally, with the additional cost of a four-year degree comes a higher proportion of students relying on loans. Around 19 percent of community college students take out loans; that goes up to over 50 percent for four-year degrees at public colleges and 64 percent at private non-profit colleges. Although reliable data isn’t available for the percentage of students taking out loans at the graduate level, it’s pretty safe to assume that trend continue to apply.

Public vs Private: The School You Attend Can Up Your Expenses Immediately… But Also Your Salary Over Time

You have another set of trade-offs to consider when you are comparing public versus private schools. Private schools are generally more expensive since they can’t offer the deep discounts to in-state students that public colleges can. But the answer to a bigger return on investment isn’t necessarily to simply go to your nearest state college. For one thing, students that have to consider out-of-state options to find an accounting program that’s going to work for them often find that private school rates are very competitive, and sometimes even less than the out-of-state rates at a public college. The same goes with international students.

NCES tracks those rates at both the undergraduate and graduate levels (shown as annual tuition costs):

  • Public 2-year school – $10,281 (in-state rate)
  • Private 2-year school – $25,596
  • Public 4-year school – $20,050 (in-state rate)
  • Private 4-year school – $43,139
  • Public graduate tuition – $11,926 (in-state rate)
  • Private graduate tuition – $25,442

For undergraduate degrees, we show the total cost of attendance, including fees and room and board since that’s something that is more often rolled into student loans at the undergraduate level. Graduate rates are given as tuition only since graduate students are more likely to be working and covering cost of living expenses with their income.

Of course, private institutions can’t compete with those in-state rates and are more expensive in every case… but even for in-state students, there is more to the story and a good reason to keep your options open.

According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, the data shows that the ROI benefits of a private university education can bear out over time. They reviewed return-on-investment data for 4,500 schools at intervals ranging from 10 to 40 years after graduation. In almost all cases, the highest net benefits went to private school graduates.

Somewhat surprisingly, at the 10-year level, 2-year schools tend to win out, largely because of low costs and for providing a quicker path into the workforce. As you get out to the full 40-year career range, however, private schools start to emerge as the ones that tend to deliver a bigger return on investment.

That’s right in line with expectations in accounting and finance, and business in general, where who you know can be as important as what you know, and where you attend school has a big impact on this. It’s among the few fields were attending a prestigious private school could help build out your professional network to include people from all over the country and the world, while public schools might keep that network closer to home with more regional connections and a strong local reputation.

That’s an important consideration in the field of accounting more than most others and something you need to consider based on your career goals – are you aiming for a CPA slot at one of the Big 4 international accounting firms, or is a regional firm more your bag? Perhaps you plan to hang a shingle in your hometown by opening up an independent accounting practice. These are all things you need to think about as you weigh your options and how all of it will eventually factor into your ROI.

Scholarships and Grants Chip Away at College Costs and Improve Your ROI

On the other side of the ledger from student loans are tuition assistance programs like grants and scholarships.

Offered by states, private organizations, the federal government, and schools themselves, these programs are designed to support specific categories of students, as well as specific majors – including accounting. So you might be eligible on the basis of your family’s financial status or race or ethnicity. And you might find scholarships that are just designed to support anyone studying accounting.

In every case, they provide a free source of money that you apply toward the cost of your degree that doesn’t need to be paid back. Basically, someone else is making an investment in your education. It doesn’t come out of your pocket, but you keep all the rewards.

Slightly under half of all students get grant or scholarship assistance, and not surprisingly, the average amounts awarded are a lot lower than what are typically taken out in student loans. NCES found that the average federal grant for 2018 was just under $5,000. State and local aid was even less… although institutional aid coming straight from the college you attend could be worth upwards of $11,000 per year according the NCES.

You’ll have to estimate your chances of getting tuition assistance based on your institution and personal circumstances to see the effects on your eventual ROI.

And years from now, if you grind all the way through the education and supervised experience it takes to meet the requirements for the Uniform CPA Exam, you might find yourself in the unique position of getting your employer to cover the cost of your certification. According to Robert Half, an employment agency that tracks salary and benefits in the industry, 9 out of 10 of surveyed companies cover some or all the costs for employees looking to improve or maintain their professional qualifications. So even without your short-term returns getting plowed right back into your educational investment in the form of out-of-pocket expenses, with help from your employer you could access higher returns long-term.

Your Return on Investment with an Associate Degree in Accounting

Associate degrees are a common first step in a longer accounting career, but they can also bring a solid ROI all by themselves. That’s because, at a relatively low cost, you can use them to get into bookkeeping, clerkships, or processing positions with the chance to move up as you build on your experience and education. For serious accountants, an associate degree is just the starting point, but you have to start somewhere, and it might as well be with a two-year degree that gets you out the door earning those paychecks sooner than later.

Many students and their families can pay for those two-year programs almost completely out-of-pocket. That means, at two-year public schools, less than 20 percent of students end up taking out loans. That’s a big boost to your ROI, since all your salary after graduation ends up in your own pocket, unless mom and dad expect you to pay it back.

The costs of schools vary considerably for associate degrees, however, not just between public and private, but also by location. The Department of Education’s College Scorecard website shows some representative schools around the country. These costs include tuition, fees, room, and board, but the average amount of tuition assistance awarded at each school is subtracted from the total (note: shown as annual costs):

  • California
    • Butte College – Orville (public) – $3,888
    • Santa Barbara Business College – Bakersfield (private) – $16,615
  • Florida
    • Palm Beach State College – Lake Worth (public) – $2,954
    • City College – Fort Lauderdale (private) – $22,420
  • Georgia
    • Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College – Tifton (public) – $7,964
    • Gwinnett College – Lilburn (private) – $22,059
  • Illinois
    • Olney Central College – Olney (public) – $2,456
    • Taylor Business Institute – Chicago (private) – $15,430
  • Kansas
    • Cowley County Community College – Arkansas City (public) – $8,898
    • Rasmussen College – Topeka (private) – $18,895
  • New York
    • Columbia-Greene Community College – Hudson (public) – $5,706
    • Long Island Business Institute – Flushing (private) – $17,179
  • Pennsylvania
    • Pennsylvania College of Technology – Williamsport (public) – $23,435
    • South Hills School of Business & Technology – State College (private) – $17,717
  • Texas
    • Richland College – Dallas (public) – $4,807
    • Southwest University at El Paso – El Paso (private) – $17,439
  • Washington
    • Olympic College – Bremerton (public) – $5,368
    • Charter College – Vancouver (private) – $29,362

With the right planning, your associate degree can make earning your bachelor’s a lot more affordable. With a two-year transfer degree and a college willing to accept it, you can count those credits towards a bachelor’s, skipping the first two years of those higher-cost programs.

What You Can Expect to Earn with an Associate Degree in Accounting

Even if you decide one of these positions is the perfect fit for you and you don’t have any interest in getting a higher degree, you will still find many solid jobs waiting for you. Just as with the degree costs, you’ll find that salaries in these positions can vary substantially from region to region.

Robert Half’s 2021 Salary Guide to Accounting and Finance shows the salary ranges you can expect to find at those jobs in the same states as the example schools listed above:

  • Los Angeles :
    • Bookkeeper – $45,870 – $75,900
    • Billing Clerk – $41,910 – $75,240
  • Miami :
    • Bookkeeper – $36,835 – $60,950
    • Billing Clerk – $33,655 – $60,420
  • Atlanta :
    • Bookkeeper – $36,835 – $60,950
    • Billing Clerk – $33,655 – $60,420
  • Chicago :
    • Bookkeeper – $43,090 – $71,300
    • Billing Clerk – $39,370 – $70,680
  • Wichita :
    • Bookkeeper – $28,182 – $46,632
    • Billing Clerk – $25,749 – $46,227
  • New York :
    • Bookkeeper – $48,824 – $80,788
    • Billing Clerk – $44,609 – $80,085
  • Philadelphia :
    • Bookkeeper – $39,962 – $66,125
    • Billing Clerk – $36,512 – $65,550
  • Dallas :
    • Bookkeeper – $38,572 – $63,825
    • Billing Clerk – $35,242 – $63,270
  • Seattle :
    • Bookkeeper – $44,132 – $73,025
    • Billing Clerk – $40,322 – $72,390

Your Return on Investment with a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting

Bachelor’s programs are far and away the most common credential required for basic front-line accounting jobs. It’s also the big first step to that holy grail of credentials, the CPA, and on the corporate side, it checks the education requirements box for Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification.

Taking four years out of your life and missing out on a salary during that time means that you also need to be sure you will earn considerably more in the end. Borrowing and long-term loan payback are a much bigger piece of the puzzle at this level.

Costs For Earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting

As with two-year degrees, you’ll find that private schools almost always outstrip public schools in costs for bachelor’s programs. But the costs of bachelor’s degrees in the United States are significant either way.

According to NCES, the overall average total cost of a bachelor’s degree in 2018 was $109,428.

You’ll also start to find other degrees that can get you into accounting careers at this level. Earning a bachelor’s in finance, economics, or related fields allows for a level of specialization that can improve your job prospects. But, in general, these degrees will all cost about the same amount.

According to College Scorecard, these are some typical annual costs of accounting degrees at various schools nationwide:

  • California
    • San Diego State University – San Diego (public) – $15,287
    • University of Southern California – Los Angeles (private) – $30,453
  • Florida
    • University of Florida – Gainesville (public) – $8,057
    • Stetson University – DeLand (private) – $25,978
  • Georgia
    • University of Georgia – Athens (public) – $13,971
    • Mercer University – Macon (private) – $20,828
  • Illinois
    • University of Illinois – Champaign (public) – $17,302
    • Augustana College – Rock Island (private) – $23,310
  • Kansas
    • University of Kansas – Lawrence (public) – $18,571
    • Bethany College – Lindsborg (private) – $29,482
  • New York
    • Binghamton University – Vestal (public) – $18,958
    • Syracuse University – Syracuse (private) – $34,472
  • Pennsylvania
    • Pennsylvania State University – University Park (public) – $30,996
    • Villanova University – Villanova (private) – $40,134
  • Texas
    • University of Texas – Austin (public) – $16,505
    • Southern Methodist University – (private) – $36,575
  • Washington
    • University of Washington – Seattle (public) – $12,001
    • Seattle University – Seattle (private) – $34,947

The Salary Ranges You Can Expect With a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting

Your bachelor’s degree will start to unlock some of the higher-paying paths in finance and accounting. Line-level accounting, auditing, some low-level controller positions, and analyst jobs are all on the menu.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for accountants in 2019 was $71,550 per year.

You can get a more detailed picture of your salary prospects by going to the Robert Half 2021 Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance, however. That gives not only a job title-specific perspective on salary ranges, but also allows you to see some of the regional differences in salaries. Where available, these are starting offers, so it only goes up from here:

  • Los Angeles :
    • General Accountant – $52,800 – $95,040
    • Internal Auditor – $52,470 – $97,680
    • Financial Analyst – $81,840 – $153,450
  • Miami :
    • General Accountant – $42,400 – $76,320
    • Internal Auditor – $42,135 – $78,440
    • Financial Analyst – $65,720 – $123,225
  • Atlanta :
    • General Accountant – $42,400 – $76,320
    • Internal Auditor – $42,135 – $78,440
    • Financial Analyst – $65,720 – $123,225
  • Chicago :
    • General Accountant – $49,600 – $89,280
    • Internal Auditor – $49,290 – $91,760
    • Financial Analyst – $76,880 – $144,150
  • Wichita :
    • General Accountant – $32,440 – $58,392
    • Internal Auditor – $32,237 – $60,014
    • Financial Analyst – $50,282 – $94,279
  • New York :
    • General Accountant – $56,200 – $101,160
    • Internal Auditor – $55,849 – $103,970
    • Financial Analyst – $87,110 – $163,331
  • Philadelphia :
    • General Accountant – $46,000 – $82,800
    • Internal Auditor – $45,712 – $85,100
    • Financial Analyst – $71,300 – $133,688
  • Dallas :
    • General Accountant – $44,400 – $79,920
    • Internal Auditor – $44,123 – $82,140
    • Financial Analyst – $68,820 – $129,038
  • Seattle :
    • General Accountant – $50,800 – $91,440
    • Internal Auditor – $50,482 – $93,980
    • Financial Analyst – $78,740 – $147,638

You’ll also find some differences emerging between different industries. These reflect certain experience and specializations, but also the size of the firm and whether or not it has a regional, national or international footprint. Larger corporations, particularly publicly-traded firms, will tend to have higher salary levels.

Professional positions also come with professional benefits. Health insurance is the big one. And most firms offer pension or 401k contribution matching benefits too. According to Robert Half, the most common benefits in accounting and finance are:

  • Health insurance – 68%
  • Paid time off – 63%
  • Dental insurance – 59%
  • Retirement savings plan – 55%
  • Life and Accidental Death & Dismemberment insurance – 54%

Of course, some of these may be worth more to you than others. The quality and availability of these benefits have a lot to do with the industry you end up working in, and ultimately, you’ll factor all of it into your ROI calculations.

Return on Investment for a Master’s Degree in Accounting

A master’s degree in the field is what leads you to the big bucks. That’s because it’s the most common entry point to the coveted CPA license. With a bachelor’s required at minimum to sit for the exam, plus an extra 30 credits of business and accounting courses on top of the 120 in your typical bachelor’s, a master’s degree is the natural solution to getting those additional credits.

A master’s, even without that CPA license, provides the kind of education you need to unlock senior positions in accounting and financial services firms, access corporate management accounting roles, or even to open up your own independent firm.

At this level, you might also find that it’s more beneficial to change your degree focus. Although there are a lot of CPAs who get their degree in accounting or finance, others chose the MBA: Master of Business Administration. MBAs are widely available with concentrations in finance and accounting. But they also give you a broad education in the arts of management and leadership. It’s the kind of degree that can take you all the way to the top of the company.

The Cost of Earning a Master’s Degree in Accounting and Finance

All of those degrees have different costs associated with them. According to NCES, the general total costs for a two-year master’s program would work out to:

  • $23,852 – for state schools and other public universities
  • $50,884 – for private graduate schools

But with the significant market demand for spots in business administration and finance master’s programs, the costs go up. According to CNBC, in 2019 the average cost of an executive MBA program totaled $86,000. Poets & Quants, a site that covers business and financial education, found that the top MBA programs were increasing in cost as much as 18 percent every three years. Some of the top programs, like MIT’s Sloan School MBA, charge well over $200,000.

Those costs come with serious compensation, though. CNBC also tracked the salaries of graduates from those programs.

The average salary increase for MBA graduates was 13.5 percent.

Salary Expectations for Master’s Graduates in Accounting and Finance

If you put in the time and effort to get through a graduate program in business or accounting, you can expect to be well-rewarded for your effort.

In fact, it’s at the master’s level that you’ll see the biggest boost to your ROI. Of course, at this level, many of the opportunities available to you and the compensation packages you’ll be offered will be based on the results you’ve demonstrated in your accounting role. And in the business world, the only metric for measuring results is dollars – whether that’s dollars saved or dollars earned. You won’t get into one of these positions without a strong track record, but who you know doesn’t hurt either.

 

If you could just shake the right hands and work your way up to becoming a CFO, you wouldn’t need the degree and could save the expense. But that’s unlikely in most industries. At this level it takes the magic combination of education, experience and the right connections to find your niche.

When you see what they get paid, you’ll understand why. According to Robert Half, for instance, the average compensation for a CFO in 2020 was $202,750. Those in the top ten percent, with the most experience and best qualifications hit close to half a mil, $498,000.

Not everyone gets to be CFO. But with a master’s degree under your belt, there are many other management-level positions open to you. Starting salary offers for some of the most sought after and attainable job titles in accounting look like this in 2021:

  • Los Angeles :
    • Senior Public Accountant – $150,810 – $286,440
    • Private Banker – $110,220 – $210,540
    • Corporate Controller – $140,580 – $348,480
  • Miami :
    • Senior Public Accountant – $121,105 – $230,020
    • Private Banker – $88,510 – $169,070
    • Corporate Controller – $112,890 – $279,840
  • Atlanta :
    • Senior Public Accountant – $121,105 – $230,020
    • Private Banker – $88,510 – $169,070
    • Corporate Controller – $112,890 – $279,840
  • Chicago :
    • Senior Public Accountant – $141,670 – $269,080
    • Private Banker – $103,540 – $197,780
    • Corporate Controller – $132,060 – $327,360
  • Wichita :
    • Senior Public Accountant – $92,657 – $175,987
    • Private Banker – $67,718 – $129,354
    • Corporate Controller – $86,372 – $214,104
  • New York :
    • Senior Public Accountant – $160,521 – $304,885
    • Private Banker – $117,318 – $224,098
    • Corporate Controller – $149,632 – $370,920
  • Philadelphia :
    • Senior Public Accountant – $131,388 – $249,550
    • Private Banker – $96,025 – $183,425
    • Corporate Controller – $122,475 – $303,600
  • Dallas :
    • Senior Public Accountant – $126,818 – $240,870
    • Private Banker – $92,685 – $177,045
    • Corporate Controller – $118,215 – $293,040
  • Seattle :
    • Senior Public Accountant – $145,098 – $275,590
    • Private Banker – $106,045 – $202,565
    • Corporate Controller – $135,255 – $335,280

You’ll also find very different compensation levels based on company size and industry too. For example, you’ll make a lot more as a corporate controller for a Silicon Valley unicorn than you will at a small Midwestern manufacturer.

That also speaks to the role of bonuses and incentives at this level. According to Robert Half, those performance-based bennies reflect an increasingly bigger proportion of the total compensation package at these levels… and they are not included in the figures provided above. This means you could be looking at much higher numbers at year-end. In 2020, 71 percent of employers offered incentives to accounting staff that included:

  • Flex schedules – 50%
  • Paid parental leave – 47%
  • Employee discounts – 42%
  • Company-subsidized meals – 35%

At the later stage of your career, your own ideas about what an adequate return is may shift. That’s why some of those benefits are going to hold more personal value to you than others. Only you can decide what is worth the most at the end of the day, and you’ll have to factor that in before you make your investment in an advanced degree.

Numbers make the world go around, so you will never have to worry about making a solid living in the field of accounting. But deep down, you’re the kind of person who wants to get real value out of your investments, so figuring out the best possible ROI from your college degree is a natural step. And that’s the very thing that makes you perfect for the accounting profession.

(Salary data reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2019 for accountants and auditors. Figures represent national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Information accessed Feb 2021.)

(Tuition data provided by College Scorecard and the National Center for Education Statistics, services of the U.S. Department of Education.)