While there are some minor variations from one Board of Accountancy to the next, the general education requirements to become a CPA are universal to all states and jurisdictions (with the exception of the US Virgin Islands): Candidates must complete at least 150 semester hours of postsecondary education from an accredited college or university.
Candidates for CPA licensure may earn these 150 semester hours in a number of different ways:
While completing a bachelor’s degree and additional graduate coursework is still a viable option, a master’s degree in accounting has become the gold standard for those looking to earn a certified public accountant (CPA) license and enter the field of public accounting. And here’s why:
Though it is entirely possible for accountants and professionals with undergraduate degrees in other majors to pursue a master’s in accounting without necessarily going on to earn a CPA license, it is not common. In all cases, earning an accredited master’s degree in accounting that meets jurisdictional requirements gives the holder the option to pursue CPA licensure at a later time if they so choose.
Master’s degrees in accounting are structured in a number of different ways, with titles that include:
In most cases, these programs consist of between one and two years of study, adding about 36-semester hours of credit to the 150 semester hours of undergraduate credit earned through a bachelor’s program.
Preparing for the Uniform CPA Exam
Whether a Master of Accountancy (MAcc), a Master of Science in Accounting (MSA), or a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Accounting, completing a graduate program provides a direct path to earning the full 150 semester hours required to become a licensed CPA.
While roughly half of all jurisdictions allow exam candidates to take the Uniform CPA Exam after completing just the first 120 semester hours of undergraduate studies, the remainder require the full 150 semester hour licensing requirement to be met before candidates are allowed to sit for the exam. Not only would a master’s degree easily satisfy this requirement, it would also give examinees an advantage when taking the exam.
Beyond this, a master’s degree in accounting also develops a graduate’s understanding of current and emerging issues facing the accounting profession and hones their research, analytical, and communication skills.
Nontraditional Graduate Students
Today’s MAcc, MSA, and MBA degree programs in accounting offer several options to appeal to a wide array of students.
It is common for graduate schools to accept students with bachelor’s degrees in majors other than accounting. Depending on the undergraduate major, students with undergraduate degrees in business, finance, or other areas may be required to complete additional core courses. Conversely, students that completed their undergraduate degrees in accounting may be able to waive a number of core courses at the graduate level.
Many institutions offer customized sequences of study to ensure that students, regardless of their undergraduate major, have a clear path to a master’s degree in accounting.
Online study/distance learning options remain a popular choice for those pursuing a master’s degree in preparation for CPA licensure. The flexibility of online programs is well suited to bachelor’s-prepared accountants looking to accumulate the additional credit hours they need, while at the same time completing the one-to-two years of supervised accounting experience required for CPA licensure, a standard requirement in all jurisdictions.
Online study allows students to complete some or all of the required coursework through web-based courses, with features that include interactive videos, learning simulations, and group exercises that enhance the virtual classroom experience.
A master’s degree in accounting, whether it is an MSA or MAcc program, consists of a graduate core and, often times, an accounting specialization or focus.
Core courses, which provide an advanced look at accounting fundamentals, generally include:
In addition to graduate-level accounting courses, many programs allow students to choose a program focus that best suits their career goals or otherwise customize their education by selecting electives in an area of interest. Some of the areas of specialization in a master’s degree program in accounting include:
Accounting Information Systems
Coursework in accounting information systems allows students to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to become accountants with expertise in information systems and business process management. Career opportunities in accounting information systems include internal auditing, assurance services, consulting, and information technology auditing.
Coursework in this area of study includes:
Financial Reporting/Corporate Accounting
Financial reporting/corporate accounting focuses on enhancing the quality of information for business decision-making. Coursework in this area places an emphasis on developing the communication and problem-solving skills necessary to contribute to financial reporting processes. Topics in this area of study include:
A taxation specialization within a master’s degree in accounting allows students to focus on a wide array of topics and issues related to:
A forensic accounting concentration focuses on fraud examination, investigations of financial systems, and complex issues such as economic damages, valuation, and lost profits.
Coursework in this field of study includes:
An accounting master’s degree with a focus in auditing prepares students to evaluate risk management and control systems within an organization, giving graduates an in-depth understanding of business culture, systems, and processes. Coursework covers such topics as:
A master’s degree in accounting with a focus in government accounting prepares students to advance in government financial management, accounting, and auditing. Coursework covers such topics as:
In addition to regional accreditation recognized by jurisdictional Boards of Accountancy, master’s programs in accounting also receive accreditation through one or more of the following national/international accrediting bodies:
The AACSB accredits degree programs in business administration and accounting at the baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral levels.
According to AACSB, accreditation represents the highest standard of achievement for business schools worldwide. Less than 5 percent of the world’s 13,000 business programs have earned AACSB accreditation. To achieve AACSB accreditation for an accounting program, the institution’s business school must also have earned AACSB accreditation.
AACSB-accredited master’s degree programs are expected to address the following areas:
Master’s degree programs in accounting should also focus on:
The Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP) accredits accounting, business, and business-related programs at the undergraduate, master, and doctorate degree levels.
To qualify for ACBSP accreditation, programs must prepare accounting graduates for professional careers. The curriculum must encompass subjects related to a global workplace and a global society. Because accounting graduates must be equipped to interact with other members of society, adapt to societal changes, serve as business advocates, and embody reliability in quantitative performance reporting, students must be encouraged to study global topics that will prepare them for these challenges.
Further, accounting units are expected to be innovative and provide flexible curriculum options. Two of the major goals of the curriculum should be the development of intellectual curiosity and the creative capacity for independent thought and action.
Regardless of the specialization within accounting, all accounting graduates should receive general exposure to:
The International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE) accredits institutions that grant bachelor’s and/or graduate degrees.
The master’s degree curricula must consist of at least 30 semester credit hours of graduate-level coursework. Graduates of master’s-level programs should acquire a depth of knowledge that exceeds a typical bachelor’s degree graduate and should be able to: