An associate’s degree provides one of the fastest and most affordable ways to get the qualifications you need to nail down an entry-level position in the accounting field so you can start cashing paychecks. The beauty of the 2-year degree is that it makes you job-ready fast, and in most cases, still leaves all your options open if you have big plans that include going on to earn a bachelor’s on your way to a higher paying position, or even independent practice.
In addition to the accounting specialty courses you need to perform your core job functions, most two-year degrees also provides the perfect short cut to a well rounded education that includes some general undergraduate courses that will prepare you to be a better communicator, and generally more comfortable in the professional world.
With that associate accounting degree in hand, you’ll find no shortage of jobs out there in entry-level roles like:
- Accounting Clerk (accounts payable and accounts receivable)
- Accounting Assistant
- Billing Clerk
- Payroll Clerk
- Reconciliation Specialist
With a two-year degree in accounting, you could even choose to go through the IRS registration process required to become an Enrolled Agent and begin offering your services as an independent tax preparer full time, or just do some moonlighting during tax season in addition to your day job.
Whatever you’re gearing up for, you can’t go wrong earning an associate’s as your first step.
Career Options for Associate’s Educated Professionals in Accounting
Th kind of jobs that accounting associate’s degree-holders are qualified to fill can offer a solid middle-class career in accounting with relatively little up-front investment in education. Retention is a major concern for employers and they have been willing to offer competitive compensation packages to keep qualified employees in their ranks.
Taken together, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks earning a median salary of $42,410 as of 2020, with the top ten percent earning more than $63,900.
Industry can also play a role in salary levels. For example, here are the median figures across the five top industries for bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks.
|Professional and technical services
|Finance and insurance
May 2020 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and labor market information for Bookkeeping, Accounting and Auditing Clerks is based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2021.
Selecting an Associate’s Degree Program in Accounting
Because an associate’s degree will form a strong foundation in accounting for further education or a long career in the field, it’s important to choose the right program.
Associate’s degrees in accounting come in three varieties:
- Associate of Arts – More focused on general studies, usually requires additional coursework in social sciences or humanities. Sometimes have foreign language requirements. Credits can easily be transferred into a bachelor’s program.
- Associate of Sciences – Geared more toward science and engineering, usually requires additional credits taken in math or science studies. Credits can easily be transferred into a bachelor’s program.
- Associate in Applied Sciences – These programs are tightly focused on the core subject matter of accounting and do not include general studies requirements. Applied science degrees are usually not transferable, so if you have plans that include going on to earn bachelor’s, an AAS program is not for you.
Associate’s degrees are sometimes called transfer degrees. This is because they often serve as a foundation for moving on to a bachelor’s degree program at another institution. Many colleges will accept a completed associate’s degree as credit toward earning the 120-credit hours that a bachelor’s degree requires. If all 60 credits from your associate’s degree are accepted by the school you’re transferring into, that covers half of the work required for a bachelor’s. However, not all 4-year institutions recognize all associate’s degrees or accept all credits earned.
Checking the transferability of an associate’s degree is an important part of assessing the program. As a rule, community colleges will tend to have transfer agreements with in-state 4-year colleges and universities, or with those located nearby.
In cases where no transfer agreement exists, 4-year colleges will evaluate the coursework of an associate’s degree on a case-by-case basis. Credit will be granted for courses that are judged to be equivalent to those offered at the 4-year school.
Accessibility and Convenience
Because associate’s degrees are most commonly offered at small, community colleges, they are accessible to students in almost every part of the country.
An increasing number of associate’s programs are being made available online. Some are now available only online, while others have options for attending traditional on-campus classes or taking all courses online. Some colleges offer a hybrid format, where some courses can be taken online while others are completed on campus.
Online programs can offer additional flexibility to students who have current jobs or other obligations that restrict their ability to attend classes in person. Most online courses can be time-shifted so that students can study the material and complete coursework at a time of their convenience.
In most cases, the work must still be completed within the window of the standard academic calendar at the school, but a small number of programs allow self-paced, or asynchronous, study. In these cases, online students can proceed at their own pace, without deadlines.
Associate’s in Accounting Core Curriculum and Electives
The first year of a two-year associate’s degree program is typically spent on general education while the second is focused on accounting subjects. The core curriculum offered in accounting associate’s degrees will consist mostly of required courses with options for one or a few elective choices.
Curriculum Difference Between Degree Types
Associate’s are offered in arts, science, and applied science depending on the school; some offer multiple types. A.A. programs often have more communication and liberal arts courses, while A.S. degrees have more in the way of advanced math classes. A.A.S. programs exclusively cover accounting and related subjects, with no general education coursework, so many would argue that this is the better option if you’re looking for the best way to develop some serious number crunching chops and you don’t intend to branch out into the kind of work that will require a bachelor’s degree and involve more in the way of direct client interaction.
All associate’s programs cover the basic principles of accounting. These are sometimes taught in courses simply titled “Accounting Principles” but may also be broken out into these three basic subject areas that reflect the most common subjects of accounting work:
- Financial – Focused on business transactions, financial accounting is the basic business of recording and reporting financial status using Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).
- Managerial – Also known as cost accounting, this covers using accounting processes to provide information for decision support and business operations such as budgeting and allocation.
- Taxation – Tax accounting covers state, federal, and local regulations and principles for preparing tax payments and filings.
Intermediate Accounting Courses
Intermediate accounting is a catch-all term for courses covering a number of different specialized topics or aspects of accounting, including:
- Accounting for inventory, equipment, and intangible assets
- Current and non-current liabilities and contingencies
- Investment accounting and financial reporting
- The accounting cycle
Business Principles and Considerations
Courses such as human resources management, business law, and marketing teach other aspects of business operations which either draw on or feed accounting processes. Many programs also include business ethics courses, which offer guidance on handling sensitive financial matters and private information properly.
English and Math Courses
Interpersonal and business communication skills are taught to offer information on properly drafting emails, memos, or other professional correspondence. In some cases, these overlap with general education courses in composition or English. In many associate’s programs, but especially A.S. programs, math courses are part of the core curriculum to build the basic functional skills that accountants rely on. Probability and statistics are usually part of the core curriculum.
Macroeconomics cover the overall function and cycles of the economy that businesses operate within. Microeconomics covers the opposite end of the spectrum, examining individual decisions and resource allocation based on a limited number of factors, the basis of market-oriented exchanges of goods and services.
Different programs place varying degrees of emphasis on these subjects. Some may offer just one principles of macroeconomics and one principles of microeconomics course, and others diving into further details with macroeconomics II and III courses. Microeconomics is not usually covered in any further depth.
Either as core or elective courses, many programs offer coursework that is specific to certain accounting tools, such as Quickbooks or Excel. Some teach the entire Microsoft Office suite of business tools. Although training on these software packages quickly becomes obsolete, they are listed as requirements at many entry-level jobs. Experience using them in school can fill that requirement.
Accreditation Standards for Associate’s Degree Programs in Accounting
The accreditation status of a school is closely tied to the transferability of credits, so this is particularly important for students planning to use their associate’s degree as a stepping stone to a bachelor’s or higher degree.
Accreditation in the United States is a peer-review process that judges educational standards at schools in accordance with national and regional guidelines put in place by organizations that represent the accounting industry and profession.
At the associate’s level, your primary concern should be that the program is offered from a school listed with one of the six regional accrediting agencies recognized by the Department of Education (DOE) for evaluating schools in their particular part of the country (Accrediting Commission for Western Association of Schools and Colleges; Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities; Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools; New England Association of Schools and Colleges; Higher Learning Commission (North Central); and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools)
There are also a couple program-specific accrediting agencies that look specifically at the curriculum within an accounting or business program rather than making just a high overview evaluation of the school as a whole:
- Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP) accredits accounting and business degree programs at every level, including associate’s. ACBSP is the only specialized accrediting agency that will grant accreditation to institutions that offer an associate’s degree as their highest level of education.
- International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE) The IACBE accredits business and accounting programs at every level, including associate’s. The IACBE does not believe in a cookie-cutter analysis of programs and is open to different approaches to business education as long as the program covers the full scope and depth of the subject.
Although specialized accreditation is desirable and ensures that the program meets certain professional standards in the industry, it’s usually a more important consideration at the bachelor’s and master’s level where stakes are higher for meeting state board requirements for CPA licensure, or national board requirements for some other advanced certification, like the CMA or CFA. At the associate’s level, program availability and transferability of credits are your primary concerns, so regional accreditation of the school would suffice.