A four-year degree is the standard entry-level requirement for the vast majority of professional accounting jobs. If you’re looking to break into the field in any position above bookkeeper, then you should be looking at a bachelor’s.
There are also significant impacts on earning potential and advancement opportunities that comes with having a bachelor’s degree. Even for lower level positions, promotions will almost always go first to someone with a bachelor’s.
All successful companies know that managers with an expert grasp of the financials make better business decisions. That’s exactly the sort of preparation you’ll get from an undergraduate program with a substantive focus on accounting. This makes a degree in accounting with a managerial accounting focus, or a business degree with an accounting minor, a killer combination for business leaders.
It’s also something that would grab the attention of hiring managers or higher-ups looking to promote from within the ranks of the company. Any hiring committee routinely sees dozens of résumés listing more generic BBAs come across their desks, but a more specialized program that includes an accounting concentration is something special. A bachelor’s in accounting can also serve as the perfect foundation for earning an MBA at any point in your career.
Career Options and Salary Potential That Come With Earning a Bachelor’s in Accounting
Many people look at a bachelor’s degrees in accounting as a necessary stepping stone on the path to an MBA, or master’s in accounting and CPA licensure. But there are many lucrative positions in the accounting world that don’t require anything more advanced than a bachelor’s degree:
- AR/AP/Payroll Manager
- Junior Accountant/Junior Analyst (Financial/Budget/Business)
- Full Charge Bookkeeper
- Staff Accountant/Analyst (Financial/Budget/Business)
- Financial Project Manager
An accounting bachelor’s degree is one of the most flexible education options within the field of accountancy, and in business in general, making it well suited for a wide range of positions with different responsibilities and specialized skill requirements. Every industry and sector has a variety of accounting-related positions that are critical for business operations.
Staff retention in accounting has become a major consideration for businesses. Companies routinely increase starting salary offers and scheduled raises on an annual basis to attract and hold on to valuable employees in an environment where there’s a lot of competition for top talent.
A bachelor’s degree would be you squarely in the middle of what you can expect to earn as a corporate staff accountant or auditor. The median salary as of May 2020 was $78,600, but could differ considerably by industry (average salaries by industry with the highest level of employment for accountants and auditors):
- Accounting, Tax Preparation, Bookkeeping and Payroll Services – $85,050
- Enterprise Management – $82,770
- Local Government – $71,420
- State Government – $68,460
- Real Estate – $78,370
Regionally, salaries can vary quite a bit according to economic growth trends and industry, though most accounting jobs for bachelor’s degree holders provide a comfortable income no matter where you’re located.
May 2020 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and labor market information for Accountants and Auditors is based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2021.
Selecting an Bachelor’s Degree Program in Accounting
There are several different baccalaureate-level degree titles associated with accounting:
Bachelor of Arts in Accounting/Bachelor of Accountancy (BAC)
A BAC is probably the most widely available and most general type of accounting bachelor’s degree. A B.A. is considered a more liberal degree, with courses in languages, the humanities, and arts designed to produce a more well-rounded graduate.
A BAC is widely considered to be the best preparation for an accounting master’s or doctoral program. Accounting master’s programs search for candidates with a range of experience and perspectives, the classic liberal arts background. At the same time, the general education is good preparation for many business roles both in and out of the accounting field.
Bachelor of Science in Accounting (BSACC)
The B.S. option has a more technical focus and will typically include more courses in business practices, math, and economics in the core curriculum. These will be in place of the liberal arts classes expected in a BAC, which makes B.S. degrees less well-rounded, and some might argue, less well-suited to further studies in a master’s or doctoral program.
On the other hand, a B.S. degree might better prepare you to perform your core accounting duties, and may be more attractive to employers looking for someone with serious number crunching chops. With a stronger focus in the technical aspects of accounting, with a B.S. you’ll enter the workforce prepared to take on complex accounting tasks.
Bachelor’s in Business Administration with an Accounting Concentration (BSBA/BABA)
Bachelor’s degrees in business administrations in both arts and science categories are available with accounting specializations or concentrations. This is first and foremost a general business degree; the curriculum does not cover accounting subjects with anywhere near the depth of a dedicated accounting degree.
Instead, BBA degrees include extra courses that cover more general business topics in areas like:
- Marketing principles
- Management information systems
- Business strategy
- Human resources and administration
These courses are offered at the expense of some of the specialized accounting classes found in a BSACC or BAC. A BBA, however, can still be a good option for students aiming for managerial or business operations careers that are heavily focused on financial literacy and numbers.
Integrated Programs with a CPA Track – Bachelor’s Plus Master’s or MBA
With 150 credit hours of college being the basic education requirement for the CPA credential, 30 credits more than what is found in most bachelor’s programs, more and more universities are offering five-year accounting programs that combine both bachelor’s and master’s curriculum to provide those 30 additional credits in an accelerated format. At the end of one of these programs you’ll hold a bachelor’s in accounting, and a master’s or MBA, making you well-qualified for the CPA exam.
This approach saves students both time and money, but requires more up-front commitment. Most colleges bill all classes at undergraduate rates, but it’s not usually possible to stop after four years and only receive the bachelor’s degree. The entire sequence has to be completed.
Getting Your Bachelor’s Degree After Earning an Associate’s
One path to a bachelor’s degree in accounting involves first obtaining a two-year associate’s degree. This effectively takes care of the first two years and first 60 credits of a bachelor’s curriculum, but this comes with some caveats. Most importantly, the school offering the bachelor degree must recognize the transferability of the associate’s credits.
The most straightforward path for this is if both schools have an existing transfer agreement. These agreements are common between community colleges and four-year schools and universities within the same state.
Otherwise, the school will evaluate the specific courses in the associate’s program to decide if they are transfer-eligible. This is usually established on the basis of program accreditation, but it also depends on the subjects covered in the course and whether the school feels they meet the requirements necessary for moving on to higher level courses.
Online bachelor’s degree options are widely available from high caliber schools. There is no shortage of advantages that come with completing coursework online, from offering you the option of attending a program you like from halfway across the country, to allowing you to time-shift your class attendance to accommodate a job or other real-world obligations. This kind of asynchronous course delivery gives you the freedom to take your classes whenever it works for you, around the clock.
Other online programs might require some scheduling to complete synchronous, real-time projects or interactions with instructors and classmates, and programs that offer some combination of both synchronous and asynchronous course delivery are also common.
Bachelor’s in Accounting Core Curriculum and Electives
Like any other bachelor’s degree, every college will have a set of core requirements designed to offer a broad background of knowledge and enhance critical thinking skills for all students. With B.A. degrees, this will consist of a wide range of humanities and liberal arts courses, with some science and math thrown in. For B.S. students, there will be fewer liberal arts requirements and more focus on business and accounting courses. Business Administration degrees will have a primary focus on business studies with a reduced array of accounting courses.
Regardless of the type of accounting bachelor’s you earn, you can expect to take courses that cover financial, managerial and tax accounting, as well as auditing, accounting technology, and ethics and legal aspects of business and accounting:
Covers the basic principles of documenting and tracking business finances, including basis, accrual, and GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles).
Managerial accounting covers cost accounting and other processes used to provide decision support information for managers and business operations. Budgeting, cost centers, and allocation are covered in these courses.
Federal, state, and local tax regulations are covered, including approaches to record-keeping for tax purposes, preparing tax filings, and making payments for various types of corporate entities and individuals.
The principles of analyzing and assessing accounts through the standards and procedures of public accounting. May include fraud detection and ethical reporting requirements.
Accounting Information Systems
The technologies used to store, process, and produce reports on financial data are taught in terms of conceptual knowledge and as practical skills. Courses may cover basic software packages like Excel or Quickbooks, or stick to more theoretical descriptions of how software is used in accounting processes. Most programs also have general IT classes teaching common business software skills, such as Microsoft Office.
Business Management and Legal Topics
General business organization and management courses covering marketing, structure, commercial transactions, and principles of human resource management are taught. Additional courses like business planning and business research skills may be part of the core curriculum or available as electives.
Microeconomic and macroeconomic courses are taught to provide an understanding both of the neoclassical theories of price determination and markets and the aggregate economic conditions that underlie the modern market economy. National and international perspectives are included in most courses.
Math and Statistics
Whether part of the accounting program or as part of the university’s core bachelor degree requirements, basic math classes in algebra are required. Accounting degrees also usually include further requirements in the principles of statistics and statistical analysis. B.S. degrees may have even more advanced math and statistics training.
Intermediate and Advanced Accounting Topics
Sometimes these courses are simply titled intermediate or advanced accounting; in other cases, they are broken out further into the topics covered, which include:
- The accounting cycle
- Balance sheets and accounting for inventory, equipment, and intangible assets
- Liabilities and contingencies
- Non-profit accounting
- Business entity types and mergers and acquisitions accounting
- Accounting ethics
Some bachelor’s programs offer additional concentrations with electives focused on a subset of the general accounting education. In some cases, as with CPA and CMA specializations, this means taking a series of courses designed to prepare you to take state licensure and professional certification exams. Concentrations found in four-year accounting programs can include:
- Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Concentration
- Certified Management Accountant (CMA) Concentration
- Tax Accounting Concentration
- Auditing Concentration
- Forensic Accounting Concentration
Accreditation Standards for Bachelor’s Degree Programs in Accounting
At the bachelor’s level, it’s critical to pick a school that has been fully accredited by a regional accrediting body that is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and U.S. Department of Education (DOE). It’s even more important if that bachelor’s degree is a step on your path to becoming a licensed CPA or earning national certification, including Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Certified Financial Analyst (CFA), Certified Financial Planner (CFP), or other professional certification.
Only CHEA and DOE-recognized accrediting bodies ensure that schools meet the standards that employers look for in graduates. This is accomplished through evaluations of standards for curriculum, instructors, and outcomes tracking. School-level accreditation recoginized by CHEA and DOE is performed by regional accrediting bodies that evaluate only the schools within their 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)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools)
There are also a handful of national accreditation agencies that accredit schools, but those are less likely to be recognized by state accounting boards and originations that offer national certification like the CMA, CFA, or CFP.
Specialty Programmatic Accreditation
As an accounting major, you can also look to see if the regionally accredited school you’ll be attending online or in your area offers an accounting program that holds additional specialty accreditation specific to the program itself.
Programmatic accreditation is much more rare, and always in addition to regional institution-level accreditation. It serves as a way of drilling down to evaluate the curriculum and instructors for a specific program rather than just taking a look at the quality of the school overall.
Even if you’re going for a CPA license or other national certification, attending a program with this kind of specialty accreditation isn’t necessary. However, it does mean that that the program is of the highest caliber, and it is something that future employers, certification bodies, state accounting boards, and grad schools will notice when considering an application.
Programmatic accreditation for accounting and business programs can be offered by one of three different specialized accrediting bodies:
AACSB accredits baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral degree programs in business administration and accounting. The association is very selective; fewer than 5 percent of business programs, globally, have achieved AACSB certification.
AACSB will accredit both institutions and specific program specializations at those institutions. This gives their evaluation a broader perspective than most other specialized accreditors, which look only at specific programs in isolation. However, when looking for AACSB accreditation, you should be sure to check that both the school and the accounting program have received it.
The association has a specific Accounting Accreditation in addition to the overall Business Accreditation. This specifically addresses learning standards for accounting topics and the evaluation of faculty qualifications in teaching accounting subjects.
Keeping the accredited status requires continuous improvement and regular monitoring by AACSB. Annual reporting and more intensive five-year evaluations are conducted to ensure that standards are being met.
The ACBSP provides specialized business and accounting accreditation for college degree programs at all levels. Their standards require that programs prepare graduates for a professional career in business by meeting this criteria:
- Training students in public responsibility and citizenship
- Teaching regulatory and legal compliance
- Requiring faculty have documented credentials
- Coverage of economic institutions, government, and consumer considerations
- Education in business operating procedures and technology
ACBSP also evaluates programs on the basis of flexibility and availability, which means that they give full weight to the advantages of online course options.
Since 2009, the ACBSP has also offered a specialized accreditation level exclusively for accounting programs. This includes additional provisions recommended by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy. It requires that programs:
- Encourage students to pursue additional professional certification
- Track graduate outcomes
- Maintain standards for faculty credentials specific to accounting
IACBE’s accreditation process is hands-on. They send out teams to conduct peer-review of programs that have applied for accreditation. It’s not a simple pass/fail process, however. The teams will work with applicants to help bring them up to IACBE standards. No two evaluations are the same and schools aren’t expected to simply jump through hoops to check-off a list of requirements. Instead, IACBE welcomes innovative educational approaches that still meet its strict quality standards.
IACBE accredits post-secondary programs at all levels, from associate’s to advanced, and also offers a specialized accounting accreditation that takes additional standards into account for bachelor’s degrees in accounting.
The accounting specialization requires that programs conform to IACBE requirements by covering:
- Ethical and professional standards for accountants
- Specific accounting topics mapped to desired student outcomes
- International aspects of accounting
- Accounting information systems
- Fraud examination and forensics
- Nonprofit accounting and reporting