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:
- Complete a bachelor’s degree in accounting, followed by a master’s degree in accounting or an MBA with a focus in accounting
- Complete a bachelor’s degree in accounting (120 semester hours), followed by 30 semester hours in post-bachelor’s accounting courses without completing a master’s program
- Complete a bachelor’s degree in another discipline, followed by a master’s in accounting or an MBA with a focus in accounting
- Complete a five-year combined professional accounting program that leads to a bachelor’s degree and master’s in accounting
Why Earning a Master’s Degree in Accounting is the Preferred Path to CPA Licensure
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:
- At the very minimum, a master’s degree in accounting ensures graduates that they have met the educational requirements needed to obtain their CPA license.
- Employers often prefer CPAs with master’s degrees because of their advanced knowledge of taxation and auditing.
- A master’s degree in accounting provides graduates with technical knowledge that helps support CPAs early in their careers.
- A master’s degree in accounting better prepares graduates for success on the CPA exam.
- A master’s degree in accounting has a broad business focus, which helps CPAs excel in management and leadership positions.
- According to the American Institute of CPAs, it has become almost a prerequisite to have a master’s degree in accounting to become a consultant or to become a partner in a CPA firm.
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.
Selecting a Master’s in Accounting: MSA, MAcc, and MBA Programs
Master’s degrees in accounting are structured in a number of different ways, with titles that include:
- Master of Accountancy (MAc, MAcc, or MAcy)
- Master of Science in Accounting (MSA)
- Master of Business Ad
- inistration (MBA) in Accounting
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.
Master’s in Accounting Core Coursework and Degree Specialization Options
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:
- Advanced Auditing
- Advanced Managerial/Cost Accounting
- Business Communications
- Corporate Financial Research and Reporting
- Corporate Tax Decisions and Strategies
- Ethical Issues in Business and Accounting
- Federal Taxation
- Financial Accounting and Reporting
- Information Systems Design
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:
- Database management systems
- Information security management
- Enterprise information technology service management
- Advanced business analytics
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:
- Corporate finance
- Accounting information systems
- Financial statement analysis
- Accounting theory and research
- International financial reporting standards
A taxation specialization within a master’s degree in accounting allows students to focus on a wide array of topics and issues related to:
- Financial reporting
- International taxation
- Multistate taxation
- Tax compliance and planning for individuals, corporations, partnerships and other business entities
- Taxation of estates and trusts
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:
- Fraud auditing
- Economic damages
- Forensic accounting in family law
- Lost wages and employment litigation
- Disputes in mergers and acquisitions
- Intellectual property
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:
- Advanced auditing
- Internal auditing concepts
- Strategic business planning
- Study in accounting theory
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:
- Design and development of information systems
- Government accounting and auditing
- Governmental budgeting systems
- Public sector auditing
Accreditation Standards for Master’s Degree Programs in Accounting
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:
- The roles accountants play in society to ensure the integrity of financial, managerial, and other information
- The ethical and regulatory environment for accountants
- The critical thinking and analytical skills that support the assessment and assurance of accounting information
- Business processes and analyses
- Internal controls and security
- Risk assessment and assurance for financial and non-financial information
- Recording, analysis, and interpretation of historical and prospective financial and non-financial information
- Project and engagement management
- The design of technology for accounting, including the application of technology to financial and non-financial information
- Tax policy, strategy, and compliance for individuals and enterprises
- International accounting issues and practices, including accountants in a global context
Master’s degree programs in accounting should also focus on:
- Advanced design of technology for accounting and its application to financial and non-financial information
- An expanded understanding of professional responsibilities of accountants, including the ethical and professional standards of the accounting profession
- Application of accounting and business in a global context
- Approaches to framing problems and developing solutions to accounting issues
- More intensive learning experiences than undergraduate programs, including topics related to the accounting discipline in the context of business
- The advanced development of critical and analytical thinking skills, as well as sound decision-making and good judgment
- Understand the strategic role accounting plays in business organizations and society
- Understanding the accounting discipline from a number of perspectives
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:
- Economic institutions
- The complex relationships that exist between business, government, and consumers
- A basic knowledge of the functional areas of business, ethical, and regulatory expectations for accountants
- The use of technology in the management of financial and other information
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:
- Recognize problems
- Integrate theory and practice for the purpose of strategic analysis
- Employ and apply quantitative techniques and methods in the analysis of real-world business situations
- Communicate to relevant audiences, which involves:
- Composing clear, consistent, and effective written forms of communication
- Composing and presenting effective oral business presentations
- Working effectively with a team of colleagues on diverse projects
- Identifying and analyzing the ethical obligations and responsibilities of business