While basic entry-level accounting certificate programs are often classified as career diplomas and offered at community colleges and as online vocational programs aimed at high-school graduates looking for entry-level jobs, post-degree certificates have a completely different target and purpose.
Post-baccalaureate and graduate certificates are aimed largely at business professionals who find a need to expand their accounting credentials and expertise. There is nothing cheap or basic about these kinds of certificate programs, which are geared toward college graduates looking to build on their existing bachelor’s degree in accounting, business, finance, marketing, economics or other related majors.
Certificates Are One Road to CPA Licensure
Earning a master’s degree is still the most popular route to accumulating the 150 credits required to become a CPA (120 from a conventional bachelor’s, plus 30 additional credit hours in accounting and business courses), but not one state board of accountancy actually requires a graduate degree. This means you’re free to earn those 30 additional credits any way you want.
If you already have a bachelor’s degree in a related field, a certificate program can be an ideal way to get those credits through a highly focused curriculum of accounting and business courses specifically designed to prepare you for the CPA exam.
Although a certificate does not have the same broad-based preparation for taking the CPA exam as a master’s degree, it may be a more accelerated and cost-effective option.
Post-Baccalaureate vs Graduate Certificate
Post-bac certificates are generally considered to be an undergraduate credential and the programs are often offered through a school’s department of continuing studies, either at a four-year school or university. In some cases, post-bac certificates don’t award credits that are transferrable toward a master’s degree. The typical profile of a student in a post-baccalaureate accounting certificate program is someone with a career that is outside the conventional accounting role, but who would benefit from some substantive training in the principles and functions of accounting. However, you can find future CPAs getting the last of the credits they need to take the exam in these programs too.
Graduate certificates, which are almost always offered through university graduate schools, offer a curriculum that is decidedly graduate level by definition. In many cases, the curriculum is made up of some the exact courses found in a full blown master’s program available through the same graduate school. Credits earned in a graduate certificate program are often easily transferrable toward an executive master’s. It can be argued that these points add to the prestige and marketability of the credential.
These are not hard and fast rules, however, and schools are ultimately left to develop their curriculum around the demands of the local job market and define the programs in any way they see fit. Though these are common generalities that help distinguish one type of certificate from another, you will find there are exceptions to all the general rules with regard to what constitutes a post-bac certificate or graduate certificate program.
Career Options and Salary Ranges for Accounting Certificate Holders
The wide range of salaries typically associated with positions that specifically advertise for candidates that hold a graduate certificate or a post-bac certificate as the minimum requirement are shown here.
Because many post-bacalaureate certificate holders have bachelor’s degrees in fields like business, marketing and finance, this group of professionals is more likely to be using their accounting education as a way to compete for a promotion or advancement rather than aiming for accounting jobs specifically. It can, however, serve as a pathway to CPA licensure, which is one of the most highly sought credentials among employers looking to fill high-level positions, whether in accounting specifically or in other leadership roles outside the accounting department.
There is a near endless number of corporate and managerial positions that benefit from additional accounting knowledge, and a certificate will certainly improve both job prospects and salary potential. In any accounting roll that a post-bac certificate would qualify you for, you’d see salaries in line with the nation median for the field, which was $73,560 as of May 2020.
A bachelor’s in a closely related field in combination with a post-bac certificate in accounting is a highly marketable credential that can open up opportunities in a variety of crossover roles, including (median salaries shown):
- Operations Research Analyst Analyst – $86,200
- Financial Analyst – $83,660
- Budget Analyst – $79,970
These broad ranges provide a snapshot of national averages, from positions found in competitive metro area job markets, to areas with a lower cost of living and commensurate salary ranges
A graduate certificate offers advanced training that puts students a step above accounting bachelor’s degree holders. A graduate certificate offers one possible route to a CPA. It may be used to build your qualifications for managerial positions in accounting departments, or simply to burnish credentials for higher executive jobs that involve overseeing accounting as only one aspect of a larger business.
In addition to being eligible for salaries higher up on the scale for accountants and auditors in general, which ring in at $97,530 at the 75th percentile, a graduate certificate could even prepare you to compete for a financial Manager position where the median salary is $134,180.
Regional Salary Considerations
Naturally, some specialized accounting roles in fields like finance, are centered around the major exchanges where financial services firms are headquartered, in areas like Chicago and New York. However, the broad range of industries requiring staff with some expertise in accounting means that opportunities exist almost everywhere in the country.
This is a representative snapshot of potential jobs and their salaries in various regions of the country. The ranges represent starting salaries for a couple positions often associated with either a post-bac certificate or graduate certificate as the minimum qualification.
Of course, using your additional education to qualify for additional licensing, like the CPA, or industry-specific certification, like the CMA (Certified Management Accountant), CFP (Certified Financial Planner), or CFE (Certified Fraud Examiner), will add significantly to your earning potential.
Post-Bac or Graduate Certificate – Which One is Right for Your Situation
There are major differences in the types of certificate programs available.
To choose the right certificate program for your needs and career, you should have a very clear picture of your intended goals and the path to achieve them. Because certificate programs are less general than degrees, choosing the wrong one can be far more limiting to your long-term options.
The courses in the certificate program are undergraduate level classes, similar, or sometimes identical, to those that are offered in a regular accounting bachelor’s program. Only a subset of the education offered in bachelor’s programs is presented, however.
Post-bac certificates, sometimes called undergraduate certificates, are more often designed for students who already hold a bachelor’s degree in a field other than accounting. They’re more often the certificate of choice for people with careers or career goals that aren’t strictly in the accounting field, but who need a better education in accounting principles. They are heavily weighted toward coursework that is focused on business applications of accounting.
Still, they certainly can prepare someone for a job where accounting is the primary function, and can even very well provide a path to earning the 30 additional credits needed to become a CPA. Since most accounting jobs require a four-year degree at a minimum, a certificate is a relatively fast and affordable way to gain the accounting expertise necessary for the position if you already have a bachelor’s degree outside the field.
At the graduate level, certificates are usually used to offer an advanced level of training in certain specific accounting functions for people who are already in the field of accounting or have an accounting-related undergraduate degree. These programs very often provide a path to CPA licensure.
Graduate certificates are also post-baccalaureate in the sense that you must already hold a bachelor’s degree to be accepted into the programs. However, your degree usually must be in a field related to accounting. The coursework for a graduate certificate is typically the same as what is found in a master’s program, though it will typically consist of fewer courses that are more exclusively focused on accounting. No training wheels are provided; your background must be sufficient to prepare you to transition to advanced accounting topics.
In many cases, graduate certificate coursework may later be applied to a master’s degree, particularly at the same institution where the certificate is earned.
Some Common Aspects and Comparisons Between Post-Bac and Graduate Certificate Programs
Either type of certificate program can run from one to three years. They usually offer between 24 and 50 credit hours of instruction. The number of credit hours in the program can be useful in assessing the amount of content that will be presented.
Costs can vary as widely as the amount of credits and are usually related. Undergraduate certificates can range from $5,000 to upwards of $20,000 depending on the length of the program, reputation of the school, and what your state residency status is. Graduate certificates run from around $10,000 to nearly $30,000, largely based on the same criteria.
Certificate programs vary widely in the number of courses included and the structure of those courses. In some cases, the certificate curriculum is fully programmed, with no electives. In other cases, only one or two courses might be required, while the majority of courses can be selected from a catalog of electives.
This has a major impact on your decision. If your goal is to become more familiar with accounting overall, then a structured course is a good choice. If you need intensive focus on a particular aspect of accounting, then a program that will let you build your own curriculum will be best.
Flexibility and Accessibility
Most certificate programs today are available online. Online programs have real advantages for working professionals because courses can be taken anytime day or night. Because so many certificate students are already out in the workforce, online certificate courses have become the most popular option. Online courses also offer the option of attending a program better suited to your needs than the local options might offer.
Some programs are hybrid, consisting of a mix of online and traditional on-campus classes. If you learn well in traditional classroom environments but have restrictions on your availability to attend classes regularly, this option offers you the best of both worlds.
Courses Found in Post-Bac and Graduate Certificate Programs
Certificate program courses are laser-focused on core accounting functions. Although they may cover certain advanced subjects, the full breadth and depth of an accounting graduate or undergraduate degree is not presented. Still, many are specifically designed to provide the exact course sequence needed to qualify for a CPA license or other industry certification without any extras.
Accounting certificate courses almost always focus on accounting and business classes in the following areas:
Managerial and cost accounting courses teach the processes that businesses use to calculate, assess, and regulate their financial status.
Processes used for budgeting, establishing cost centers, and allocating costs are covered.
Financial Accounting Principles and Reporting
Financial accounting covers the basic principles used for tracking business financial status and flows. GAAP, the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, are part of financial accounting classes, as are basis and accrual calculations. Certificate programs may wrap regulatory reporting requirements into these classes.
Auditing teaches students how to analyze financial systems using the standards and procedures of public accounting. Fraud detection and ethics are discussed as part of fraud education, and accounting information systems that are used to store the information being audited may be covered.
A graduate certificate is more likely to offer highly specialized training in the field. This can mean in-depth coursework in almost any possible financial subject, including:
- Non-profit accounting
- Advanced course sections in Financial, Managerial, and Auditing topics
- Intermediate accounting
- Governmental accounting
- Tax accounting
- Forensic accounting
- Micro- and macroeconomics
Accreditation Standards for Accounting Certificate Programs
Accreditation is a valuable third-party assessment and validation of the quality of a certificate program. Accrediting bodies look at a number of factors in determining accreditation status, including:
- Faculty qualifications
- Credit hour and coursework assessments
- School support systems
- Technology systems
- Outcomes tracking
- Educational theory and adherence to best practices
At a minimum, you should only consider certificate programs at schools that have been accredited by regional accreditation bodies recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and U.S. Department of Education (DOE). This ensures the school meets all expected quality standards.
Specialized Accounting Accreditation
While regional accreditors consider general educational standards and the quality of the institution overall, there are also several specialized accreditation bodies that focus specifically on business and accounting education:
- The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)
- International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE)
- Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP)
These bodies look at additional factors specific to business schools and accounting programs, ensuring that they offer curriculums that include:
- Ethical and regulatory education specific to business and accounting
- Business process courses
- Accounting information systems
- Economic principles and tax policy
- Standards of business communications
Because accounting certificate programs rely on courses that are a regular part of the baccalaureate and graduate programs the school offers, you can rely on the accreditation status of both the school and its business or accounting department.
The AACSB certifies schools as well as individual programs at those schools, so it’s important to check that the specific accounting program that the certificate courses are sourced from is included in the accreditation.
May 2020 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and labor market information for Operations Research Analysts, Accountants and Auditors, Financial Analysts, Budget Analysts, Financial Managers are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2021.