30—quite possibly the only number that leaves some aspiring CPAs scratching their head in bewilderment. So what could make a little ‘ol number unnerve the same people who make their money crunching columns packed with digits?
When it’s the only thing that stands between them and a CPA license.
There’s no getting around it. Every accounting grad with visions of CPA licensure must earn 30 semester hour credits beyond the 120 completed during a bachelor’s program to hit that coveted 150 mark. Whether your state requires you to reach the 150-semester hour goal before you sit for the CPA exam or after, it’s still a must.
A Little Advice for the Early Birds
Still early in the process and deciding on a degree path? If so, your plan for meeting the 150 semester hour requirement might include:
- A Five-Year Accounting Program with a CPA Track
- An Undergraduate Degree with a Serious Course Load
A Five-Year Accounting Program with a CPA Track
A good CPA or two will probably tell you to complete a five-year program and save yourself the hassle of hunting down those extra credits after graduation. Five-year accounting programs have become quite popular in recent years, with most resulting in a bachelor’s in accounting (or business administration or finance) combined with an MBA or master’s in accounting.
The pluses? Not only do you have the credits need to sit for the CPA exam and get licensed, but you’ll also have a grad degree under your belt. The downsides? More money and more time. Many CPAs will also tell you that a master’s degree in accounting or a similar field just isn’t necessary.
However, this integrated approach does provide the ideal opportunity to focus your accounting career on a specific area like auditing/financial reporting, taxation, or managerial accounting.
And although graduate coursework or a graduate degree is not required for those extra 30 credits, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) says that those who hold a graduate degree have a better chance of passing the CPA exam.
An Undergraduate Degree with a Serious Course Load
There’s also been many an accounting student to pack their undergraduate schedule by taking 18 credits per semester instead of the standard 15. Doing so would get you a lot closer to the 150-semester hour requirement—usually at a lower cost.
This sounds like a good idea in theory, but remember that many courses in an accounting bachelor’s degree will require a great deal of time and focus. You may be able to swing a higher credit load at times, but never do it at the expense of your academic performance.
Summer courses are a smart way to get those extra courses in without over-packing your schedule throughout the school year. Online courses are also a popular option for busy students.
Similarly, you may choose a double major, which would also get you to the 150-semester hour mark. But for many accounting students, a double major may prove difficult, given the already-demanding nature of accounting programs. Plus, you can expect it to take 5 years to complete anyway, which is why many students choose a five-year accounting degree over a double major.
Options for Bachelor’s Degree Holders: Keeping with Tradition or Breaking From It
You’ve just finished four years of schooling and are likely as short on patience as you are on money. The bulk of your education is in the rearview mirror, and the only thing standing between you and the CPA exam or full licensure is a handful of courses.
Going with the traditional approach by enrolling in a master’s or MBA program will get you to that 150-semester hour mark, but many are turned off by the thought of another two years of school, not to mention the additional cost.
This has made the paths less traveled more popular among many aspiring CPAs in recent years:
- CLEP Exams
- Community Colleges
Peruse any discussion board where would-be CPAs are trying to wrestle out the right solution and you’ll quickly find people raving about CLEP—the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program—a quick, easy, and inexpensive way to finish up those last 30 or so credits.
CLEP provides a way for students to develop and demonstrate their mastery of college-level material in a very non-conventional way – without taking a class. The cost of taking a CLEP exam is just $80 (a fraction of what a college course would cost), and you can prepare for it on your own time.
Here’s how CLEP works: You take an examination on a subject you’re familiar with (or one that you can become familiar with), and if you pass, you receive credit. Sounds simple, right? But wait—there’s a few things you should know before signing up for a CLEP exam …
First, you must be enrolled in a college that grants credits for CLEP exams. Because of this, many recent grads think CLEP exams are out of the question. However, a number of colleges, universities, and community colleges allow individuals to register as a student solely for the purpose of documenting their CLEP credits. Registering with the institution (it usually costs a couple hundred bucks to do so) grants you transcription services for a period of time (usually about a year), which then allows you to transfer your CLEP exam scores and receive credit for them.
You need to make sure the college accepts the CLEP exam you take and make sure your state board of accounting recognizes credits earned through CLEP for the purpose of CPA licensure. Most Boards do, but it’s wise to do your homework and verify that both your college and your state licensing board will accept your CLEP exam before committing time and money to take an exam that isn’t accepted. Most schools have a list of CLEP exams they give credit for, along with the minimum passing score required to earn credit.
You can’t double-dip for CLEP credits by taking a CLEP exam for a course you’ve already taken (or for a comparable course). In other words, you can’t take a CLEP exam for financial accounting if you’ve already taken a financial accounting course as part of your bachelor’s degree program. You may also not be allowed to earn CLEP credit for a course you previously failed.
Even community colleges are now stepping in to provide a solution to the 30 semester-hour quandary. Yes, you heard that right – even if you already hold a degree in accounting or another major, you can earn the 30 extra credits you need to be eligible for the CPA exam through some community colleges.
If you have an accounting degree, you have likely already met your state board’s upper-division credit hour distribution requirements. If you’ve completed all upper-division and graduate level accounting, business and general course requirements, then you’re a-okay to fill the gap to 150 through lower-division courses. Community college courses provide a relatively inexpensive option for doing so, and many can be completed online.
Now, you’ve likely heard of students taking random courses (insert Basketweaving 101 dad-joke here) for no other reason than to earn those last few credits– but doing so isn’t really helping you. AICPA developed the 150-semester hour rule for a reason—to produce knowledgeable and well-rounded candidates who are prepared to represent the CPA profession well. Take this unique opportunity to complete courses of value. Consider courses in marketing, cybersecurity, fraud investigations or even a foreign language – topics that will prepare you to hit the ground running and wow clients.
If you hold a degree in business, economics or another area, you may still need some upper division courses in accounting– not only to hit the 150 mark, but also to fulfill your state board’s credit hour distribution requirements. Believe or not, some community colleges provide a solution for that too. You can even find CCs offering exam prep programs specifically designed to fulfill the credit-hour and distribution requirements while gearing you up for the best chance at success come test day.
Make sure your state board accepts community college courses before investing time and money. In most cases, as long as the CC holds accreditation from an accrediting body your state board recognizes, you’re good to go – even if you’re taking online courses from an out-of-state school.