So you want to be an accountant…
Welcome to the latest installment of College Transitions’ “So you want to be a….” series. Designed to help career-minded high school students think intelligently about their postsecondary journeys, these blogs will look at the financial, academic, and personal factors one should consider when exploring various professions.
Does going to a prestigious undergraduate school help?
If your aim is to get offers from the major accounting firms such as Ernst & Young, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, or KPMG, then the undergraduate school that you attend can boost your career prospects. Schools such as Villanova, Notre Dame, and Boston College are among the top feeders to the Big Four firms. Other less-selective schools such as Binghamton University, Bentley University, and Fairfield University have strong connections to the one or more of the big four (i.e. Binghamton’s PwC Scholar’s Program) and can also serve as a direct pipeline to employment at the high-end firms.
Do I have to major in accounting?
For those who enter college 100% sure that they want to be accountants, majoring in accounting is the most direct route to your desired destination. While the majority of CPAs nationwide possess a bachelor’s in accounting, other CPAs studied related areas such as finance, economics, business, or even completely unrelated fields. It is important to note, however, that non-accounting majors may have to take additional courses in accounting or taxation before being eligible to sit for the CPA exam.
The pathway to CPA
States have varying requirements about how many hours of upper-level accounting classes one needs to sit for the CPA exam, but unless you live in the Virgin Islands, if you want to become a Certified Public Accountant, you’ll need to rack up 150 credit hours. Since a traditional bachelor’s degree program is only 120 hours, you’ll either have to continue your college education beyond four years or set sail for St. Thomas in the Caribbean (hmmmm, this might actually not be the worst option).
After completing your hours of study it will be time to tackle the CPA exam — a four part test that covers auditing, regulation, financial accounting and reporting, and business environment and concepts. The test is rigorous and failure rates are high. In fact, in 2016, pass rates for three of the four sections were under 50%.
Consider a dual BS/MS program
Since you’re stuck having to log 150 credit hours to sit for the CPA, you might as well consider earning a master’s degree along the way. Many universities offer 5-year BS/MS accounting programs which can be slightly more efficient than earning a bachelor’s and then adding the master’s down the road. Yet, most master’s degrees in the accounting field only run between 30-36 credits anyway, so you’re not exactly shaving off that many credits.
Less common but far more advantageous are the dual-degree programs that can be completed in four years, giving their students a chance to emerge with a graduate degree to sit for the CPA exam a year early. LaSalle University offers an accelerated program for particularly ambitious future number-crunchers that allows students, through a boatload of summer work, to graduate with a BS in accounting and an MBA in just four years. Butler University has a four-year program that results in a B.S./Master of Accounting dual degree.
As long as taxes and businesses exist, accounting is sure to remain a steady and predictable field offering solid compensation. Professionals with an accounting degree but no CPA license presently average just over 50k while those with CPAs earn between 5-15% more. The top ten percent of earners with the CPA credentials earn 118k and up. As with most professions, those in major metropolitan areas, specifically San Francisco, San Jose, and New York enjoy the highest annual earnings.
For those with sights on even higher dollar figures, CPAs can ascend to corporate leadership positions such as CFO or corporate treasurer—jobs that can pay a few hundred thousand per year or more.
Plan the financial end
If your goal is to become a CPA, it’s important to keep in mind that a 5th year of study will be required. This translates, of course, to an extra year of tuition and an extra year of not bringing home a salary. Fortunately, job prospects for accountants are solid, expected to grow by 11% over the next decade, which means that at least you’re likely to have a steady income to pay down any undergraduate debt incurred.
To read previous installments of the “So you want to be a…” series, click the links below:
So you want to be a lawyer…
So you want to be a doctor…
So you want to be a teacher…
So you want to be an engineer…
So you want to be a software developer/engineer/programmer…
So you want to be a financial analyst…
So you want to be a journalist…
So you want to be a psychologist…
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).
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