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Part of Western Governors University

October 15, 2019

Business

Become a CPA with a master's degree for accountants.

A young accountant works at an in-home office.

The value of a master's degree for accountants runs far beyond education. It's also a great way to ensure future job security and land a high-paying job.

Becoming a certified public accountant (CPA) takes preparation, experience, and education, and a master's degree can help with all three. If you're hoping for a long, successful career in accounting, a master's degree is the way to go.

Why become a CPA?

What's the difference between an accountant and a CPA? Think about it like squares and rectangles: all CPAs are accountants, but not all accountants are CPAs. The principal differences, according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), are education, experience, and opportunity. To become a CPA, you'll first need to pass the Uniform CPA Examination.

Passing the test and separating yourself from the pack isn't easy, but the rewards are great. CPAs make almost twice the average salary of accountants: $119,000 compared to $51,000, per PayScale and the Journal of Accountancy, respectively. Even CPAs with less than a year of experience make $66,000 a year, on average.

The employment outlook for CPAs is strong, too. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the accountant workforce will grow by 6 percent by 2028, adding more than 90,000 accountants to the industry across the next nine years. Obtaining your CPA license can help boost your career, and earning a master's degree prepares you for examination through coursework.

What's required to take the CPA exam?

Every state has its own requirements to sit for the CPA exam. They can include age, citizenship, and residency restrictions, and educational and experience requirements. California, for example, requires prospective CPAs to have at least a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution and to have completed 24 hours of accounting and 24 hours of business coursework. Massachusetts, on the other hand, requires a bachelor's degree, but only 21 hours of accounting coursework and nine hours of business coursework. A CPA applicant should consult with their state accounting board for specific state requirements. 

Nearly all states require you to complete 120 credit hours before you are even eligible to take the CPA exam, and at least 150 before you're able to be licensed as a CPA. The Association of International Certified Professional Accountants offers a few reasons for this high requirement:

  • Accounting and auditing procedures have recently undergone significant changes.

  • Local, state, and federal compliance laws and business methods have become increasingly complex.

  • Accounting firms and other employers are requiring CPAs to become increasingly more specialized within the field.

Because many undergraduate programs only require students to complete about 120 credit hours, earning a master's degree can provide additional valuable knowledge that also helps meet the mandated CPA educational requirement. The AICPA recommends earning a master's degree in conjunction with your bachelor's degree when possible, or earning a master's degree in accounting or an MBA after completing your bachelor's program.

How can a master's degree help?

Earning your CPA is a high honor, but it can also be a big challenge. During any given year, only about half of all people who take the CPA will pass it, the AICPA says. Earning a master's degree from an accredited institution can help you prepare for—and pass—the exam.

In a master's program in accounting, for example, you'll take classes covering advanced managerial accounting, advanced tax concepts, advanced auditing, advanced financial accounting, and more. These courses give you the foundation you need to feel ready for the CPA exam while exposing you to different specialties within the field at large.

As you're researching master's programs, don't be afraid to reach out to the ones you're interested in with questions. Let them know that your goal is to take—and pass—the CPA exam. Then sign up and start your journey, and ask faculty members if they have tips or suggestions along the way.

Pretty soon, you'll have your master's degree and your CPA certification, and you'll be well on your way to your dream job.

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