CPA University and College Program Options

Degrees in accounting prepare students to become licensed accountants. These degrees are available at the bachelor's and master's levels. Graduates are prepared to take the CPA examination.

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Essential Information

Program Levels Bachelor's or master's degree
Field(s) of Study Accounting
Prerequisites High school diploma or equivalent; bachelor's degree may be needed for master's degree program' accounting experience required to sit for CPA exam
Online Availability Online programs are available
Program Length 4 years for bachelor's degree; 2 years for master's (some 5-year master's programs are available)
Licensure/Certification State licensure required
Job Outlook (2014-2024) 11% growth
Average Annual Salary (2015) $67,190

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

To become certified public accountants, aspiring CPAs must pass the 4-part Uniform CPA Examination and obtain a state license. Students can qualify to take this exam by completing a bachelor's degree in accounting, although many states require students to have completed at least 150 academic hours, often through a master's degree in accounting. Additionally, a minimum amount of experience in public accounting is required to become a licensed CPA in most states. Bachelor's and master's degree programs in accounting are available to prospective CPAs through several 4-year colleges and universities, business or accounting colleges, or departments.

Bachelor of Science in Accounting

A bachelor's degree in accounting is the entry-level academic credential for a CPA. Many CPA schools offer extended bachelor's degree programs that combine with a master's degree in accounting for students to become CPAs. An accounting bachelor's degree program introduces students to financial processes, tax and legal concepts, business operations, and financial management. An accounting bachelor's degree also prepares students to pass the CPA examination required to obtain certification. To enroll in an accounting bachelor's degree program leading to eligibility for CPA certification, students must have a high school diploma or equivalent. Students must also submit official transcripts and SAT or ACT scores for evaluation.

CPA schools provide courses in general business; law; finance; and basic, intermediate, and advanced accounting. Students learn to create financial reports, understand basic financial processes, and advise organizations or individuals on financial standings. Most programs also offer communication classes. Other courses may include:

  • Cost management
  • Bookkeeping processes
  • Tax preparation
  • Accounting research
  • Financial management
  • Investing

Master of Science in Accounting

Because many states require accountants to have at least 150 academic credits to qualify for the CPA exam, a master's degree in accounting is common among CPAs. Most programs require two years of study and provide students with practical accounting experience in addition to credits toward the CPA requirements. Some programs have specific accounting specializations in corporate accounting or financial management. CPA master's degree programs prepare students to take the state-regulated CPA exam after completing the graduate program.

Students pursuing a master's degree in accounting must have a bachelor's degree from an accredited university. Although the undergraduate degree does not need to be in accounting, students may need to fulfill accounting or business prerequisites prior to enrollment. CPA master's degree programs also require students to submit GRE or GMAT test scores for evaluation.

A master's degree program offers advanced courses in accounting, financial analysis, and business operations. Students learn to analyze complex financial records, documents, and business entities through advanced accounting strategies. In a master's degree program, much of the work is based on research and case studies; students are often required to complete a research-intensive thesis or capstone project prior to graduation. Typical courses include:

  • Advanced managerial accounting
  • Auditing and assurance services
  • Information systems in accounting
  • Financial accounting research and theory
  • Principles of risk management

Employment Outlook and Career Information

According to O*Net Online (, there were approximately 1.3 million accounting jobs in 2014, although not all of these accountants were certified as CPAs. The BLS ( projected opportunities in accounting to grow at 11%, about faster than the average rate for all U.S. jobs from 2014 to 2024. In 2015, accountants and auditors, including CPAs, earned an average annual salary of $67,190 according to the BLS.

Certification and Continuing Education Information

After obtaining a bachelor's degree in accounting, students can seek CPA certification. The CPA requirements for each state vary, and many states require potential CPA candidates to have at least 150 academic credits, which is beyond the standard of 120 credits for a bachelor's degree. Because of this gap, many programs offer extended programs for students seeking CPA certification. If a bachelor's degree does not reach the 150 hours, a master's degree in accounting may be necessary to meet state requirements.

To become a CPA, students must pass a 4-part exam administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Although students do not have to pass all four parts at once, all parts must be completed within 18 months of successfully passing the first part. According to the BLS, the exam is extremely technical, and less than 50% of test-takers pass all four parts on their first attempt. Once CPA certification is obtained, accountants must participate in continuing education programs in accounting and finance to renew and uphold their certification.

Aspiring certified public accountants must earn a Bachelor of Science in Accounting, get many hours of work experience, and pass the four-part Uniform CPA examination.

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