Online Master's in Accounting: Preparation for More than a CPA Exam

By Ysobel Croix

If anything highlights the need for well-educated accountants, it's the change in legislation and financial practices that has been driven by developing technology and global business in the last decade. In 2002, a piece of legislation written by Senator Paul Sarbanes and Representative Michael Oxley created new financial reporting responsibilities and a host of other auditing requirements that created a great need for knowledgeable accountants. In 2008, the International Accounting Standards Board and the Financial Accounting Standards Board began working to reform international financial reporting standards (IFRS) in the United States. By October 2010, around 120 countries had replaced their local regulations with IFRS, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission was considering doing the same in the United States. Some accounting schools are already including IFRS in their curriculum in anticipation of these changes.

Even at the state level, a 124-credit bachelor's degree in accounting is not enough education to become licensed as a certified public accountant (CPAs). The majority of states require a bachelor's degree in accounting with a minimum of 150 semester hours; some states specifically require a certain number of hours in upper-division accounting courses and additional business courses.

One convenient way to get these additional semester hours and get up-to-date on changes to legislation and accounting technology and practices is to enroll in an online grad school. Future CPAs can get an online master's in accounting, often abbreviated to MAC or MAcc, or opt for a master's of business administration (MBA) program with a concentration in accounting. Accountants who wish to sit for a CPA exam in their state should ensure their online master's degree is from an accredited institution if their state has such a requirement.

Graduate Degrees in Accounting: Specializations and Coursework

Most students who apply to master's degree programs in accounting have completed their undergraduate degree in accounting. For those who have not, some schools have a non-accounting track that provides foundation courses, and other schools require that applicants consider taking the following courses prior to applying to a graduate-level program:

  • Accounting principles
  • Intermediate accounting
  • Managerial accounting
  • Cost accounting
  • Taxation

If it has been five years since the applicant last took an accounting class some schools may require a refresher accounting principles class. Generally, an online master's in accounting can take two years of full-time study. Some schools offer accelerated programs that allow students to take courses year-round, instead of taking off summers as students typically do in brick-and-mortar graduate schools.

Specializations in Accounting

With so many types of organizations and businesses that require accountants and the variety of financial transactions that accountants manage, it's typical for accountants to become specialized in their careers. Some online master's degree programs allow students to choose an accounting concentration, such as:

  • Auditing and assurance
  • International accounting
  • Taxation

Additionally, many online schools will allow students to create a custom program from choosing among a variety of elective courses and in some cases arranging graduate-level independent study with a particular professor.

Typical Coursework for Accounting Degrees

In general, the curriculum for a master's degree in accounting is designed to prepare students for the CPA exam and accounting careers in a variety of sectors, including non-profit, public and government. Some programs include business education, which includes courses in economics, law and ethics. Students with an undergraduate degree in business may have some of these requirements waived, depending on the school's policy. The following courses are representative of courses found in online master's degree programs in accounting:

  • Advanced accounting theory
  • Advanced accounting information systems
  • Controllership
  • Corporate financial reporting
  • eCommerce accounting
  • Federal income tax
  • Financial accounting research
  • Financial statement analysis
  • Forensic accounting
  • Fund accounting
  • Real estate taxation

Accounting Careers and Salaries

People who earn a master's degree in accounting may find employment in one of these occupations and earn a similar average annual salary, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for May 2009:

  • Accountants and auditors, $67,430
  • Budget analyst, $69,240
  • Financial managers, such as controllers, $113,730

Accounting is a practice that is absolutely required of businesses today, and technology is changing the complexity of this career. With so much emerging knowledge available and with the differences in licensing requirements between states, people considering a graduate-level degree in accounting may want to research and select online degree programs that will allow them to make the most of their previous education, while providing the best opportunities for their future careers.

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