Is An Associate Degree In Accounting Wasting Your Time?

An Associate Degree in Accounting is the gateway to an accounting career according to the advertisements. 

Students are promised a job in the competitive accounting field after only two years of study at a local community college or trade school.   Great promises, but does this degree deliver?

A competitive job market and the growing educational requirements within the field of accounting itself limit the usefulness of an associate degree.  While education is never a waste of time, the results you are promised are difficult to achieve.

Competition is Fierce

Accounting is a growing career field.  The recent financial crisis and resulting increase in governmental regulation and audit requirements mean organizations are bulking up their accounting staff.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act alone added layers of checks and balances to normal accounting procedure.  For the average mid-size business this can create one to three entry level accounting positions.

It's not all good news, however.  

The recent financial crisis also increased the volume of applicants looking for those one to three positions. In the past, if you had an Associate degree you were well qualified for work as an accounting clerk, payroll assistant, or bookkeeper in a small to mid-size company.

Your degree differentiated you from other applicants.  But this is no longer the case.

Only the smallest organizations, with - not surprisingly - the smallest budgets, fill entry level accounting positions with people who have an associate degree in accounting alone.  With several years of experience and great references an Associate degree is received more positively.  Organizations of any significant size require a Bachelor degree for even their entry level accounting positions.  

If This Is True, Why Even Pursue A Two Year Accounting Degree?

Seems dismal, doesn’t it?  It can look that way if you were promised an exciting career on the merits of an associate degree in accounting alone.  Still, it’s not all bad news.  There are circumstances where considering this degree makes good sense.

  • You’re already in an entry level accounting position – Maybe you started your career in an administrative role years ago.  Over time the organization you’re with has grown and you’ve been promoted into an accounting role.  Now your career is stalled.  An associate degree may be just the thing to improve your skills and show your employer that you are ready for more challenge. 
  • You’re a small business owner – Small business owners are the chief financial officers for their business.  If you own a small business, you need a solid financial foundation to build upon.   An associate degree provides just that.
  •  Your educational funds are limited – Universities are expensive.   Even small public institutions can be cost prohibitive, especially if you are opposed to student loans.  Spending your first two years at a local community college is cost effective.  The credits you earn now will transfer to most public and some private universities and will apply toward your Bachelor degree.
  • You’re a displaced worker – Was your job recently eliminated?  If so, many states have displaced worker programs that will pay for your education.  These programs are limited to a two year degree, but are a great way to make a career change.  To take full advantage of the program, you must register and graduate with an Associate degree.

An Associate Degree In Accounting Gives You A Practical Foundation

Studying accounting in a two year degree program give you a practical business foundation for the rest of your career.  You will learn basic accounting skills and be introduced to cost accounting and taxation.  You will spend time working with payroll accounting and financial statement analysis.  You will also study basic business law, statistics, and general management topics.

The best two year programs focus on accounting software and information systems.  It’s important that you become comfortable with software such as QuickBooks, Peachtree Accounting, or even more sophisticated systems like Great Plains or SAP.  If you are a skilled with the software commonly used for bookkeeping, you will have an advantage on the job market. 

One of the best ways to maximize the benefit of your degree is to get practical experience while you are in school.  An internship or work/study placement is a great way to learn about the day to day experience of a bookkeeper or accounting clerk.  These experiences also improve your resume.

What School Should You Choose?

While there are correspondence and trade schools offering an Associate Degree in Accounting, these are not the best options for a student who is serious about a career in accounting.  The academic standards tend to be low and the curriculum is not as closely regulated as other options. 

Many communities are close to an accredited junior or community college.  Normally public, these institutions typically offer a sound basic education at an affordable cost.  Since they are publically funded, you may find your city offers a reduced tuition rate for residents who attend.  

Unlike Universities with full time faculty, community colleges are often staffed with local professionals who function as associate instructors.  Your Federal Taxation course, for instance, may be taught by a local IRS Case Auditor or tax attorney.  Your cost accounting professor may be a retired CFO from a local corporation. 

These professors bring their expertise and experience into the classroom, giving your education a very practical component.

In addition to the community college option, consider completing your coursework through an online college. Online colleges and universities like University of Phoenix or DeVry University offer associate level courses as a part of their substantial online curriculum.

The online option is very convenient if you work full time and fits in nicely with the time requirements of family. Online institutions are just as expensive as traditional universities, though, so the convenience of this option comes at a price.

Associate Degree in Accounting – A Summary

An Associate Degree in Accounting is a good use of your time, as long as your expectations are realistic.  Increasing your knowledge makes you more valuable to your (or any) employer.  While this degree won’t give you an advantage over the candidates with higher degrees who are trying for the same positions, it is far from a waste of time.

The foundational business knowledge you gain will serve you in just about any future employment situation, the credits are applicable to future degrees and the confidence and sense of achievement you gain from graduation will set you on the path to success.