What is a CPA Degree and how do I get one?

A CPA Degree is a reference to the educational requirements needed to become a Certified Public Accountant rather than a specific degree itself. 

To qualify for sitting the CPA exam, and really to prepare adequately for it, you must earn at least 150 credits (semester hours).  However, the standard Bachelor Degree in Accounting only gets you 120 credits, a fact which can sometimes create confusion.  

There are three ways to meet the educational requirements for public accounting certification:

  1. Bachelor Degree in Accounting with additional coursework

  2. Bachelor Degree followed by an MBA with an accounting concentration

  3. Probably the most rigorous, a Bachelor Degree in Accounting followed by a Master in Accounting

Let’s review our three options.

Bachelor Degree in Accounting with Additional Coursework – the CPA Path

When the CPA educational requirements changed from 120 credits to 150, universities were quick to change as well.  Some undergraduate accounting programs now offer two paths of study – traditional and CPA.  The CPA path has additional coursework to make it compatible with the CPA standards.

Generally, students work with an advisor to select the accounting courses that will meet their individual professional and career goals.  

While specific requirements vary by state:

  • about 30 semester hours of accounting courses are required

  • an additional 39 hours (approximately) divided between other business related subject areas like economics, management, statistics, ethics and finance.

In contrast, a traditional Bachelor in Accounting requires 18 semester hours of accounting and roughly 21 semester hours of core business classes.  The standards for CPA candidates are clearly higher.

It’s pretty challenging, but not impossible, to earn 150 credits in your four undergraduate years.   You have a few options to get it done.

  • Advanced Placement Credit – High school students can receive college credit by passing a subject matter exam after an advanced preparation course.  AP credit is given in subjects like History, Biology, and English, and is usually applied to the general education portion of a Bachelor Degree.  If you enter your university with some of your general education requirements satisfied you have more time for additional business and accounting credits within your normal course load.
  • Summer School – Most universities offer courses in the summer.  The selection is limited, however, so this option is best used for those pesky general education requirements or lower level business courses.  The downside is that these courses pack a full semester of learning into a few weeks.  You’ll really have to focus.  Tough to do when your classmates are on vacation.
  • Heavy course load – If you take 20-21 credits most semesters you can earn the required amount in four years.  Not the best option if you want to enjoy your time in college and retain what you learn.  If you go this route, be prepared for stress and anxiety.

 A Bachelor Degree in Accounting along with an MBA – is it a good way to go?

Suppose you have earned your Bachelor Degree in Accounting and just decided you’d like to become a CPA.   Perhaps your original career goals didn’t include public accounting, but you’ve since decided a CPA certification would be a benefit to you professionally?  You may be wondering if an MBA with an accounting concentration makes sense.  It depends on your career preferences.

  • Management - An MBA is a good choice if you  prefer management within industry rather than public accounting.  With an accounting concentration, you will meet the educational requirements and gain the accounting knowledge needed to pass the Uniform Certified Public Accounting Exam.

    In addition to the required 12 – 15 graduate semester hours of accounting, you will also explore the business management and leadership topics which are a core part of every MBA.

    It’s common for top executives to be licensed CPAs due to the competitive advantage this accounting certification provides.  Tying CPA preparation to your MBA makes perfect sense if corporate accounting is your goal.
  • Public Accounting - If your career goal is to become a practicing CPA at one of the top accounting firms, however, an MBA is not your best choice.  For positions like those, a Master in Accounting from a highly regarded university will differentiate you from other candidates.

Master in Accounting – The Gold Standard

If your goal is to pass the CPA Exam on the first attempt and work successfully in public accounting, there is no better way to fulfil your educational requirements than a Master in Accounting at a top ranking business school.  

A Master in Accounting is an intensive graduate program requiring a Bachelor Degree in Accounting or a business related topic for admission. If your Bachelor Degree is in something other than accounting, you will more than likely have to take a few undergraduate accounting courses are prerequisites.

Earning this degree typically requires 12-24 months depending on the curriculum.

Many universities are offering a combined Bachelor (BS) / Masters (MS) program in accounting. This is the CPA Degree of choice.  At a program like this you will move directly from your four undergraduate years directly into a year of graduate work at the same school.  This has advantages.

  • Continuity – Your faculty and peers during your undergraduate years move with you into graduate school.  This is quite a benefit if you’ve made strong working relationships and network connections.
  • Efficiency – These combined programs often waive some of the general educational requirements of other programs, allowing the graduate portion to be completed in only one year. 
  • Academic Quality – These combined programs provide a quality educational foundation and graduate level coursework in five years.  A qualifying undergraduate program can take five years and all the coursework is at an undergrad level.

A Master in Accounting offers a level of professional respect you won’t get from either of the two previous options.   A Certified Public Accountant with a Master in Accounting has a professional advantage over a CPA without one, it’s that simple.

CPA Degree – Summary

Of the three major CPA degree options, a Master in Accounting stands out as the best way to prepare for a successful public accounting career. Combined Bachelor (BS)/ Masters (MS) programs simplify the process and offer the most efficient method for meeting the strict educational requirements of your State Board of Accountancy while preserving your ability to enjoy your college experience.