A career as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) can be both financially lucrative and professionally fulfilling. In fact, U.S. News and World Report recently ranked CPA sixteenth in a profile of the “100 Best Jobs.” With high marks for personal satisfaction, job security and future growth, as well as average salary of $73,800, it should come as no surprise that a career as a CPA is appealing to many people.
With the growth of online education in recent years, there has been increased interest in meeting CPA exam requirements through the pursuit of an online accounting degree or certificate. Depending on whether you have obtained a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, you have different options for pursuing education online that will prepare you for the CPA exam.
While myths persist in some circles that a master’s degree in accounting or finance is necessary to become a CPA, the truth is that nearly all states require one of two academic paths, and both require only a bachelor’s degree, a goal that, increasingly, can be attained through online accounting degree programs.
Essentially, becoming a CPA, whether by traditional or online academic paths, crystallizes to what some refer to as the “three E’s.” The first “E” is, of course, education. The second is “examination.” And the third is “experience.”
The education aspect of becoming a CPA involves choosing between two approaches. A regionally accredited bachelor’s degree in accounting that includes 150 semester credits is the most direct educational route. In Oregon, for the 150 semester credits, 24 of those must be in business-related subjects such as business administration, law, economics, finance communication, and 24 of the semester credits must be in accounting. These are common requirements, but each student should check with their State Board of Accountancy. Students can choose to complete their bachelor’s degree through an online accounting degree program or through traditional in-class learning.
For those who have not earned a bachelor’s degree, there are numerous colleges and universities that offer accounting degrees online. As is the case in face-to-face learning, educators who teach online courses have great latitude in designing courses that are uniquely their own, customizing the approach to fit the material and employing new technologies—such as blogs, chat rooms, discussion boards, websites, streaming video, or podcasts—to engage and inspire their students.
However, since many bachelor’s degrees in accounting are conferred before the completion of 150 semester credits, supplemental coursework is often necessary. For students short of 150 semester units, or for those students who have earned a bachelor’s degree in an area of study outside of accounting, supplemental coursework requirements can be met through the completion of a regionally accredited post baccalaureate accounting certificate. Though some choose to pursue their certificate in a traditional in-class setting, many students today are opting to earn their accounting certificate online.
When deciding whether to pursue an online accounting degree or certificate to prepare for the Uniform CPA Exam, it’s important to consider whether you have the capacity to be a successful online and self-directed learner. Online learning is a little different than classroom learning. You must organize and structure your time. You are the seeker of information. Participation is not optional. The advantages of taking classes online are the flexibility and ease of access.
Once the education requirements have been met, the pursuit of an online accounting degree or certification continues with the second “E,” the examination phase. The CPA exam, or Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination, is required by all state boards of accountancy in the United States. The Uniform CPA Exam consists of four distinct sections:
- Auditing and Attestation
- Financial Accounting and Reporting
- Business Environment and Concepts
The sections can be completed separately, but all four must be completed within an 18-month time frame. Despite the prevalence of online accounting degree programs, there is currently no online-based Uniform CPA Exam; the exam must be taken only at approved testing facilities.
Prior to taking the exam, it can be tremendously helpful to review the CPA exam site, which includes CPA exam requirements, tutorials, and sample tests that can be taken online, as well as visiting your state board of accountancy for a full list of state-specific requirements to sit for the CPA exam.
After the completion of the required education and examination, prospective CPAs are left but with one step to certification, the third “E” of experience. In order to become a CPA in most U.S. states and jurisdictions, one must meet strict experience-based requirements that vary by state but can include all of the following:
- Working under the supervision of a CPA in good standing who has been licensed to practice, in any state, for a period of five years or more.
- Creating a portfolio that demonstrates experience and proficiency in fundamental areas of competency.
- Passing an Ethics examination that establishes an understanding of the Code of Professional Conduct expected in the accounting field.
After completing the “three E’s,” prospective CPAs are eligible to apply for an accounting license, a process overseen at the state level by each state’s board of accountancy. For more detailed information from each jurisdiction and/or state, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy can be an invaluable resource.
Whether you choose to pursue an online accounting degree or prefer a traditional in-class format, becoming a CPA can be a great start toward a rewarding career.