Online Degrees in Accounting

Accountants are the financial minds responsible for the efficient running of businesses around the globe. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), accountants fall into four main categories:

  • Public accountants: These professionals perform a wide range of functions, from helping companies and individuals with taxes to auditing company records to advising companies on financial decisions. Many public accountants hold the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) credential.
  • Management accountants: Typically employed by corporations, these accountants focus on strategic planning, budgeting and analyzing, and disseminating company financial information.
  • Government accountants: These accountants work at all levels of government to help keep financial records for public agencies and ensure compliance with financial regulations. IRS agents also fall into this category.
  • Internal auditors: Employees of businesses and corporations, these accountants check an organization's financial records to look out for fraud and inefficiency. They also make sure bookkeeping is accurate and conforms to company policies and government regulations.

An accounting degree can provide a point of entry into all of these growing career paths.

Choosing the Right Online Accounting Degree

According to the BLS, most accounting positions require at least a bachelor's degree in accounting, and many accountants choose to get additional training to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), which typically requires some coursework beyond the bachelor's degree level as well as a national licensing exam. CPAs generally have better job prospects than other accountants, the BLS reports, and can perform some additional functions, such as filing reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Although an online bachelor's degree is the preferred credential, accounting degrees are available at all levels. A two-year associate degree in accounting could prepare students for entry-level jobs in a corporate accounting department in positions such as accounts payable, payroll or bookkeeping.

Bachelor's and master's degree holders should have a much wider range of job possibilities, and some individuals who pursue graduate accounting degrees may also go on to teach or research in the field.

Students earning accounting degrees take courses in economics, finance, business and mathematics. Specific course titles may include:

  • Cost accounting
  • Accounting theory and research
  • Managerial accounting
  • Federal tax law
  • Microeconomics
  • Business mathematics
  • Business law
  • Forensic accounting

More and more, online degrees in accounting are becoming a popular choice for those who are looking to earn a degree on a flexible schedule. Because many accounting classes focus on mathematical and computer skills, they translate well to the online environment. Additionally, the BLS reports that the use of technology is rapidly growing in accounting jobs as increasingly sophisticated software is used to track financial transactions and organize financial data. Online accounting degrees can help students gain familiarity with the software they'll be using in the business world.

Job Prospects and Accounting Careers

According to the BLS, job prospects for accountants are expected to grow during the next decade. This growth is due to the growing number of businesses within the United States as well as changing financial regulations and accounting standards.

Accounting at a glance:

  • Education: Accounting degrees are available at all levels, but a bachelor's or master's degree is the preferred credential.
  • Specializations: Accounting specializations include public accountancy, tax accountancy, managerial accounting and forensic accountancy.

Healthy finances are the heart of any organization and in order to keep that heart beating, it's imperative to have trained workers with the financial acumen to help a company thrive. The work that accountants do plays a major role in maintaining the financial health of a company, and online associate's degrees in accounting can help prepare students for these vital roles. Course curriculum in these programs emphasizes the skills and knowledge students need to succeed in the profession, and it includes classes in taxation, economics, business law, mathematics, and financial management.

What Does an Associate Degree Program in Accounting Entail?

Students enrolled in an online associate's degree program in accounting can expect to finish their degree in about two years. Coursework in this program is designed to prepare students for the realities of working as an accountant in a variety of organizations. Class curriculum covers essential accounting principles that will train students to track an organization's financial transactions, handle the payroll and taxes of a company, and prepare and interpret financial documents that an organization needs. Examples of course topics include:

  • Introduction to Accounting Principles: Students in this course learn the fundamental principles of the accounting field, as well as the role accounting plays in organizations. Topics in this course include bookkeeping cycles, assets, liabilities, cash, payables and receivables, and corporate partnerships. In addition, students learn about how accounting information is used in organizations. In order to give students hands-on experience with the material, they may be required to create a balance sheet for a hypothetical organization or analyze a financial statement to determine where a company stands financially.
  • Financial Accounting: In the wake of the financial scandals that have occurred in recent years, companies are more conscientious than ever about their accounting practices. This course trains students on the correct ways to handle the finances of an organization, are well as creating financial statements that accurately communicate a company's financial health. Students in the course learn topics such as how cash, receivables, inventory, and payroll should be represented on a financial statement; how to use spreadsheet applications to analyze financial statements; and how accountants process and present financial information on these documents. In addition, students learn about how to handle the liabilities of a company and the accounting practices associated with current liabilities and long-term debt. Students in this class may be required to participate in hands-on exercises like creating a financial statement or writing a case study that predicts a company's financial future based on the information in a financial statement.
  • Managerial Accounting: This class explores the relationship between accounting and managerial decision making. Students in this course learn topics such as financial statement analysis, differential analysis, budgeting concepts, and how the productivity of workers can affect a company's bottom line. In addition, students can also expect to learn about the impact that pricing a company's products has on its finances, how to make sound budgeting decisions, and how to use management accounting systems. Students may be required to analyze financial statements and make recommendations on management decisions based on an organization's finances.
  • Introduction to Economics: Students in this class learn how economic factors influence business. Course topics include the allocation of resources and how it affects consumer behavior, the role that supply and demand plays in making business decisions, and the influence that government policies have on the economy. In addition, this class also covers how factors like unemployment and the cost of living affect the economic health of the country.

Students in accounting associate's degree programs may also be required to take elective accounting courses such as auditing, fraud examination, and taxation. Also, in order to give students a well-rounded perspective, they may be required to take electives outside of program that help them better prepare for the realities of the accounting profession. For example, students who want to sharpen their math skills may take statistics, calculus or algebra, while students who want to enhance their communication skills may take courses such as business writing, interpersonal communication, and public speaking.

Depending on the career that graduates choose to pursue, they may be required to pass a licensing examination in addition to earning an accounting degree. Three examinations that these professionals may take are Certified Public Accountant (CPA), Certified Internal Auditor (CIA), and Certified Management Accountant (CMA) exams.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Associate Degree Programs in Accounting

There are a number of careers available to those who receive an online associate's degree in accounting. One growing job for these graduates is bookkeeping clerk, which, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov), will see a 14 percent increase in available positions between 2010 and 2020. Professionals in these jobs have duties such as receiving and reporting money that comes into a company, creating financial spreadsheets and databases using accounting software, ensuring that financial reports are accurate, and drafting documents such as income statements and balance sheets.

Accounting graduates may also pursue jobs as auditors, which is a profession that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports is also on the rise. In fact, the agency predicts that, between 2010 and 2020, there will be a 16 percent increase in jobs for these professionals. This job entails examining the accuracy of financial statements, ensuring that financial records are prepared in adherence with relevant laws, creating and maintaining financial records, and finding ways for organizations to increase revenue while reducing costs.

In addition, those with associate's degrees in accounting can work as budget analysts, public certified accountants, and government accountants.

The world of business is constantly changing, and in order to thrive in any economy, companies need skilled accountants to help manage their finances. Online bachelor's degrees in accounting help prepare students to make this important contribution to organizations. Core curriculum generally focuses on the fundamentals of working in the accounting field, giving students an understanding of auditing principles, how to manage a company's financial records, and how to make decisions based on a company's financial information.

What Does a Bachelor's Degree Program in Accounting Entail?

Full-time students enrolled in an accounting bachelor's degree program typically finish their degree in four years. The curriculum in these programs is designed to prepare students for the realities of working in the accounting profession, and include coursework in auditing, taxation, financial accounting, and the laws and ethical standards that accountants must adhere to. In addition, students may be required to choose an area of accounting to focus on, such as public accounting, forensic accounting, or managerial accounting. Examples of course topics include:

  • Accounting Principles: This course explores the important role that accountants play in organizations and the best practices they should follow when managing a business's financial information. Students in this course can expect to learn topics such as how to record financial transactions and present that data, and what financial information can be used for. In addition, this course covers fundamental accounting principles such as bookkeeping cycles, assets, liabilities, payroll, stockholder equity, and inventory. In order to give students hands-on experience with the course concepts, they may be required to keep a ledger of financial transactions for a hypothetical company, create a balance sheet, or analyze financial statements.
  • Introduction to Auditing: Students in this course learn about the fundamentals of auditing, why audits are performed, and the role that auditing plays in businesses. Topics covered in the class include the elements of the auditing process, how to design an auditing plan and carry it out, and the tools that are used to perform audits -- such as statistical samples and flowcharts. In addition, students are taught the legal and ethical concerns associated with auditing and the legal liabilities that auditors can face. Real-world classroom activities, such as performing a mock audit, may be required.
  • Business Law: Business law courses give students a look at the laws and rules that govern the accounting profession and how those regulations affect the way companies do their financial business. Subjects covered in this class include torts, contracts, liabilities, intellectual property, legal procedures and processes, legal remedies available to victims of financial crimes, and business transactions. In addition, students are taught the legal principles associated with employee relations in different scenarios -- such as the interviewing, hiring, and firing of employees. In order to give students hands-on experience with the material, they may be asked to analyze a business contract or participate in role playing exercises that highlight the legal ramifications of poor employee management in the workplace.
  • Financial Accounting: In this course, students learn about the use of financial statements and how the information on them can tell a story about an organization's financial health. Topics of this class include how to adjust balances on a financial statement, how information on a financial statement is presented and processed, and the ethical and legal standards that govern how financial statements are prepared. The class also covers key concepts such as cash, receivables, payroll, and inventory. Students may be required to create or interpret a financial statement, create a statement that highlights the cash flow of a company, or keep a financial ledger or journal.

In addition, bachelor's students may be required to take electives designed to fully prepare them for the realities of working in the accounting field. Accounting electives include courses such as managerial accounting, international accounting, state and federal taxation, and accounting information systems. In addition, students may be required to take electives outside of the accounting department, such as marketing, public speaking, mathematics, interpersonal communication, and psychology.

When students finish their bachelor's degree, they may be required to take an accounting licensing examination, depending on the kind of job they want to pursue. Generally, accounting graduates take the Certified Internal Auditor (CIA), Certified Management Accountant (CMA), or Certified Public Accountant (CPA) examinations.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Bachelor's Degree Programs in Accounting

Those who earn an online bachelor's degree in accounting have a number of career options available to them in public and private organizations, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. One profession that these graduates can pursue is accountant and auditor, which, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov), is expected to see a 16 percent increase in jobs between 2010 and 2020. The job duties of accountants and auditors include preparing and analyzing financial records, preparing an organization's tax returns, ensuring that a company's financial records are maintained and accurate, and determining ways an organization can increase its profits.

Another job available to those with accounting degrees is financial analyst, which is also on the rise. Between 2010 and 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects there to be a 23 percent increase in jobs available in this profession. The work of this job involves keeping abreast of markets in order to help organizations make sound investments that will build their portfolios, preparing financial reports, studying an organization's earnings and expenses, and making financial decisions for an organization based on business and economic trends.

In addition to these, accounting graduates may also find work as financial consultants, assurance specialists, risk managers, treasurers, pricing specialists, or controllers.

The laws that govern the way companies do business are constantly changing, so it's important for organizations to hire skilled professionals who can navigate financial regulations. Online master's degrees in accounting help prepare students for these challenging positions. Core curriculum of this program emphasizes accounting theories and principles, as well as fundamental accounting practices -- such as conducting audits, creating and analyzing financial statements, detecting fraud, financial reporting, and using market data to make financial decisions for an organization.

What Does a Master's Degree Program in Accounting Entail?

When enrolled full time, students can expect to complete a master's degree in accounting in about two years. The core curriculum of this program is designed to give students a deep understanding of accounting theory and practice, which will arm them with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in a variety of accounting careers. Students in these programs lean about subjects such as cost accounting, economics, financial analysis and reporting, and business ethics. Examples of course topics include:

  • Forensic Accounting: This course prepares students to investigate financial fraud in an organization. Students in this course can expect to learn about how forensic accounting is applied to both criminal and civil cases, what steps an accountant takes when conducting a fraud examination, how to analyze forensic evidence, and how to report the findings of a forensic examination. In addition, students will learn about the correct procedures for handling cash in order to determine whether or not there are irregularities, and how financial statement fraud occurs. Students may get hands-on experience with class material by conducting their own forensic examination of a hypothetical company or creating a case study on how fraud was investigated in cases involving financial crimes.
  • Principles of Auditing: This course teaches students how to examine financial systems and statements to determine how well an organization is doing financially. Course topics include the role of an auditor, procedures for conducting audits, how to plan an audit and create a report on the information revealed, and what to do when audits go wrong. In addition, students will learn about the legal and ethical standards that auditors are expected to adhere to. In order to give students the experience they need to handle audits in the real world, they may be required to draft an audit report, review financial records of a company to predict what would happen if it was audited, or draft a case study about the audit that an organization underwent.
  • Business Law: Tax law is complex and always evolving, so it's imperative for companies to have knowledgeable professionals handling their tax matters. This class reviews the fundamental laws that apply to businesses, as well as accountants. Material in this course includes contracts, torts, liabilities, commercial business transactions, intellectual property, and fraud. In addition, students in a business law course learn about how laws protect employees of an organization at different stages of the employer-employee relationship -- such as the hiring and firing process. Students may gain first-hand experience of class concepts by drafting a defense against an intellectual property lawsuit or sexual harassment claim, writing different kinds of contracts for a hypothetical business, and constructing a case study about companies that have gone through contract disputes.
  • Taxation: This course gives students an understanding of taxation as it relates to business entities, as well as individuals. Topics in the course include the IRS code, property transactions, gains and losses, interpretations of the tax code, alternative minimum tax, and S corporations. In addition, students are given a global understanding of taxation through topics such as how taxation affects international transactions, how other countries handle taxation, international tax treaties, and how the United States taxes income earned from foreign countries.

In addition, students may be required to choose an area of accounting to concentrate on, such as forensic accounting, taxation, financial accounting, auditing, or governmental accounting. This program may also require students to write a thesis that discusses an accounting research topic, or complete a comprehensive examination that covers material taught throughout the program.

Getting Your Accounting MBA Online

Some schools offer online MBA programs with a specialization in accounting. These programs offer busy professionals another convenient option for advancing both their business and accounting skills while still maintaining their current career and gaining job experience.

Online accounting MBA programs are typically flexible and self-paced. Courses cover the fundamentals of business administration, as well as many of the accounting subjects listed above. With this degree, students can gain the business expertise to get ahead in their current position while learning valuable accounting principles that could lead to an entirely new career.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Master's Degree Programs in Accounting

There are a number of potential career options available for students who earn online master's degrees in accounting. One career graduates can pursue is auditor, which is on the rise, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov/ooh, 2012). In fact, the agency reports that between 2010 and 2020, there should be a 16 percent increase in the amount of new positions for these professionals on a national scale. Jobs duties of auditors include ensuring that an organization's funds are being managed properly and researching ways to eliminate unnecessary spending. In addition, these professionals examine financial statements, keep financial records organized and make recommendations about financial decisions to the organization's leaders.

Another potential career for accounting master's degree graduates is financial manager, which is expected to see national growth of about 10 percent between 2010 and 2020. Professionals in these jobs perform duties such as making financial forecasts, preparing financial statements, keeping abreast of financial trends in order to make business decisions, ensuring that financial information is maintained in accordance with current laws, and supervising employees who create an organization's budgets.

Other available jobs for accounting graduates include chief financial officer, staff accountant, controller and financial consultant.

Graduates should keep in mind that a degree in accounting may not be enough to land some jobs. After earning their master's degree, students may be required to pass a licensing examination, depending on which career they choose to pursue. Accounting graduates can take the Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Certified Internal Auditor (CIA), or Certified Public Accountant (CPA) examinations.

The business world is always evolving, so organizations must keep a vigilant eye on their bottom lines in order to thrive. Online doctoral degrees in accounting help train students to contribute to the financial health of organizations and become leaders in the accounting field. Core curriculum in this program emphasizes the principles that help accounting professionals contribute to the financial strength of an organization, as well as the guidelines used to detect financial fraud in an organization. In addition, doctoral students learn about accounting theories, empirical research in the field, and the methodologies used to conduct academic studies.

What Does a Doctoral Degree Program in Accounting Entail?

Students enrolled in online doctoral degree programs in accounting full time can expect to complete their degrees in about four to six years, depending on the requirements of the program they choose. Those interested in pursuing accounting doctorates have two programs to choose from: a Ph.D. in accounting and a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) with a specialization in accounting. Ph.D. students generally take courses designed to prepare them for academic careers as either college professors or researchers. In order to prepare students for the rigors of an academic career, the curriculum in a Ph.D. program heavily focuses on the theoretical frameworks of the accounting field, the methodologies used to conduct research, and the process of getting papers published in academic journals. On the other hand, DBAs are geared toward preparing students for leadership roles in organizations. Students in this program can expect to take courses that use accounting theory as the foundation for building practical skills needed in the business world. These programs also focus on legal and ethical issues commonly found in organizations, and how accountants can address those problems.

Coursework in these programs is designed to prepare students for the realities of the accounting field. Examples of course topics include:

  • Principles of Microeconomics and Macroeconomics: This course is designed to teach students economic theories and how these concepts have real-word consequences for businesses. Course material includes the allocation of resources in a market economy; how inflation, taxation, and unemployment can affect the growth of businesses; models of consumer behavior and their impact on companies; how to understand fluctuations in the economy and use that data to make business decisions; and the use of cost functions to maximize an organization's profits.
  • Financial Theory: This course discusses the theories that are the underlying principles of financial decision making. Students in this class can expect to learn about valuation theory, asset selection, agency theory, taxation, capital structure, pricing options, pricing theory, and general portfolio theory. In order to give students a deeper understanding of the course material, they may be required to create their own financial theories and support them with original research, critique theories of their colleagues, or write case studies on organizations that explain which financial theories were used to make business decisions.
  • Accounting Research: This course covers the methodologies of accounting research and reviews past and present research in the field. Some of the research topics covered in the course includes financial accounting measures, financial intermediaries, corporate governance, executive compression, taxation, accounting regulations, and debt. In addition, students in this course learn the qualitative and quantitative research methods used in academic studies. Students in this course may be required to conduct their own studies, or to critique seminal research in the field.

Students may also be required to complete a dissertation that includes original research in accounting, or a comprehensive examination that tests on the concepts taught throughout the program.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Doctoral Degree Programs in Accounting

Students who earn doctoral degrees in accounting may be required to become licensed in order to pursue certain careers. Generally, these graduates take the Certified Public Accountant (CPA), Certified Management Accountant (CMA), or Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) licensing examinations.

There are a number of careers available to accounting graduates. One career that those with doctoral degrees in accounting can pursue is senior accountant and auditor. This is a growing career, and, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be a 16 percent increase in jobs for these professionals between 2010 and 2020. Senior accountants and auditors perform job duties such as using past financial data to help organizations create budgets; selecting investments, such as stocks, bonds, and real estate to help build a company's financial portfolio; verifying the information in financial records and ensuring those records are always properly maintained and accurate; preparing an organization's tax returns; and using financial data to help organizations make managerial decisions.

In addition, students who earn a doctoral degree in accounting may go on to become an accounting professor, which allows them to shape the future of the field. Between 2010 and 2020, there will be a 17 percent increase in these jobs, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. This career entails duties such as keeping abreast with the scholarly research in the field by regularly reading journals and attending academic conferences; preparing the curriculum for courses; evaluating students based on tests, writing assignments, and other classwork; participating in committees that make the policies for a college; and conducting scholarly research and writing papers for publication in journals.

Other jobs that accounting graduates can pursue include forensic accountant, chief financial officer, business researcher, controller, and vice president of finance. In addition, people with these degrees may choose to use the business acumen they gain in the program to start their own companies.

"Accountants and Auditors," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 31, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Business-and-Financial/Accountants-and-auditors.htm
"Bookkeeping, Accounting, and Auditing Clerks," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 29, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/office-and-administrative-support/bookkeeping-accounting-and-auditing-clerks.htm
"Bookkeeping Clerk," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 19, 2010, http://www.bls.gov/k12/money04.htm
"Financial Analysts," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 29, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/financial-analysts.htm
"Financial Managers," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 29, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/financial-managers.htm
"Postsecondary Teachers," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 10, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers.htm

As a husband, father, and a corporate trainer who traveled, I knew that the campus experience would be difficult, if not impossible, since I couldn't be sure that I would be in town on a given night each week. Additionally, I had taken an online class during my earlier, mostly on-campus college experience and found that it worked out okay. - Brandon Pipkin 
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