Online Master’s in Accounting From Selecting a Program to Advancing Your Career

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Every accountant follows a different path to career success. Some begin with a bachelor’s degree and climb the ranks through networking and experience. Others lean more heavily on higher education, earning a master’s or doctorate to add new knowledge and skills to their professional toolboxes. The following guide traces the journey of the advanced online student – the current or future accountant who wants a master’s in the field, yet needs the flexibility of online learning to make it happen. But who offers master’s degrees in accounting online? Is one right for you? Does a master’s mean more money? Let’s answer these questions – and many more – by analyzing the colleges, looking inside the programs, and hearing from the students who have made the online accounting master’s their tool for achieving a higher salary and a healthier career.

Every accountant follows a different path to career success. Some begin with a bachelor’s degree and climb the ranks through networking and experience. Others lean more heavily on higher education, earning a master’s or doctorate to add new knowledge and skills to their professional toolboxes. The following guide traces the journey of the advanced online student – the current or future accountant who wants a master’s in the field, yet needs the flexibility of online learning to make it happen. But who offers master’s degrees in accounting online? Is one right for you? Does a master’s mean more money? Let’s answer these questions – and many more – by analyzing the colleges, looking inside the programs, and hearing from the students who have made the online accounting master’s their tool for achieving a higher salary and a healthier career.

Inside the Online Accounting Master’s Degree

Online master’s degrees in accounting offer students a convenient way to earn an advanced credential in a challenging field. Some online accounting master’s use an asynchronous (self-paced) format, which allows students to submit coursework and take exams on their own time – although some deadlines may exist to ensure the student moves forward. The alternative synchronous format gives students the convenience of online learning but with regular, real-time interaction with peers via email, phone and chat. This helps to preserve much of the true “college feel” that some students enjoy.

Regardless of format, students need to be aware of and understand what to look for when it comes to an online program in accounting, especially at the master’s level. Graduate degrees come with added rigor, and those looking to move up the professional ladder have elements to keep top-of-mind when researching programs. Let’s take a look at four important components of an online master’s in accounting:

CPA prep

Earning a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) credential is a common goal for many advanced accounting students. Some online programs make it a point to include CPA exam prep as part of their curriculum, or at least as a primary option. If you want to become a tax accountant and earn a CPA license, make sure the program you choose has the proper training opportunity.

Faculty with professional accounting experience

Students earn an online master’s in accounting in an academic setting. However, many consider the degree more professional in nature, meaning that students usually have moderate work experience prior to enrolling in the program. Therefore, it’s important to make sure the faculty within your desired program have years of professional experience under their belts, as well. Business schools and accounting departments across the country actively hire professors who have worked as CPAs, CMAs, controllers, audit managers, and more for small business, major corporations and the government. In addition to helping students apply theoretical knowledge to practical situations, professors with real-world experience can help students land internships and gain entry to professional organizations. At AIB College of Business in Iowa, all faculty members worked as accountants or auditors before entering academia.

Advanced accounting resources

Some master’s in accountancy involve a heavy dose of information systems and information technology. Why? Many accountants and CPAs use advanced software systems to organize, track and report financials for various clients and companies. Top online master’s programs in the field give students access to the latest tech to ensure they can both use the necessary resources in the real-world, and manage teams of people who use it on a regular basis. Examples include QuickBooks Pro, Sage 50, Intacct and Xero.

Accounting degree & career counseling

Accounting offers a wider range of degree and career options than many people realize. Before enrolling in an online master’s program, prospective accounting students may want to discuss degree and concentration options with an academic counselor to better understand the opportunities available. And after enrollment, those same students may want to go over career direction with a counselor who knows the professional landscape well. Having a solid grasp of the choices in front of you is key.

These four characteristics represent some of the “big picture” elements that advanced online accounting students need to think about when researching programs. However, choosing the right program should also include taking a more detailed look at its courses and key milestones.

Concentrations & Coursework

Understanding some of the vital components of an online accounting master’s can make a world of difference. If you want to earn a CPA credential, find a program that helps you prepare for the exam. Before enrolling at a college or university, however, it’s equally as important to understand how specialization works. For example, some accounting students may want to progress down an educational path that leads to a career in auditing, while others may gravitate toward a degree and career in taxation. Let’s examine four of today’s most popular accounting concentrations and see a few possible paths graduates of these specializations can take:

Auditing

In its most basic form, this wing of accounting focuses on the assurance and integrity of financial data and information. Basic topics include principles of the audit, auditing and ethics, and auditing research methods. After the introductory phase, students often dive into forensic accounting, which concentrates on the investigative side of auditing and its use to support litigation, law enforcement and risk assessment. Master’s students in auditing might earn the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) credential after graduation.

  • Auditor

    Reviews financial records for individuals, corporations and/or government agencies to ensure all business practices follow federal, state and local tax laws and regulations.

  • Auditing Manager

    Oversees or manages the auditing process at a company or organization. Might lead a team or full division of auditors conducting a wide range of assessments.

  • Fraud Examiner

    Resides on the investigative or law enforcement side of auditing. Corporations may hire fraud examiners to conduct internal investigations looking for embezzlement. Government agencies, such as the IRS or FBI, might hire them to contribute to external investigations.

Finance

A broader concentration than auditing, the accounting/finance dual degree can be longer in duration than other options because it covers a wider range of material. These online master’s programs include classes such as cost analysis, evaluating financial records, budgeting, auditing and more. Students who know they want the advanced education but want something more general in nature may opt for the accounting/finance option. Graduates can go on to earn a variety of credentials – CPA, CFE, CMA – to bolster their careers.

  • Financial Analyst

    Makes recommendations regarding investment opportunities and money-saving strategies. May work for companies such as banks, financial firms or as independent advisors.

  • Financial Manager

    Sets the long-term financial goals of an organization. Provides advice and support on financial matters and directs investment opportunities.

  • Budget Analyst

    Reviews new budgets for approval and looks for ways to increase profits and efficiency. In nonprofit or governmental roles, may also work to distribute funds to affiliated programs or within departments.

MBA

Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) means business, literally. When coupled with accounting, it involves the management of accounting and financial enterprises, such as portfolio management, capital budgeting, team development, management techniques, and more. MBA/Accounting graduates often move into leadership positions such as business/finance executive, controller or chief financial officer (CFO). Some may earn the CPA credential, as well.

  • Chief Auditor

    Establishes policies and procedures that ensure the quality of the assurance services is maintained in accordance with the company or organization’s objectives and policies. Supervises and manages all internal auditing activity and reports findings to senior management.

  • Chief Financial Officer

    Manages a company’s financial risks and reports directly to the chief executive officer or board of directors. Handles the financial planning, record keeping and reporting duties. Might also sit on the board of directors themselves.

  • CONTROLLER

    The working manager of an accounting department. Responsible for managing bookkeeping, handling payroll, preparing financial statements and implementing financial and accounting systems.

Taxation

Accounting programs focused on taxation delve into the intricacies of IRS tax codes and regulations. Coursework covers the application of tax codes to individuals, small business and corporations, and includes special topics such as estates, trusts, gifts, special exemptions, income and more. Many students graduate with extensive and well-rounded knowledge of tax regulations and go on to earn the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) credential.

  • Tax Accountant

    Prepares tax returns on the federal, state or local levels for individuals, organizations and business. Calculates earnings and files documentation. Might work as a public accountant handling multiple clients.

  • Tax Attorney

    May handle issues for companies, individuals and organizations when they are in the process of being audited by the IRS. May also prepare and file tax returns and aid companies in identifying possible deductions.

  • Tax Reviewer

    Analyses tax returns and helps to identify taxes owed. Can also conduct audits and may work to collect past due tax payments.

Seeing the specializations provides a big-picture glimpse at a program’s curriculum and helps students narrow down their choices. Another way to glean valuable insight is by exploring an accounting department’s masters course list. Here you can see which classes it offers, what it entails and, in some cases, how it contributes to the completion of your degree. The following table breaks down real courses from a handful of accounting master’s programs across the U.S.:

Responsibilities of an Accounting Professional

This course covers foundations of the accounting profession, an auditor’s role in serving the public, accounting’s cultural significance as well as regulatory systems. Technology used within the profession will be touched upon. Students learn to seek out and apply new information pertinent to the accounting profession that allows them to continually strive for professional development.

Contemporary Financial Accounting Issues

Major financial issues are covered, such as conceptual framework, standards-setting practices and accounting in contracts. Students study agency theoretic perspective on managerial behavior used to evaluate accounting standards. They also learn about fair values and derivatives accounting and corporate governance issues.

Forensic Accounting and Securities Fraud

Investigations of fraudulent behavior and their detection serves as the foundation of this course. Students learn to detect fraudulent activity and misleading financial statements and to set forth internal controls that deter such activity. Other topics include accounting controls, regulatory issues and the ramifications of fraudulent behavior in corporate environments.

Research for Accounting Professionals

Students learn the skills necessary to effectively research, analyze and communicate advanced financial reporting and auditing. They gain the knowledge of how to gather and put to best use resources to implement research strategies. Evaluation of resources that include authoritative literature are included in the course material.

Gift and Estate Taxation

Gift and estate taxation, including applicable property law concepts, will be reviewed. Students learn to calculate gift and estate tax liabilities and to plan to help individuals reduce transfer tax liabilities. General laws regarding taxation of trusts and estates are covered, as are what constitutes taxable vs. nontaxable gifts.

Enterprise Resource Planning Systems

The analysis of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and how they work within organizations is the focus of this course. Studies are focused on how organizations integrate information flow through a variety of functions. Students learn about ERP systems in depth, examining individual systems and evaluating implementation strategy.

Effective Communication for the Accountant

Learning to effectively communicate with both peers and clients, students of this course also gain the knowledge necessary to develop and write papers, communicate with managers and prepare and present white papers. The course should also help to develop critical thinking and scholarly writing.

Current Trends in Accounting Standards

Investigation and review of current and new accounting issues serve as the focus of this course. Students may gain the skills needed to anticipate changes in standards, analyze possible impacts of these changes and make recommendations to management based on their findings. Sources like the Financial Accounting Standards Board, International Accounting Standards Board and Securities and Exchange Commission will be discussed.

International Perspectives in Accounting

Accounting for importers/exporters and multinational corporations as well as international standards for accounting are examined in this course. Students study exchange rates and markets, economy accounting and international taxation in regard to international organizations and their financial statements. Finally, students evaluate international accounting harmonization in an effort to gain understanding of comparability in international financial statements.

The Online Accounting Master’s Timeline

Every online student’s reason for pursuing a master’s in accounting is different. Some need to balance school with work and family. Others just want the flexibility to learn and study when and where they see fit. Regardless of the reason, knowing where to start and how to finish is key. This timeline looks at the essential steps to earning an online master’s in accounting, from preparing your application materials to entering (or re-entering) the workforce after graduation.

Year 0

Applying to an online program can seem a tough task, and a master’s degree in accounting is no different. Following each step to the letter can mean the difference between on-time enrollment and better luck next year. Of course, standards and deadlines vary from college to college (and even from department to department), so conducting thorough research and taking careful notes on the “must-haves” is critical. Also, don’t forget that graduate admissions tend to be more competitive than at the undergraduate level, so requirements tend to be steeper. For example, an accounting master’s program might require essays, letters of recommendation, and in-person interviews (or Skype for online programs), in addition to standard vetting of grades and test scores. With all this firmly in mind, use the following list to your advantage when applying:

Make sure online learning is right for you. For example, you may have earned your bachelor’s in accounting on campus, but now want to earn your master’s online. Most colleges have quick tools to assess fit

Mark important deadlines on your calendar, especially test dates and final dates to submit key items to the college

Research financing options. Not all online accounting programs, especially at the master’s level, have the same price tags. Talk to a financial advisor, your family, your company and all other appropriate parties

Contact any prior colleges you attend and arrange for delivery of official transcripts to the accounting departments to which you apply

Contact standardized testing firms to request scores be forwarded

Touch base with professors, employers or other accounting professionals who can provide a letter of recommendation. Although some colleges and universities look primarily at GPA and test scores, glowing recommendations from accountants and accounting educators can go a long way

Complete all essays and submit all materials by the deadline. No exceptions!

Year 1

The initial year of an online accounting master’s often focuses on the basic program requirements. All students might take preliminary courses such as Advanced Accounting Methods or Accounting Information and Technology. These courses generally apply to all specializations and therefore take place early on. As the year progresses, however, students can start to think about concentration/specialization. For those who already have a specialty in mind, the end of year one is a great time to take courses along those lines. It’s also the perfect time to make sure you understand graduation requirements in full to avoid spending extra time and money.

Year 2

Students should have decided (or come close to deciding) on a specialty, whether auditing, taxation, forensic accounting, corporate accounting or another. In addition to increased specialization, year two also brings the first steps toward graduation. This may start with lining up internships or apprenticeships to ease the college-to-corporate transition. It can also include taking and finishing courses related to a graduate project or thesis, which students may need to present to a thesis committee or other panel of professionals. It’s important to note that some programs may run longer than two years, such as certain MBA/Accounting combinations. However, some accelerated master’s may be shorter (assuming full-time study).

From the Source: Two Grads Talk Online MSA

Trevor Murphy and Kitty Miller of Boston have spent years poring over numbers in school together and say they are now reaping the benefits of that hard work. The friends earned their undergraduate degrees from Babson College in May 2013 and then decided to go back for more by enrolling in an online MSA program. A mere three months later, both walked out with graduate degrees in hand.

Today, Murphy is a Risk Assurance Experienced Associate at a Big 4 investment firm, and Miller works in assurance. They provide this insider advice to students planning to earn an online master’s degree in accounting:

Use the online MSA as an opportunity to prepare for the CPA Exam.

“Although the courses in each MSA program may vary, the subject matter—at its core—will still be highly relatable to the content of the CPA exam,” explains Miller.

Since there can be overlap between a student’s MSA exams and the CPA exam, study time in an online master’s program can do double duty as CPA prep. It may even allow students to complete one or two CPA exams while still in school.

“Once you begin in the working world, you will find it an arduous task to study and take the exams—they are the last thing you want to worry about after a day at the office!” notes Murphy.

Take advantage of resources and networking opportunities.

Murphy and Miller say graduate programs are a prime time to making lasting connections with students and professors, and the opportunity shouldn’t be squandered.

“While most of your undergraduate accounting courses probably contained familiar faces, online MSA programs oftentimes gather students from various undergraduate backgrounds and locations – even international,” says Murphy.

Miller adds, “Your professors in the online MSA program likely have a wide variety of experience in industry—especially accounting—so you will be able to leverage their knowledge and connections to gain more from your time in the program.”

Do not underestimate the value of an online MSA degree.

“Some people view online MSA programs as merely an opportunity to reach that 150 credit hour requirement for the CPA exam—but it is so much more valuable!” says Miller.

Murphy explains, “The depth and breadth are both unmatched. The courses offered at the MSA level are specialized in their approach and contain unique perspectives that just cannot be achieved through a typical undergraduate class.”

That level of specialized education means MSA degree holders may have flexibility in their career path that is not always available to others in the field. A graduate degree may mean a professional is free to work in public accounting, such as pursuing jobs at a Big 4 or regional firm, or choose to focus on the private, government or education fields.

Online programs offer flexibility and rigor.

“Enrolling in an online MSA program from a good school affords so many opportunities,” says Miller. “Having both time and place flexibility when it comes to coursework, exams and other projects made earning the degree so much more manageable. I could balance a part-time job, maintain the house and study, all without sacrificing too much personal time.”

Murphy adds, “The online program wasn’t easy, by any means. The amount of studying and prep was very extensive and indicative of a rigorous campus-based program. I definitely had to stretch my limits, and the flexibility of the program helped.”

The Online Accounting Master’s and Money

The cost of college weighs on the minds of many prospective students. Can I afford to earn my master’s? What sources of funding are available? These are great questions and, on the surface, the answers may seem unclear. However, a quick look at the numbers indicates not only that online master’s degrees in accounting can be affordable upfront, but they can also yield a nice return on investment (ROI) down the road. Let’s see how cost and salary for a program might compare.

Weighing the Costs

Tuition lies at the center of the master’s degree cost analysis. Some accounting programs charge tuition by the quarter or semester, others by the credit. Tuition can also vary by type of institution, with public universities likely on the lower end of the spectrum, and private schools coming with slightly higher price tags. When vetting online accounting master’s programs, however, it’s important to look at long-term cost. For example, if a degree program runs $300 per credit, and it takes 60 credits to graduate, that’s $18,000 – simple math for an accountant. Yet to fully understand the finances involved, creating a full budget — one that includes tuition, fees, room & board and other living expenses – is key. This holds true for both campus-based and online students seeking a master’s in accounting.

The Payoff

Earning an online master’s in accounting doesn’t guarantee a higher wage, but it can make job seekers far more marketable. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that some employers prefer to hire applicants with a master’s in accounting, or with a master’s in business administration with a specialization in accounting. An advanced degree signals more extensive knowledge and skills, and therefore can reduce the barrier to both employment and higher wages. Here’s how salaries for accountants stacked up in 2013:

Top 10 % $110,510
Median (50%) $63,550
Bottom 10% $39,930

Further evidence of higher salaries for accounting master’s holders lies in a pair of studies conducted at colleges. In 2014, the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill reported that students earn from $60,200 – $77,000 annually during the first three years after graduation from their four-year accounting program. By years five through seven, salaries increase to $91,000 – $126,500 for those with the accounting master’s. According to a study conducted by Georgetown University in 2011, accountants with just a bachelor’s degree in the field earned a median wage of $63,000 per year in 2010, $3,000 more than the median for all business-related occupations. Yet accountants who held a master’s degree earned an estimated $86,310 per year, 37% higher than those who stopped at a bachelor’s.

Golden Opportunity

Only 27% of accountants have a master’s degree

27%

Accountants with master’s earn 37% more money, on average

37%

Growth Industries in Accounting

The government expects 13% growth in accounting as a whole from 2012 – 2022. While in line with the rest of the business sector, and 2% higher than all other occupations combined, some industries are slated to hire accountants at a much higher rate. Students who graduate with an online master’s in accounting may find the healthiest job prospects (or advancement opportunities) in these areas:

Industry
Growth in Accountant Hiring
Administrative support services
28%
Construction
27%
Health care
26%
Funds and trusts
26%
Security and commodities
26%
Professional & technical services
22%

Surprising Paths for the Accounting Master’s

Budget, controller, CFO and similar careers may reside slightly off the traditional accounting path, but remain within the overall finance and business landscape. In other words, accounting degree holders don’t need to stretch their imaginations to see how their advanced educations dovetail with these careers. Yet many students and young professionals may not be aware of opportunities that lie one, two or even three concentric circles outside the norm. These professional paths involve finance and accounting in some capacity, but in ways often overlooked. Let’s take a look at three creative ways to apply an online master’s in accounting:

  • Fraud Investigation

    Government agencies and organizations such as the FBI and IRS employ accountants as special agents to conduct or assist with criminal investigations, most surrounding tax fraud and embezzlement. Agents need to pass all the necessary written, physical and psychological exams to qualify to become agents, but still exercise the knowledge and skills they learned while in school. While a master’s may not be required, it can help candidates demonstrate ability to recruiters.

  • Ballot Tabulation and Processing

    Each election cycle, U.S. citizens cast millions of votes for thousands of local, state and national political and judicial candidates. The processing and tabulation of these votes requires extreme accuracy, something exercised routinely by accountants and auditors. Outside of politics, companies such as Deloitte and Touche handle the voting for the Academy Awards, the Heisman Trophy foundation and other entertainment- and sport-related balloting.

  • International Accountant

    While not quite as surprising as the others, it’s definitely worth mentioning. International accountants may work with companies, organizations and international government to help ensure financials meet one or multiple unique sets of laws and regulations. These accountants may work within a single foreign country, or travel to multiple countries as a sort of “globe-trotting” accounting consultant. Complementary education and experience in international business and foreign languages could be key here.

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