Online Associate's Degree in Accounting: An All-inclusive Guide

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Accounting is a rapidly growing industry with lots of room for growth. Beyond the stereotype of bookish people hiding behind calculators and dusty ledgers, accountants are an integral part of the business community. Without accountants, many firms would not be able to conduct or record the basic transactions needed to make money. In a recent survey of employers, the NACE found that 54% of employers look to hire an accountant soon.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that in the next 10 years, the industry will experience an 11% growth.

The first route to getting into accounting is through a bachelor’s degree and then getting a job (sounds simple enough). But because of the way schools are set up an alternate route is through an associate’s degree. An associate’s degree program is two years of school and approximately 60 credit hours. An associate’s degree is equivalent to the first two years of a full four-year program, and having the degree enables students to transfer into a four-year program.

Associate’s degree programs can be taken online or at a local community college. In fact, this is the best option for students looking to save a few dollars in their education. In addition to community college programs costing significantly less than a traditional four-year program, students can stay locally and save on commuting, moving, and on-campus living expenses.  It’s the most flexible option for students that have work or family obligations.

So, what kind of an accounting job are you going to get with an associate’s degree? For public accounting—a basic one. You’re not going to end up a director or a partner with just an associate’s degree. Because graduates entering the industry typically have at LEAST a bachelor’s degree if not a master’s degree, an associate’s degree is simply not as competitive. Honestly speaking, an associate’s degree in accounting is a starting point. It may enable you to obtain some basic entry-level accounting jobs like payroll assistants, or bookkeepers, and you may be able to tough it out at a company and slowly work your way up the ranks. Thanks to the education requirements for better paying jobs, you will need to continue your education and get at least a bachelor’s degree to continue moving upwards.

Lucky for you, we have lots of guides on how to continue your education.

What to look for in an Online Associate’s Degree

There are a lot of online programs out there, but how do you know what’s a good fit for you? In this section we provide some tips on what to look for in an associate’s degree program.

Accreditation

Accreditation is something you’ll hear about a lot in guides to online schools, and if the school is doing things right, once you hear it once you won’t ever hear about it again. Accreditation is a form of certification given to higher education institutions. These credentials act as a stamp of approval, indicating that the school meets certain standards in its teaching methods, facilities, faculty, curriculum programs, and more. If a school has good accreditation, you won’t notice. A well accredited school will offer competitive education that will allow you to succeed. If a school doesn’t have good accreditation, you WILL notice. Classes may be poorly attended, the material dated and obsolete. Lack of accreditation is an indicator that the school may not have adequate resources to support its students.

The accreditation bodies to watch out for in the business school world are the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP), and the International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE). These organizations represent the highest standards for business school accreditation. It’s strongly recommended for accounting students to attend a program that is at least AACSB accredited as many employers hire students that graduate from these schools.

But all things being equal, most programs worth their salt will be accredited, so you need to consider other factors as well.

Reputation, Distance from Home and Cost

If all schools are accredited, the next set of criteria is largely subjective. Every school will advertise their strengths (and try to cover up their weaknesses) in all of its advertising and promotional material. Yet no matter how good a school says they are, you should maintain a healthy level of skepticism when approaching their material. Making the decision of what school is the best fit for you should come from a healthy dose of personal research.

There are few things that can trump the power of word of mouth in marketing (or word of mouse as it is digitally these days).  This is true in household products, electronics, and even education. What kind of reputation does your program have? Is the school well-respected in the region? Do its alumni obtain good jobs and have successful careers? These are some of the questions you should be asking when looking at programs. Reputation is an important factor, as unfair as it might be. There is a reason why a school has a reputation, and it’s important to address it.

Another important driving factor for students is the distance from home. A recent study by Learning House into the preferences of online students has shown that a majority of students select an online program that is within 50 miles from home. Since some programs do have an occasional “on-campus” requirement, having a relatively nearby campus reduces long travel times. Additionally, having a nearby campus means that if any problems come up, you’ll be close enough to go to campus and resolve it in person.

Online programs are almost always touted as an affordable alternative to traditional schooling. If you’re attending a program online you’re probably looking to cut down on your costs. An online degree can cost students upwards of $20,000. Many programs vary in costs per credit hour ($215+)  with some schools offering discounts to military veterans.  A more expensive program does not always mean a higher quality education. Likewise, a cheaper program does not mean an inferior education.  Again,  talking to alumni and professionals in the field will help you determine if the value of the program is worth the cost.

The Difference in Approach between Online and Traditional Programs

As more and more programs devote resources to their online component the quality of these programs increase. However, traditional and online programs differ greatly in their approaches to education.  Traditional higher education requires students to attend classes taught by professors on campus.  Instructors give out weekly or daily assignments, and students are usually expected to finish their assignments before the start of the next class.

Online education, on the other hand, is much more flexible. When instructors give out assignments, the due dates are often weeks if not months away. Online classes generally fall into three styles:

  • Tutorial Format: In this method of education, students accomplish a set of learning activities at their own pace, working through various chapters in a book or instructor prepared modules. Instructors are available to answer questions in the learning material, and students are expected to complete certain assignments and exams.
  • Independent Study: Independent study is the most flexible of the education methods. Students study on their own at their own pace with books and materials provided by the course. They are also expected to complete assignments and exams on their own as well.
  • Instructor-led classes: This method is perhaps the closest to traditional education formats. Classes follow a more rigid academic schedule based on a class syllabus. Students complete instructor-led learning activities and have digital interactions with fellow classmates online. Students are expected to work with one another to complete assignments like in traditional programs.

Beyond the self-guided pace of online programs, another key factor to consider is the amount of faculty interaction.  An important part of the higher education experience is being able to work with and learn from experienced faculty members. These instructors can play an enormous role in your development as a student and future professional.

A glaring weakness of online programs is that they are limited in their faculty interaction. The old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind,” applies only too well here. Sometimes faculty members “forget” about their online students because they don’t see them on a regular basis. Sometimes faculty members are not as accessible to online students as they are to traditional students (bad email checking practices etc.).  The level of interaction between student and teacher can be the difference between success and failure.

The Right Fit

An online program is not for everyone. Though there are many benefits to online programs—flexibility, freedom to do it at your own pace, cost—those benefits can also be disastrous. Online programs are great for students that are self-motivated and disciplined. If left alone to do the work, online students are able to organize their time well to learn the material and accomplish assignments.

If you’re the type of student that needs structure, then all that freedom will work against you. Deadlines will approach and suddenly you’ll find that you’ve got two months worth of reading to do in a week (trust us, the struggle is REAL). Know your weaknesses. It might help to try out one or two courses online before embarking on an entire degree. You’ll be better off saving the money for a traditional program if the freedom and flexibility are too much to handle.

Transfers

At OAD we believe that an associate’s degree is a great beginning to a career in accounting. Because an associate’s degree is essentially the equivalent of the first two years of a regular bachelor’s degree program, you absolutely need to make sure that the credits can transfer to bachelor’s programs. This is something that you’ll have to discuss with your schools of choice, but because of the nature of the credits taken, you shouldn’t have too much trouble with transferring.

When considering what program you want to enroll in, consider whether or not the school has a pre-existing transfer exchange with a four year program. Some local community colleges have special relationships with four year institutions that help streamline the transfer process. It’s in your own best interest to take advantage of these relationships as sometimes the transfer process can be time consuming.

Course Materials

An online associate’s degree program will give you a taste of the basic principles in accounting. These programs are designed to give you a  foundation in the concepts and practices of accounting, which in turn will help you land an entry-level accounting job.

  • Principles of Accounting
  • Financial statement analysis
  • Payroll accounting
  • Tax accounting
  • Cost accounting
  • Technology programs in accounting
  • Finance
  • Business Law

When you finish an associate’s degree program in accounting you should be able to analyze and interpret accounting information, and use specialized accounting software to perform accounting duties like payroll and tax document preparation. These skills are essential to being competitive in the accounting marketplace.

On top of the accounting and business classes listed above, associate’s programs will have a general education requirement that features courses similar to the following classes:

  • Information Technology
  • Writing and Reasoning
  • Advanced Writing and Research
  • Literature
  • Mathematical Tools for the Real World
  • Natural Science
  • Humanities
  • Government
  • History
  • Behavioral Science
  • Microeconomics
  • Macroeconomics

General education requirements vary widely from school to school, but usually programs contain some form of science class, math class, English and literature class, government, history, and computer skills class. Once you have finished the general education requirement and the focused business classes, you should have 60-70 credit hours to your name—enough to begin the program specific accounting classes in a bachelor’s program.

A note about earning credits: some programs may offer credit for previous work, military, or other educational experience. You will need to talk to your program advisors to determine what credits you may be eligible to receive.

Beyond the Associate’s Degree

So what do you do after you’ve earned your associate’s degree in accounting? It really boils down to two options:

  1. Go get a job in the industry and feel out the accounting work.
  2. Continue in your education and finish the bachelor’s degree.

We strongly believe that in order to have a successful career in accounting you NEED to continue your education. The reason for this is simple: Accounting is a complex industry that is continuously growing in its complexity. As each year passes, laws and regulations passed by governmental and regulatory bodies change the way people do business. Technology reshapes the marketplace on a regular basis, in turn changing the way transactions are shaped. For these reason, accounting knowledge does not have a very long shelf life.  Something new must always be added.

That said, the basics of accounting don’t change. You’re always going to have debits and credits, deferred tax assets and liabilities, and you’re always going to have cost and management accounting. Payroll and accounts receivables will always need to be processed.

As with so many things in this life, is accounting the right fit for you? We can help you answer this question, but really you should take some time to see if you like the actual work of accounting is worth it if you’re unsure about it.

But if you know this is what you want to do with your life, then we say, “Keep going!” We highly recommend finishing at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Education is the key to opening the door to a successful career in accounting, and we encourage you to continue on this adventure.