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

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We all know the accountant stereotype: number crunching drones, backs bent and slaving away behind computers. Row upon row of cubicles like prison cells. Personalities stiffer than a cheap starched suit. Boring and bespectacled, socially awkward.  Lame right?

On the contrary, accountants are as interesting as any of us, with a wide variety of personalities and interests. They may like rock climbing, go to raves, have tattoos, run marathons, or even compete on American Ninja Warrior. Accountants don’t just hide in fluorescent-lit corporate offices, but travel all over the world, helping businesses large and small. They speak accounting—the language of business—and without them, businesses throughout society would fall apart.

The best news of all? Accountants are in demand—like in ridiculously high demand. According to a recent survey of employers by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers are looking to hire graduates with business degrees. In fact, 69% of employers are looking to add business graduates to their workforce. On top of that, 54% of employers are looking to add accountants to their workforce (as an interesting note, computer science graduates are the second highest in demand degree, showing the need for technical skills like accounting and programming the business world).

Accountants prepare important financial documents. They perform important audit and tax services for corporations, nonprofits, governments and even individuals. Though it might seem like daunting work that involves lots of math, the truth of the matter is that the math required is really just basic arithmetic functions—no need to worry about sine or cosines, geometry, or solving for complex proofs. Much of the math involved with accounting can be done with powerful computer programs like Microsoft Excel, or a simple calculator.

An online bachelor’s degree is a key step towards a career in accounting. This degree teaches students the basics of accounting, developing core concepts and giving them the foundational skills needed for a successful career as an accountant.  These programs usually take four years to complete and requires 120 credit hours of work to graduate.

What to look for in an Online Bachelor’s Degree

Accreditation

The right online bachelor’s degree program has a few extra variables to consider compared to a traditional bachelor’s program. Students applying to most reputable bachelor’s programs at traditional schools won’t have to worry about accreditation because of the brand name value of the school. But for students looking for an online accounting program, accreditation is a big concern.

Because websites are (relatively) easy to throw together, the chance of a “school” being a scam are high. Proper accreditation means that an institution meets rigorous standards and guarantees that a student will receive a quality education. Accreditation protects students and ensures that schools provide an education with an acceptable level of quality. Again, you don’t want to give any idiot money and have them give you a “degree” that’s worthless.

For accounting students, the key accreditation to watch out for is credentials from the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP), the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools For Business (AACSB) and the International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education.  For students with the goal of becoming a certified public accountant, we highly recommend students seek out programs that are AACSB certified. Less than 5% of the 16,000 business schools worldwide are AACSB accredited. These schools produce graduates that are well trained, and very desirable for employers throughout the country.

The Right Fit

So how do you know if an online program is right for you? There are a number questions that you can ask yourself to help you gauge the fit:

  • Do you prefer to work independently or with others?
  • Are you a self-motivated student that can get course material done without much supervision?
  • Do you need to keep a full-time job while in school?

An online program offers a lot of flexibility that traditional bachelor’s programs don’t—ideal for students with a busy schedule or family or work commitments that take up a lot of time. You can open your books and learn your material at any time of the day instead. Online programs are an incredibly affordable option over traditional programs. Because everything is online, students can stay at home and save costs on living expenses (that means you can attend classes in your pajamas and no one will ever know).  On top of these conveniences, online classes from an accredited program can be taken and then transferred to a traditional college or university should a student decide to do so.

An online program is not the best fit for everyone because of the unique challenges it presents. Students that need more structure and the regular rhythm and schedule of going to class will not do well in an online program (watch all those due dates fly right by without assignments done–sigh). However, students that are self-motivated and are good at managing their time will be able to succeed in an online program.

Transferring from Community College

Our article about associate’s degrees makes a strong case for going to community college for the first two years. Community college allows students flexibility and major cost savings. The first two years of bachelor degree programs tend to lean toward general education classes that can easily be taken at a community college before transferring to a full-time university or college. In fact, since almost all universities and colleges have an online component, it might be beneficial for potential students to try a few classes online before determining whether or not to pursue an online degree full-time.

Student Resources

Student resources like gymnasiums, career service centers, IT sandboxes, and tutoring centers are important parts of campus life and are there to help students succeed. However, for the online student that doesn’t go into campus very often (or ever), these facilities have less value. Instead, online students should check to see if they can access these services online. Are tutors available to meet over Skype or Facetime or Google Hangouts? What kind of materials are available 24/7?  Using these resources can be the difference between success and failure—especially when it comes to material that is difficult to understand.

Job Placement Rate

The rising costs of education have greatly changed the purpose of higher education. Gone are the days where people could just go to school and keep learning and taking classes without having to actually move on with life (you might actually meet a few of these eternal students on campus, though). With education becoming an important part of “growing up” a huge emphasis is also placed on post-college life. In other words, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

For this reason, it’s important to start school with the end in mind—what kind of a job do you want after you’ve finished your degree? Every school likes to show off their graduation rate, but we feel that the job placement rate trumps that. After all, what’s the point of graduating if you’re just going to be living in the basement of your parent’s house? Every school has a job placement rate, and schools that have a high job placement rate tend to advertise that fact.

When looking at different accounting programs and universities to attend (both in person and online) do some research and learn about their job placement rate, their career services center, and what kind of resources they offer students in terms of networking opportunities with companies.  Getting hired isn’t a process of simply sending in a resume and hoping for the best. It comes from meeting with prospective employers and demonstrating to them that you are the right fit for their organization.

Accounting Program Curriculum

An accounting program should teach students everything from balance sheets to managing million dollar budgets, preparing reports, to understanding the impact of technology on accounting. Every accredited accounting program will cover the same core concepts (with slightly different names). Good programs offer students an opportunity to structure their studies towards any number of areas like cost accounting, internal and external auditing, financial accounting, and information technology.

A full bachelor degree program is 120 credit hours and generally takes four years to complete.

The following is an example of a bachelor’s degree curriculum that you might find in an accounting program:

General Education

Typically, the general education requirements are the same across schools. Students spend the first two years of their university life completing these requirements. One option available to students is to take some of these general education classes at a local community college and then transfer those credits to a traditional four-year program. General education requirements can be waived with the completion of an associate’s degree, though specific prerequisites for classes will still need to be completed.

What is required as a general education class differs from school to school, but the following are examples of general 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

On top of these classes, students are encouraged (and required) to take electives from a wide variety of arts, business, and science electives. Electives offered differ from school to school. Those with an inclination towards improving their writing might take a creative writing or a poetry class. Others might take bookmaking, automotive, sports, and other classes. The choices are nearly endless.

Core Business Requirements

Beyond general education classes, some programs require students to take core business classes to better understand how the business marketplace functions. Like the general education classes, these classes will vary from school to school.

  • Legal and Ethical Environment of Business
  • Concepts in Accounting and Finance
  • Application in Accounting and Finance
  • Statistical analysis of Business Data
  • Marketing Operations
  • Human Behavior in Organizations
  • Business Process Systems and Management
  • Global Strategy

Major Classes

After about two years of school students will begin their studies for their declared majors. In accounting, this means exploring the core principles of accounting in deeper detail. Unlike general education and core business classes, these classes do not vary too much. Depending on the program and the concentration or focus of the student, some classes and electives may be taken in place of others. The selection of electives at different schools depends largely on the specialization of the faculty.

  • Cost and Managerial Accounting
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting
  • Intermediate Financial Accounting and Reporting
  • Accounting information Systems
  • Federal Taxation
  • Advanced Accounting
  • Financial Statement Auditing
  • Internal Auditing
  • Accounting Software
  • Accounting Internship

Internships

Some programs require students to have an internship in order to graduate. An internship is a fantastic chance for students to learn firsthand what accounting work is really like. Internships often lead to job offers (a very, very good way to get a job–hint hint) because employers like to hire students they know can perform. Many public accounting firms like the big four host recruiting fairs for students as a chance for them to meet recruiters and talk to them about their experiences working as an accountant.

Students should begin looking for an internship as early as their sophomore year, though generally speaking traditional students take their internship during the summer of their junior year before starting their senior year. The key to landing a good internship that will lead to a job is to start networking as soon as possible. Reach out to anyone you know (parents, uncles, aunties, church groups, and other volunteer organizations). You never know who will be able to help you.

Graduated Life: The Next Steps

Four years of school may seem like a long time, but it passes by much quicker than you think. The memories you make during these formative years of your life will forever shape you, leaving their imprint on you for years to come. But once these years of schooling are done, what do you do next?

The obvious next step is to get a job (but who goes for the obvious?). Interning as a student will increase your chances of getting a job, but if you weren’t as lucky to get a job offer, you’ll have to apply to lots of companies and continue the networking game. Many firms are interested in students that are “CPA ready,” or in other words, will be able to take the CPA exam and earn the shiny Certified Public Accountant credential.

Here’s the rub. The CPA exam requires students to have 150 credit hours to qualify for the exam. If you’ve done everything by the book (and you probably have if you were a good student), you only have around 120 credit hours. How do you get the 30 credits needed for the CPA?

Well, one way would be to take a lot of extra classes at the undergraduate level to rack up the credits necessary, but a better alternative would be to go to graduate school and earn a master’s degree. Depending on the program, master’s degrees can be one to two years of additional schooling and be worth as much as 60 additional credit hours. If you earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting you’ll probably be able to waive some of the classes and reduce the amount of time spent in school.

Some schools offer an integrated master’s degree that allows bachelor’s students to graduate with a master’s degree after an additional fifth year of school work. Yet other master’s programs combine a master’s in accounting with a master’s of business administration (MBA) or even a juris doctor (JD) to further round out your skills.

What’s the best course of action for you? It really depends on your interests, how much more schooling you want to go through, and how much student debt you want to accumulate. If you want to be CPA ready, then graduate school is probably the best option for you.

There are other credentials out there like the Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Certified Internal Auditor (CIA—yes really, and no not that CIA), Certified Global Management Accountant (CGMA), Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) and more to consider.

Getting the CPA will make getting a job a lot easier, since the certification is a gold standard in the industry. If you’re still struggling to get a job after, it might be time to take a good look at yourself and see what you are doing wrong. Maybe it’s the way you talk to people. Maybe it’s your interview skills. A good friend will be able to help you identify things you can improve on. Remember: life is about improving, and you can always make improvements and become a better person.