What it takes to become an accountant in 2022 and beyond

Becoming an accountant has traditionally been accomplished by enrolling in an undergraduate accounting program heavy in theory, debits and credits, and tax law. When the 150-credit hour requirement was adopted, candidates were encouraged to combine a four-year undergraduate degree with a Master of Science in accounting (4+1 program). This combined degree program offers little in the way of new learning, as it often presents more detailed versions of courses already taken in undergrad or simply expands upon those same courses to meet the necessary 150 credits required for CPA licensure. Even though the 4+1 model results in students often staying for a fifth year and obtaining a master’s degree, salaries have not increased to recognize the additional out-of-pocket cost or degree achievement. Firms treat the additional schooling as a check-the-box minimum requirement for employment and not as an indicator of expertise and higher learning commonly associated with master’s degrees.

Following this educational path, many newly licensed CPAs have two accounting degrees that both focus on predominately the same coursework and content. They stay in a narrow lane. To become an accountant today, potential CPAs should broaden their knowledge base by eschewing master’s in accounting programs and double major in finance, data analytics, or information systems.

The benefits of double majoring before entering the accounting profession are threefold. This approach is the most effective way to achieve 150 credit hours, acquire the skills most employers demand, and gain the flexibility future accountants will need to for a sustainable career.

Benefits of double majoring

1. Costs

It’s no secret that tuition in the United States is expensive and has grown at rates multiple times the rate of inflation over the past 20 years. And master’s programs typically charge a premium relative to undergraduate programs. By double majoring, future accountants can obtain the extra 30 credits needed for CPA licensure at the undergraduate tuition rate. Furthermore, most colleges and universities allow a student to take 18-credit hours a semester for the same price they pay for the standard 15-semester credit hour education. Students could obtain the full 150-hour credits at undergraduate rates in only four years with almost no incremental costs to a standard undergraduate degree.

As long as the 150-hour requirement remains in place, a double major at the undergraduate level is likely to remain the most cost-effective and least time-consuming way to achieve the required hours.

2. Flexibility

Having degrees that only specialize in accounting limits accountants’ prospects to traditional accounting jobs. The rise in data analytics, information systems, and the continued strength of finance programs produces quality candidates in those fields with skill sets that differ dramatically from an all-accounting education. There are specialists who have studied in those careers already. Accountants can no longer seamlessly leverage their accounting degree and experience to enter a new field or rechart a career path in a new line of work. By double majoring, accountants will have the option to bring their dual skill set of their other connected degree, effectively doubling their options and job opportunities, whether they want to stay in accounting or not.

This flexibility will equally benefit the future accountant who wants a career only in accounting. An information systems background will allow the accountant to consider traditional audit careers, systems, and risk assurance positions, or risk consulting positions within accounting firms. Finance dual majors will have an expanded knowledge of valuation, pro forma projections, and cash flow analysis – making them invaluable to audits of complex instruments and level 3 assets, due diligence projects, and merger and acquisition assignments. Lastly, a dual focus on data analytics will benefit tax accountants, auditors, and financial reporting staff alike. Analytical skills can help an accountant find financial or control anomalies on an audit, identify hard-to-calculate tax savings for tax consulting clients, and aid in more accurate and detailed modeling for financial reporting practitioners.

Accountants with double majors will have the opportunity to expand their career paths beyond accounting or expand their reach within their accounting firms, increasing their value to their clients and their firm.

3. Matches the demand of practice

As part of the CPA Evolution project, the AICPA and NASBA surveyed accounting firms to determine what skills were most demanded by the profession. Not one of the top 6 skills demanded was a traditional accounting topic. The top 6 were digital acumen, data analysis, IT general controls and cybersecurity, information process controls, IT governance and ERM, and SOC knowledge. Few of these skills are offered in an all-accounting education. Double majoring allows students to obtain these skills from faculty and experts in their field, instead of having an accounting instructor teach topics that aren’t their specialty. Obtaining these skills immediately makes the students more marketable to employers by matching the skills demanded by employers.

Another recent AICPA survey noted that approximately 30% of recent professional hires by large accounting firms were nonaccounting majors. Presently, firms are going outside of traditional accounting hires to find the skills they are demanding. By reorienting their education to couple foundations of accounting with the skills demanded by accounting firms, aspiring accountants will offer the best of both worlds for accounting firms by matching their undergraduate education to the demands of the firm. Firms and their employees will be better off if more of the employees possess diverse skill sets.

Other Paths

Some future accountants may have already completed an undergraduate education or master’s degree and will not be able to return for a second degree or MBA. They still have options to meet the demands of practice and match the skills needed, at a reduced cost, through certificate programs and workshops. Accountants seeking an expanded skill set can find free or low-cost courses and certificates in data analysis, coding, data visualization, cyber security, and data protection, among others. They can also enhance their accounting certification by considering a Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) or Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation. The latter is more relevant for those interested in finance, but both signal to employers that an individual has skills and knowledge outside of what they previously studied.

Students want options and employers are demanding diverse technical skills. The firms are telling future employers they need non-accounting skills. Double majoring is the fastest, least costly, and most effective strategy for aspiring accountants to acquire those skills. The future accountant will still have a solid foundation in accounting through their undergraduate accounting education, but it will be enhanced through an expanded skill set obtained in finance, information systems, or data analytics.