Career Paths for Accountants – CPA vs Non-CPA

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Earning a bachelor’s degree is the first step toward obtaining a dynamic career for many students. Some may choose to enter the workforce directly following graduation, while others may choose to advance their education even further. Many students choose to do both at the same time, electing to pursue online education as an opportunity to enjoy flexibility in learning while still earning work experience.

For those pursuing online master’s in accounting degrees, preparation for certifications and licensure are built into comprehensive graduate curricula. For instance, preparation for the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam is key for advanced accounting students. Indeed, earning CPA licensure post-bachelor’s degree can lead to some incredible opportunities and career enhancement that can make the extra time spent working toward another degree worthwhile.

Non-CPA accountants, of course, still have plenty of career paths to choose from. Before settling on which designation works best with your ambitions and goals, it’s best to fully understand the outcomes and expectations of both career paths before committing yourself one way or the other.

What Is the Process for CPA Certification?

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It’s important to know what CPA certification and licensure entails. There is a difference between having a certification and a licensure. Certification is simply passing the test, while licensure involves a work experience process. As pointed out by the CPA Accounting Institute for Success, “a CPA certificate, in most cases, is simply an acknowledgment that you passed the exam and fulfilled the minimum requirements to take it. A CPA license, on the other hand, is issued when you complete all the requirements to become a CPA and you are granted permission by the state to practice public accounting.”

While licensure is more strenuous to achieve and maintain, if you’ve decided to take the test and pass, it’s absolutely in your best interest to obtain licensure, which requires work experience and continuing education. Otherwise, you won’t receive any of the perks of being a fully licensed CPA and will only be able to operate within your career the same as a non-CPA.

Typical eligibility for the CPA exam, according to Roger CPA Review, is predicated on meeting a 150-hour credit hour requirement. This means that applicants are required to take 30 extra hours after receiving their bachelor’s, since bachelor degrees only entail 120 hours of coursework.

This is one reason why, if you are interested in taking the exam, it may be useful to pursue your Master of Science in Accounting first. Not only will working toward your master’s degree help fulfill those extra 30 hours, but it may also help you develop an area of specialty, which can lead to more job prospects in the future.

Options for Non-CPAs

There are, of course, plenty of job opportunities for non-CPA accountants. Accounting, according to U.S. News & World Report, has an unemployment rate below 3 percent and excellent overall stability. Non-CPA accountants are able to prepare compiled financial statements and often work as bookkeepers or with smaller businesses, according to John W. Day, MBA.

Options for CPAs

CPAs have significantly more options, thanks to their licensure. Once they’ve achieved licensure – completing the additional 30 hours, passing the CPA exam, acquiring 500 hours of auditing time, and working for two years at an established firm – they are able to access far more career opportunities.

According to Day, legally, CPAs are allowed to process and create audited and reviewed financial statements. In addition, as pointed out by CPA Accounting Institute for Success, licensed CPAs can own a CPA firm, use the CPA title, and sign tax returns.

Career Breakdown
As previously pointed out, there are substantial differences between what non-CPA and CPA-licensed individuals can do within the accounting career. These differences are most clear in three major areas: job placement, salary, and promotions.

Job Placement
There are many high-level job opportunities available to CPAs, especially if they are interested in working at a major accounting firm. Without a CPA license, an accountant may not be eligible for senior roles.

Examples of positions open to CPAs include: Tax Senior, Senior Auditor, Audit Manager, Consulting Manager, Tax Staff, and Managing Services.

If pursuing a Master of Science in Accounting, CPAs will also have the option of gaining a specialty, which can further help with job placement. For example, Roger CPA Review notes that “having a Master of Science in Accounting will definitely benefit you going into a particular area of accounting,” such as government or healthcare.

One of the biggest perks of getting a CPA license is the increase in salary. According to Sapling’s Malinda Zellman, the average reported salary of a CPA is around $91,608, with higher salaries going towards more specialized or higher up accountants. Roger CPA Review points out that starting salary may be around $50k, but that can grow to $100k and up.

Non-CPAs can expect around $53,402, with the typical range going from $40 to $60k, according to Roger CPA Review. On average, as pointed out by Zellman, the CPA designation is often connected to about a 10-percent salary increase, if not more.

While it’s by no means guaranteed, CPAs may have a higher chance of being promoted, thanks to the requirements of the licensure and the abilities that come along with it.

Job security is one area that doesn’t differ for CPAs vs. non-CPAs. As pointed out by Roger CPA Review, accountants have one of the most sought-after jobs in the United States. Accountants are employed by a range of entities, from firms and banks to the government and non-profits.

Programs like the New England College – Master of Science in Accounting Online can help prepare you for the CPA exam and future CPA licensure. CPA licensure can lead to more career opportunities, as well as a higher salary, increased chance of promotions, and better overall job security.