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Jessica Neddersen

Key Differences between an MBA in Accounting and a CPA

While they share some similarities, MBAs and CPAs are not the same thing.

For many business professionals, going back to school for a graduate degree seems like a good way to advance their careers. If you already have a Bachelor of Science in Accounting, you could choose to earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Accounting, whereas others might decide to become a certified public account (CPA). 

While they share some similarities, MBAs and CPAs are not the same things. These options open different opportunities while providing advanced knowledge in business. Here are the key differences between an MBA in Accounting and a CPA:

1. Education

The biggest difference between an MBA and a CPA is that an MBA is an academic degree whereas a CPA is a credential. 

A general MBA is a graduate degree that focuses on business leadership and management while helping students improve their critical thinking and strategic decision-making skills. An MBA in Accounting and Finance from Herzing University prepares professionals to manage the fiscal health of an organization and can be completed in as little as 20 months. The program builds on foundational accounting and finance knowledge and prepares students to sit for the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) exam from the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA). Earning the CMA is a way for professionals to demonstrate their expertise in areas such as cost/managerial accounting, budget planning and financial analysis.

CPA is a financial accreditation awarded by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), and it is seen as a mark of achievement in the accounting industry. It is earned by fulfilling educational requirements, experience qualifications and passing a CPA exam that is conducted by the AICPA, though the exact requirements vary by state with some states requiring study beyond a four-year degree. It is possible that earning your MBA may fulfill the educational requirements to apply for CPA licensure in some states or jurisdictions, so always check before you make any assumptions.

2. Career

If you are passionate about accounting and finance and want to become an accountant, then becoming a CPA is a good opportunity to demonstrate your expertise. Having your CPA sets you up for a career in finance and accounting and should allow you to grow in your organization. Potential careers could include Chief Financial Officer (CFO), auditor, tax advisor or forensic accountant.

If you would like a diverse degree to complement your knowledge in accounting or are interested in pursuing a career outside of finance, then an MBA might be right for you. An MBA generally sets you up for more management or business consulting related positions, with many options depending on your specialization. According to U.S. News and World Report, these five careers often attract MBA graduates:

  • Marketing manager
  • Medical and health services manager
  • Financial manager
  • Database administrator
  • Business operations manager

Management positions vary by specialization and previous work experience, so MBA graduates should keep that in mind. If you’re considering an MBA, this quiz can help you decide which concentration is right for you

3. Salary

While both an MBA and CPA can lead to lucrative careers, they each have different earning potential. According to compensation projections by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the predicted average starting salary for MBA graduates in 2020 will be $79,043 annually. However, this is contingent upon the state, experience and what kind of MBA is earned.

CPAs have different earning potential. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), accountants and auditors earn on average $71,550 annually. However, CPAs with more experience have a greater earning potential, and those who have 20 years of experience could earn up to $150,000 annually.  

You could do both

If you can’t decide which path is best for you, you could always do both! It is possible to earn your MBA and CPA at the same time. If you have your MBA in Accounting but you would like to advance your career and specialize in corporate finance or taxes, then it might be a good idea to become a CPA. Likewise, if you are a CPA who wants to have a better understanding of management and business operations, earning your MBA might be useful. 

However, you should always do your research and plan well ahead of time before starting to earn your MBA or CPA. Network and talk with others who have their MBA and/or CPA to see what insights and advice they have to offer. Both have advantages and disadvantages that can be more or less important based on your career interests and strengths.

Herzing University’s Accounting program does not meet the requirements for a graduate to take the CPA exam in most states. Applicants interested in becoming a CPA should check with their state board of accountancy regarding CPA eligibility requirements before enrolling in any accounting program.

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Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook. Multiple factors, including prior experience, age, geography and degree field, affect career outcomes. Herzing does not guarantee a job, promotion, salary increase or other career growth. BLS estimates do not represent entry-level wages and/or salary.

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