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To Be or Not to Be a CPA

By Michael C. Meier
August 7, 2012

While the accounting major has become synonymous over the years with a career in public accounting, there is also a vast array of accounting careers for accounting majors which do not require the venerable CPA designation. As the new school year and recruiting season rapidly approach, the decision as to whether to pursue a career in public accounting becomes an increasingly relevant decision for accounting students.   

There are numerous reasons to pursue a CPA designation as an accounting major, including diverse work, ample advancement opportunities and the possibility of significant compensation and benefits. Conversely, there are a number of fulfilling career opportunities one can pursue in the field without becoming a CPA. At the end of the day, it is an individual preference without a clear-cut answer. 

When it comes to careers in both public accounting and private industry, the CPA certificate is generally king. In fact, according to the American Institute of CPAs, licensed CPAs earn about 10-15 percent more than their non-CPA counterparts in the same public and corporate positions. Because compensation and credentials are not the goals for every accounting student, the shortage and resulting demand for qualified CPAs is another perk of passing the exam. Recently, U.S. News and World Report ranked accounting as the number-one career to watch in 2012. The fact is, there are many statistics and publications touting the CPA career path as one with high demand and significant salaries. Ultimately, the CPA certification is most valuable for its mode of entry into the highest echelons of business. Becoming a CPA shows that you are a committed, intelligent and driven individual who is willing to put in the time to obtain a well-respected certification, which is probably the reason many accounting firms give bonuses and promotions based upon employees’ passage of the CPA exam. In fact, public accounting firms require that all of their partners and equity owners hold the CPA designation. 

A possible alternative for accounting majors to obtain their CPA certificate is a more specialized route. Accounting majors who decide to forego the CPA exam may choose different career paths that indirectly involve accounting. One popular option is leveraging the accounting major as a vehicle to pursuing a graduate degree, be it an M.B.A. or a .JD., and then moving into a career in business. Another popular option is starting work directly after obtaining an undergraduate accounting degree. Regardless of education level, a degree in accounting will qualify you for a career in a wide range of business positions, including managerial accounting, banking, financial analysis, information systems accounting or even small business ownership. Some of these professions may have their own professional designations obtained through a combination of examination and experience requirements similar to the Uniform CPA Examination. Popular specialties include Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA), Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Certified Financial Planner (CFP) and Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), to name a few.  Each specialty requires its own unique set of skills; however, all are built on a solid foundation of accounting.   

The true value of a degree in accounting is not necessarily contingent upon passing the CPA Exam, but rather what is accomplished by the holder of the accounting degree. CPA or not, the fact is that an accounting degree offers one the opportunity to succeed in virtually any career based on exposure to virtually all industries. After all, no one will ever tell you that you made a mistake majoring in accounting.        

Michael C. Meier is currently pursuing a B.S. in business administration with a specialization in accounting from The Ohio State University. He graduated from Franklin High School in Somerset in 2008. He is also an active member of the Accounting Association and a member of the National Honor Societies of Alpha Lambda Delta and Phi Eta Sigma.