College students are left with several options for fulfilling the 150-credit requirement for CPA licensure. They can take an additional 30 credits in undergraduate coursework beyond the standard 120 credits; or they can obtain a master’s degree, the two most common being the Master of Science in Accounting (MSA) and the Master of Science in Taxation (MST). While both of these graduate degrees qualify a student for CPA licensure, a student’s personal interests will ultimately tip the scales. It takes careful planning to meet the requirements for an MSA or MST and the CPA licensure. Students should begin planning early in their undergraduate careers.
The MSA and MST are each highly regarded in both the accounting profession and business in general. In fact, surveys show that students who obtain a graduate degree in accounting earned 10- to 20-percent more on average than those who only completed an undergraduate degree in accounting. Clearly, pursuing either degree is a respectable choice, but it ultimately boils down to your career path aspirations. In attempting to compare the differences between the two degrees, I spoke with Donna McConville, Senior Lecturer and the Program Director for the Master’s in Accountancy Programs at Bentley University, located in Waltham, MA. McConville has extensive industry experience with various facets of accounting and taxation and has also obtained her JD, with a focus in taxation.
McConville explained that many students she works with are plagued by the decision of whether to study for the MSA or MST. She believes a good decision starting point is asking oneself, “Did I love my tax class, and would I like a career in taxes?” McConville says, “With tax, you either love it or hate it; there is typically no gray area for students on the subject.” She also points out that students may have a hard time deciding if they enjoy tax due to their limited exposure to tax courses at the undergraduate level. She believes one general course on federal taxation is simply not enough for a student to decide if tax is the right concentration.
So ask yourself: Do you love tax? If you are unsure or the answer is no, then consider the MSA. The MSA degree typically offers much more freedom in the range of study and can be customizable to a student’s interests. At Bentley University, McConville described the MSA as having requirements in financial accounting, managerial accounting, auditing, tax and accounting information systems. Students are then able to complete their schedules with electives that interest them. The MSA can be a great program due to its flexibility. Some students start the program with very little accounting experience and, thus, need to begin with the fundamentals. However, some students come in with significant accounting experience and can waive some of the accounting core courses. Contrary to the MSA, McConville noted that in the MST program at Bentley, five of the core classes are in tax, and the electives are in either tax or financial planning. Students are much more restricted in their range of studies with this degree.
If you find yourself feeling unsure if the MST is a good choice, then consider an MSA and use your electives to take additional tax courses. McConville informed me that Bentley, as well as other schools, offers an MSA degree with a graduate certificate in taxation. To accomplish this, students use their open electives toward tax courses. McConville compared the graduate certificate to an undergraduate minor.
McConville wrapped up by saying that fewer students graduate with an MST than with an MSA. She believes that MSTs may have better job security because employers have to pull from a smaller pool of applicants. Ultimately, this is not what the decision should be based on. If you firmly believe you want to focus your career on tax, then consider the MST; otherwise, take a look at the MSA and have a more rounded experience that can be applied to many careers. Both degrees are phenomenal and there is definitely flexibility to transfer between functions once in the industry - by no means does either degree lock a student into a particular accounting function for the rest of their career.
For more information about eligibility for the CPA exam in New Jersey, go to njscpa.org/index/students/cpa-exam/requirements.
Joseph Hark is a 2011 graduate of Pope John XXIII High School in Sparta, NJ. He received a NJSCPA high school scholarship in 2011, sponsored by Deloitte. He is currently attending Bentley University in Waltham, MA, and pursuing a major in Corporate Finance and Accounting. He is completing the five-year accounting program in four years and will graduate with his 150 hours in May 2015. After graduation he hopes to work as an auditor at a Big Four firm. Outside school and work, he enjoys fishing, traveling, photography, and running. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.