Thank you to our readers for suggesting this topic of CPA vs an MBA degree. Since so many of my readers contemplate which qualification will be better for their careers, this topic is worthy of a thorough discussion.
Accountants go for a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) license because they want to get promoted beyond the manager level in CPA firms. Or, they need a globally recognized qualification to progress to senior finance positions.
Professionals go for MBA (Master of Business Administration) degrees because they aspire to take leadership roles in business administration. These days, MBAs can lead to a wide variety of career choices. MBAs holders work in investment banking, analysis, strategic planning, marketing, and general corporate positions.
CPAs focus on accounting, auditing, or tax issues. However, MBAs focus on finance and general management.
Since the MBA and CPA credentials could take you down different career paths, let’s review where you could expect to work with these qualifications.
CPAs can work in a wide range of public and private settings, like public accounting firms, small to large businesses, non-profits, schools, and government agencies. In a public setting, a CPA might give advice on tax preparation. Or, they could specialize in auditing and assurances, financial and estate planning, forensic accounting, or business consulting.
Graduates from top MBA programs can find employment in many different positions in the business world. For example, core investment banking jobs, marketing managers, financial managers, and business operations managers often require an MBA. Some MBA graduates also work in the health field as medical and health services managers.
Are there situations in which you might want one credential over the other? Absolutely. For example, if your career goal is to work as a public accountant or you want to work for one of the “Big 4” accounting firms, you’ll need your CPA license. Or, in order to meet the “150-hour” rule, you could consider the MAcc (or to a lesser extent, a heavily focused accounting MBA program) over a more generalized MBA education.
How valuable is the CPA? How valuable is an MBA? How much does an accountant with a master’s degree make? Money doesn’t always lead to happiness, but it’s important to consider what your end salary might be before committing to grad school.
Remember, salaries can widely vary depending on your place of employment. For example, working at a small mom-and-pop business or a non-profit might bring a very different salary than working for a large international company. But if we want to talk about averages, Payscale.com calculates current salaries for US-based employees with certain degrees and credentials.
So on average, a Masters in Accounting salary and an MBA degree salary is higher than a CPA’s salary (regardless of their degree). Of course, these numbers are averages and don’t include things like benefits, bonuses, and profit-sharing.
What are the benefits of the CPA designation?
If you have a basic background in accounting or tax and are willing to study really hard for a few months, you can pass the CPA Exam within 6-18 months. If you use a proven CPA Exam review system, you can significantly increase your chances of passing the exam on the first time. So overall, if you pass your exams on the first time, you can certainly get your CPA much faster than your MBA.
For a typical candidate, the investment for a CPA license is ~$3,000. This amount includes the cost of CPA Exam review materials and fees associated with taking the exam and applying for the license. This is a lot more affordable than MBA degree programs.
Also, most candidates study for the CPA Exam while working full time. But, many MBA programs are so demanding that students cannot simultaneously work full time. When you consider that you could be working while studying for the CPA Exam and not while you are getting your MBA, you could save as much as $100K+.
For those professionals who aspire to be life-long public accountants or plan to launch their own audit firm, CPA’s privilege of signing audit reports is mandatory for their careers.
The Uniform CPA Examination is the only exam that CPA holders take. So, people know exactly what you accomplished in order to get this qualification.
In comparison, there is a huge difference among the quality (or perceived quality) of MBA programs.
Unlike the CPA Exam, people with different backgrounds can further their studies in an MBA program. If you are looking into specific industries that appreciate an MBA degree (for example, investment banking), it can be a great move.
Good MBA programs have incentives to help you land a good job. After all, they need to build strong relationships with companies for alumni networks and for future recruitment. Their career centers offer information sessions, career fairs, and on-campus interviews for internships and full-time jobs.
Since you will be spending two years with students looking to work in related industries, an MBA program is an excellent platform for professional networking. This especially applies to top MBA programs where such networks are invaluable. For MBA degrees from “diploma mills,” the networking benefits are much smaller. Plus, you might have fewer networking opportunities if you sign up for an online or long-distance program.
Also, many MBA schools set up meet-and-greet events for students and alumni to mingle and network. If you feel uncomfortable networking, some MBA schools even provide workshops to help you feel more at ease engaging colleagues in those potentially awkward situations.
In the last couple of decades, there has been some controversy over the academic value of MBA programs. Some professionals claim that if you have the right business savvy and work hard, you can climb your way to the top without a degree.
However, I disagree with that viewpoint. Academic programs are a good place for a well-rounded education. You’ll learn a bit of everything in business, such as marketing, business theories, management, and human resources. In addition, classes in entrepreneurship will help you address the most pressing issues in the business world.
The versatile set of skills you’ll gain in an MBA program are especially helpful for career switchers.
The MBA degree does not require annual membership dues or continuing education. Unlike the CPA credential that requires you to pay for an annual license and AICPA membership, the MBA does not have any ongoing costs.
CPAs are also required to take CPE (continuing professional education) courses. The requirements vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. But, you will probably need to enroll in CPE courses. If your firm does not cover these costs, they can add up over time.
For those who plan to progress within their accounting firms or aspire to be a senior-level corporate executive with technical accounting expertise, the CPA license could be an efficient way to get you there.
If you do NOT want to be an accountant, but instead aim for a finance position or a more strategic vs technical role in the future (CEO/COO vs CFO/Controller), then an MBA makes more sense.
The quality of your MBA program really matters to your career. Of course, strive to get into one of the “Top 10” MBA programs or the highest-ranked program that you can. Not only will you get a great education from these schools, but you’ll also gain a certain prestige that will follow you in your career.
For example, recruiters looking to fill top positions in the business world seek out graduates from the Top 10 MBA programs. They know that by graduating from these schools, the candidates have already gone through very stringent vetting processes. In other words, 9.9/10 times, the candidate is a great candidate. That’s why top firms hire graduates from these exclusive programs.
Good MBA programs from state schools are helpful if you are looking for jobs in your region. They are often less expensive than private schools. Plus, you will probably be able to network with future colleagues in the region while you’re still in school, which will enhance your chances of getting a great job after graduation.
Each year, U.S. News and World Report ranks the top MBA programs in the United States. Here are the top 10 MBA programs for 2021 according to their rankings:
You can certainly get both an MBA and CPA credentials. In fact, that combination could be important if you want to land certain jobs.
Plus, most states now require 150 hours of education to get your CPA license. So, you could get your MBA with those 150 hours. Once you graduate, you could get your required year(s) of experience, pass the CPA Exam, and apply for your CPA license. The MBA and CPA could help your career if your end goal is to work in corporate accounting or as a senior financial analyst or financial controller.
Our blogger Sumit has an MBA and he is now going for the CPA title. See how his thoughts on why getting this additional qualification after having an advanced degree and a good job will continue to advance his career.
Keep in mind that a lot of MBA programs offer concentrations through specialized courses and internship experiences. For example, an MBA concentration in accounting could prove useful if you’re planning to get your CPA license, too. Another good option might be an MBA in finance and accounting.
There are other master’s degrees besides the MBA to consider if you are looking for a career in accounting or finance. The MAcc, or Masters of Accounting, will give you specialized knowledge in high-level accounting concepts. Of course, accounting is closely linked to the business world. So, you’ll also get an overview of business concepts, too.
If you already know that you want to get your CPA license, and you live in a jurisdiction that requires 150 hours of education, the MAcc could be a good fit for you.
Plus, it’s likely that your coursework in a MAcc program will overlap with the content on the CPA Exam. In the end, you might need fewer hours to study for the CPA Exam if you choose the MAcc route.
If you don’t know if the MBA or MAcc is better for you, think about your career goals and the type of knowledge you’ll need to get you there. Do you want specific accounting expertise? Or do you want a more general business education with a more strategic skill set in leadership?
Do you have to get a master’s degree to become an accountant or to succeed in business? Not necessarily, but depending on your circumstances, it might be very useful.
If you want to work in a business environment and your jurisdiction is a “150-hour” state, you’re going to need all of those education hours, which are basically equivalent to a master’s degree. So in those states, you might as well get that advanced degree.
MBA stands for Master of Business Administration. This graduate-level degree builds your leadership and business management skills. Typical MBA courses include accounting, economics, finance, leadership development, and marketing.
The CPA, which stands for “certified public accountant,” is the most advanced credential available to professional accounts. CPA candidates must have a combination of education (120-150 hours of higher education) and experience (at least 1-2 years in most states). In addition, CPAs must pass the difficult four-part CPA Exam before applying for a license to practice.
No, there are not any academic programs specifically designed to prepare students to become CPAs. However, if you plan to pursue the CPA license, you could major in accounting or research concentrations in accounting in MBA programs.
Depending on your career goals, you could consider other master’s degrees besides the MBA. For example, a master’s degree in accounting, taxation, or finance could give you deep knowledge and skills in these niche areas. Check out my article, Master’s Degree vs CPA: Which Is Better for My Career?
If your school offers concentrations, I suggest you pursue going after this specialized knowledge. You could consider an MBA with a concentration in accounting, an MBA in accounting and finance,
I hope this article helped break down the MBA vs CPA, the MAcc vs MBA, and the power of the MBA CPA combination. If you still have questions, please never hesitate to leave a comment on this post. I love hearing from my readers!
I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley), and I also passed all 4 sections of the CPA Exam on my first try. Additionally, I have led webinars, such as for the Institute of Management Accountants, authored featured articles on websites like Going Concern and AccountingWeb, and I'm also the CFO for the charity New Sight. Finally, I have created other accounting certification websites to help mentor non-CPA candidates. I have already mentored thousands of CPA, CMA, CIA, EA, and CFA candidates, and I can help you too!