Today’s college students typically graduate with 120 semester hours—however, they need 150 hours in order to get licensed as a CPA in all 50 U.S. states. Many states also require 150 hours to sit for the CPA Exam. To earn the 30 extra hours they need, many students opt to continue on to graduate school and pursue a master’s degree. In recent years, though, community colleges have also become an attractive option.
Local community colleges with respected accounting programs are becoming the conduit for many students to finish up their final 30 hours, prepare and sit for the CPA exam, and get licensed. These schools are also attracting college-educated workers who opt for a midstream career change to accounting and need additional credit hours.
Maya Pawlitschek, CPA, a 41-year-old mother who holds a bachelor’s degree in international studies and Spanish from the University of Washington, attended North Seattle College about six years ago to gain the credits she needed to become a CPA.
“I was looking for the shortest path,” she said. “The flexibility of being in the community college program versus going back to a four-year institution for another degree made it really the only option that would work for me.” She received her certificate of accountancy from the school and is now an accountant at Amazon Web Services.
Pawlitschek speaks highly of the quality of the education she received. “The coursework I took at North Seattle College gave me the foundation to pass all four sections of the CPA exam on the first try,” she said.
Those who have gone the community college route to fulfill their CPA licensure requirements say there are many advantages: The schools offer flexibility and are good for working students; they offer both online and in-person classes to fit one’s schedule; class sizes are often smaller than at larger universities; and courses cost significantly less than they do at a typical four-year institution. And most employers are happy to hire CPAs who have passed the exam no matter where they completed their 150 semester hours.
“We prepare students as well as do the four-year schools, and in some cases even better,” said Mike Martin, CPA, accounting program manager and associate professor at Frederick Community College in Maryland. Smaller classes, he adds, can make it easier for teachers to “roll up their sleeves,” to help students learn various aspects of accounting and business.
North Seattle, meanwhile, is accepting an increasing number of students who graduated with an economics degree and now want to become CPAs. “Accounting seems to be a hot trend right now,” said Lauren Psomostithis, a faculty member in the accounting program at North Seattle College.
Here are some things students should know if they are interested in completing their credit hour requirement at a community college:
Know your state board’s requirements. Each state has its own requirements for licensure and students need to know if the courses they select will count toward sitting for the CPA exam, said Marla Lockhart, CPA, a faculty member and accounting department co-coordinator at North Seattle College.
Students can check the licensure requirements for their state and find contact information for their state board at This Way to CPA.com, the AICPA’s website for CPA-bound students.
Search for schools that have programs that meet your needs. Most major metropolitan regions and even smaller cities have community colleges within easy driving distance. Many also offer online classes, so courses can be taken across state lines (though out-of-state tuition could be higher), if necessary.
Have your college transcripts evaluated so you know what you need. Certain programs have prerequisites. North Seattle College’s certificate of accountancy program, for example, requires students to have taken classes such as financial accounting, managerial accounting, and individual income tax, Lockhart said.
Students can also visit the head of the school’s accounting department to discuss the program.
Make sure the institution is accredited. Check with your state board to see which organizations it accepts accreditation from. If an institution is not accredited by the appropriate board, credit you earn there will not count toward sitting for the exam, says Sam Lord, CPA, who also attended North Seattle College. Lord, 47, decided to become an accountant after getting his MBA at the University of Washington and attended North Seattle College to gain the 36 additional semester hours he needed to fulfill his licensing requirements. He is now an auditor at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Take courses that interest you and enhance your knowledge. All students enter community colleges with different educational gaps to fill, but there is also some wiggle room. Students may want to take courses in fraud, accounting for nonprofits, auditing, or cybersecurity, to name a few, rather than classes that won’t contribute to their professional development. And while most community colleges offer a certificate of accountancy upon completion, some schools, such as North Seattle, also offer specialized credentials, such as an accounting fraud certificate.
Stay committed. Community colleges aren’t for those who want an easy ride. “North Seattle did a really good job of preparing me for the CPA exam,” said Lord, “but there was also a lot of preparation work outside of school.” Patricia McDaniel, faculty member and program chair of accounting at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C., said students often wrongly think they won’t have to put in so much time at community colleges. “We have very rigorous classes,” she said.
Get involved. Many working students may find it easy to attend community college classes—either in-person or online—and then stick to themselves. But it’s still important to work with faculty and other students and be engaged, Lord and Pawlitschek say. Consider joining a study group, and network with peers. These fellow students not only can help you during your exam studies, but can also be contacts in the future.
Look to the finish line. Some students worry that community colleges won’t look prestigious enough to impress employers, but those concerns are unfounded. Most employers are more concerned about whether you passed the CPA exam and are licensed, and whether you are proficient to handle the job, rather than what school you attended. “They weren’t hung up on where I went to school,” said Pawlitschek. “What they really cared about was that I had proven I worked hard and had a good grasp of accounting.”
Psomostithis concurs. “Taking the exam itself levels the playing field and lets employers know that you are competent,” she said.