By Stephanie Ng
The U.S. CPA qualification is globally recognized and useful to both auditors and financial professionals alike. But is earning the CPA a possibility for non-accounting majors and non-accountants? I’ll provide the answer to that question (it’s yes) and tell you how to earn the CPA no matter your major.
Earning the CPA as a Non-Accounting Major Is Getting Tougher
I was an economics major and only took 1 quarter (2 credit hours) of basic accounting courses in college. But, I managed to become a CPA by taking extra courses. So, I’m living proof that a non-accounting major can become a Certified Public Accountant.
However, since I earned the CPA, the state boards of accountancy have tweaked their requirements and consequently increased the difficulty of earning the CPA for non-accounting majors. Therefore, we need to start finding creative ways to satisfy their expectations and achieve our CPA goals.
CPA Exam Requirements
Everyone who wants to become a CPA must fulfill the 3 E requirements:
- Education: earn at least a 4-year bachelor’s degree with a minimum number of accounting and business credit hours and 150 credit hours of general higher education
- Exam: pass all 4 parts of the Uniform CPA Examination
- Experience: complete 1-2 years of relevant and verified accounting experience
Some state boards also add another requirement: The Ethics exam. To fulfill this fourth E, you must pass whichever ethics exam your state board uses, whether it’s the AICPA’s Professional Ethics Exam or one created by the state board.
For non-accounting majors, the problem areas of these requirements will likely be:
- The minimum number of accounting credit hours
- The 150-credit hour requirement
- Relevant experience
Steps to Earning the CPA for Non-Accounting Majors
1. Earn the Minimum Number of Accounting Credit Hours
The simplest way to address this requirement is to pick a state board asking for the fewest accounting courses. These state boards have the lowest numbers:
- Maine: 15 credit hours
- Hawaii: 18 credit hours
- Georgia: 20 credit hours
- Massachusetts: 21 credit hours
- Alaska: a path for non-accounting majors
These numbers are easier to reach, but they come with additional conditions.
Maine: Though Maine has more lenient accounting education requirements, it has much stricter experience requirements. This state board asks for at least 2 years of public accounting experience with 4,000 hours of audit compilation.
Georgia: The Georgia state board of accountancy only counts the credits of high-level courses toward their 18-credit hour education requirement. High-level courses are the intermediate and advanced courses only offered in the third or fourth year of college. So, in practice, you’ll need to take a lot more than 18 credit hours in accounting to qualify for the certification in Georgia.
Massachusetts: Massachusetts is also picky about which courses you take, but in a different way than Georgia. This state board doesn’t care so much about the level of the courses as the subject matter. In this case, some of your 21 credit hours must come from courses about financial accounting, audit, management accounting, and taxation.
Alaska. This state board accepts students with an accounting major and students with an accounting concentration and adjusts the education requirement for each. For students with an accounting major, Alaska expects them to have 15 accounting credit hours. However, students with an accounting concentration must have 24 accounting credit hours. For candidates on the non-accounting major path (<15 accounting credits), Alaska requires at least 1 year of public accounting experience.
Clearly, meeting the education requirements of these state boards is possible but complex. To help you make the most informed decision about earning the CPA as a non-accounting major, let’s also consider the second option.
2. Take Additional Accounting Courses and Satisfy the 150-Hour Rule
As you may recall, the education requirement for becoming a CPA includes 150 credit hours of general higher education. So, if you have a standard 4-year bachelor’s degree (120 credit hours of education), you still need 30 extra credits to qualify for the certification. The good news is that these 30 credit hours can be non-degree courses in any discipline. You just have to take them at a regionally accredited college or university.
If you’re short on both the 30 credit hours and some accounting courses, you can resolve both issues with one solution: taking extra accounting courses. Doing so not only helps you get 150 credit hours and all the accounting credits you need, but it also helps with your CPA Exam preparations.
Furthermore, you’ll have a lot more state boards to choose from once you meet the standard 150-credit hour requirement. And many state boards have flexible work experience requirements, so you have the opportunity to become a licensed CPA even faster.
3. Complete the Experience Requirements
You’re a non-accounting major, so you’re probably not working as an accountant. In that case, you should look into the state boards’ specific experience requirements before you get very far into the process of earning the CPA.
Nowadays, most state boards define relevant work experience pretty generally: public accounting is the most relevant, but accounting in corporate and governmental agencies now counts as well. Some state boards even accept academic positions in universities.
I’ve got more information about the CPA experience requirements, potential obstacles you might face while trying to meet them, and a variety of solutions for you to try on my site. Check it out to learn more.
Earning the CPA with a Finance or Economics Degree
Can you become a CPA as a finance or economics major? In truth, yes, but how much effort that will involve depends on how many accounting and business courses you have taken and how willing you are to fulfill the remaining requirements.
Satisfying the minimum number of business credit hours is usually pretty simple for finance majors. And if you took some accounting courses as well, you’re already very close to meeting the CPA education requirement.
You’ll probably need focus on fulfilling the 150 credit-hour rule, and the easiest way to take those remaining accounting classes is at community colleges or other accredited educational institutions. Community colleges are acceptable to most state boards, but you should verify that with your state board just to be safe. Some states, such as New York, expect you to take core accounting classes at 4-year colleges.
Economics majors typically have a trickier time becoming a CPA because economics and accounting degrees have little coursework overlap. But remember, I’m an economics major-turned-CPA, so it is doable. Still, there are no shortcuts: you just have to take enough accounting courses to reach the minimum education requirement. Thankfully, the new knowledge you get from these classes will really help you get ready for the FAR and AUD exams. On top of that, many BEC topics will already be familiar to you as an econ major.
Alternatives to the CPA for Those Feeling Too Old/Busy
If earning the CPA sounds like more than you want to take on at your age or situation in life, you should research other global accounting and finance certifications.
Consider, for example, the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification. It welcomes accountants with any kind of bachelor’s degree.
You’ll find that the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation has an even more flexible exam requirement, so you can look into that certification as well.
In both cases, you’ll benefit from having a basic knowledge of accounting, but once you get into the program, you can simply work hard to catch up.
More Help for Non-Accounting Majors Seeking the CPA
Even though you don’t have an accounting degree, there are clearly ways to make the CPA certification process work for you. If you’re willing to put the effort into obtaining such a rewarding certification, take the next step by learning how to fulfill the 150-hour requirements with extra accounting courses, finding states with flexible CPA experience requirements, and collecting answers to the CPA candidate’s top 50 questions.
You can also discover everything you need to know about the CPA Exam application process by signing up for my free e-course. I have two versions designed for candidates with different backgrounds: one for U.S. CPA candidates and one for international CPA candidates. I wish you the best with the CPA!
Stephanie Ng has been answering candidates’ questions and writing about how to pass the CPA and other exams since 2010. She helps candidates pass the CPA Exam at her site ipassthecpaexam.com, the CMA exam at ipassthecmaexam.com, the CIA exam at ipasstheciaexam.com, and the EA exam at ipasseaexam.com.