Hello and welcome to our article covering the most comprehensive comparison between the CPA certification and the MBA degree.
By the end of this article (CPA vs MBA), you will learn the similarities and differences between the two and have enough knowledge to choose the best course of action for your career.
In the current world of work, it is hard to stand out from your peers – thus, many working individuals opt to make a CPA or an MBA a part of their professional journey.
Stick around for this article to make sure you’re headed in the right direction for your career!
Differences Between a CPA and MBA
“CPA” and “MBA” are among the most popular post-nominal initials in our global culture today.
They are different from the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) provided by the Institute of Management Accountants and the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) provided by the CFA Institute.
It’s easy to get confused by what they all mean, but there are key differences that should separate them totally in your mind.
Nature of Credential
One of the most important differences between the credentials is that the CPA is a credential, while the MBA is an educational degree.
The Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is a license that is required by U.S. states for professionals who want to provide their accounting services to businesses and private individuals.
The Master of Business Administration (MBA) is an academic degree that is a postgraduate program, which is usually taken by business majors who want to move their way up the corporate ladder.
CPA licensure is proof that the candidate is skilled enough to become a public accountant, while a master’s degree is continuing education that helps improve the student’s skill set.
The goals of either one are different, and they do not serve the same purpose in the career growth of an applicant.
To be eligible for the CPA license, you need to fulfill the following requirements:
- A bachelor’s degree or equivalent (depending on the state, you need a degree in accounting or complete a finance-related program)
- 150 total semester hours of college credit, which fulfill the following average subject requirements:
- 24 to 33 semester hours in accounting-related courses (excluding intrductory courses)
- 24 to 27 semester hours in business-related courses (excluding accounting subjects)
- Three semester hours in business law
- A passing score of a minimum 75 on the Uniform CPA Exam, to be completed within 18 months
- A passing score on the Professional Ethics Exam for CPAs
- At least one year of work experience in a general accounting role, under the supervision of a CPA professional with an activated license
Applicants must note that these are the general requirements of the CPA – the prerequisites can be different from state to state since it’s the state boards that administer this license.
Since many universities and institutions offer MBA programs, their entrance requirements can also vary according to their standards – here are some of the general prerequisites:
- A bachelor’s degree
- A transcript of records
- An essay or personal statement
- Letter(s) of recommendation
- A passing GMAT or GRE score
- At least one to two years of work experience
Both application processes take a lot of time, money, and effort, but they are designed to find serious candidates who genuinely want to take their careers one step further.
CPAs typically pursue a career in Finance and Accounting. At the same time, MBAs typically choose a corporate job in a wide variety of roles, including finance, marketing, operations, IT, and more.
According to the AICPA, jobs of active CPA license holders include:
- Public accountant
- Accounting managers
- External or internal audit
- Financial analyst
- Treasury and Cash management
- Forensic accountant
- Financial advisor
- Various roles at accounting firms
Due to the wide range of MBA programs available, there are lots of jobs and industries that MBA graduates can work in, including the following:
- Business managers across different departments (Marketing manager, Human resources manager, etc.)
- Investment banking and business operations
- Management consultant
- Financial analyst or financial controller
- Chief Financial Officer (CFO)
- Data analyst
As you can see, the careers can be vastly different in terms of what skills are being honed in the program.
Ease of Certification
The life of a person trying to get their CPA license or MBA is similar to the student experience.
However, the passing rates and typical outcomes can vary greatly.
Since passing the CPA license is completing four test sections with no required review course, passing the CPA with different study methods can be tricky.
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) published the 2021 passing rates for the CPA Exam.
The results are as follows:
- Audit & Attestation Pass Rate: 47.98%
- Business Environment and Concepts Pass Rate: 61.94%
- Financial Accounting and Reporting Pass Rate: 44.54%
- Regulation Pass Rate: 59.88%
As you can see, the passing rate over the four required test sections comes to around 50%, meaning there is a 50% chance of failing the exam.
This gives insight into how difficult passing the CPA is and how much time a candidate needs to prepare for the exams.
On the other hand, MBA degree programs, whether full-time or part-time, are almost always a guaranteed way to gain this academic credential.
Passing an MBA course depends on your performance in the classroom and a thesis, much like your typical tertiary education.
As long as you keep up with your attendance in classes, pass your coursework and presentations, abiding by the classroom setting and your advisor is straightforward.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to pass an MBA course – many courses, especially the shortened ones, have rigorous programs that help you learn lessons quickly and efficiently.
According to a survey launched by the AICPA, a licensed CPA in the United States earns around $119,000 annually.
According to a survey by US News, the range of 2020 salaries of MBA graduates ranges from $52,338 (lesser-known programs) to $176,083 (Stanford University).
High-ranking MBA programs have a significant advantage in the job market in terms of salary, especially in consulting, financial services, and technology.
Similarities Between a CPA and MBA
There are still similarities in the journey to get either a CPA or an MBA.
Length of Study
The CPA licensure process allows you to take the four parts of the CPA exam within an 18 month period, starting from the moment you pass the first section of the test.
Many applicants take full advantage of the 18 months to complete the remaining three sections.
A full-time MBA degree program typically takes one to two years to complete, depending on how comprehensive the institution designs the curriculum.
Comparing 18 to 12-24 months, there is a similar time requirement and the option to make the program/application go faster to save more time and reap the financial benefits for your career sooner.
There are some skills in the CPA and MBA toolbox that will overlap.
Skills in financial analysis and understanding financial statements are skills that both holders will hone through study and experience.
While their specializations can be honed through different courses or job experience, CPAs and MBAs are likely to cross paths and work with each other.
Because of their breadth and depth of the knowledge of people who have CPAs and MBAs, there are a wide variety of companies that will hire them for their consultations and expertise.
Career in Finance
Either a CPA or an MBA can be useful if you are serious about a finance and financial management career.
It depends on what side of the finance career you are interested in – accounting operations for CPA and management roles for an MBA are typical.
The role of a management consultant is also available for both CPAs and MBAs because their skills in business and financial analysis can help companies understand and improve their operations.
Creating a Network
One of the greatest advantages of pursuing a CPA or an MBA is meeting and connecting with like-minded professionals that can be helpful associates and lifelong friends.
CPAs are licensed in their state of choice, which can lead to tight-knit networks, whether through the AICPA efforts or local CPA communities.
MBAs can mimic the university experience of meeting new people to study and work with, affording you a unique network of people who have similar career paths and goals as yourself.
Should You Go for a CPA or an MBA?
As outlined in the article, the differences between the two should make your decision-making a bit easier.
Here are some factors you should consider when selecting the ideal program for you.
When choosing between a CPA and an MBA, the question can boil down to: “Do you want to further your accounting career?”
If the answer is negative, there is no reason to pursue a CPA because you can still be an accountant without being a CPA – though you will not have the license to review or audit companies and represent their clients to the IRS.
The CPA designation is highly sought after, and you can be handsomely rewarded because of your rigorous knowledge of tax codes and license to audit companies.
However, the CPA exam itself is a high barrier to entry, and there is pressure to hold fast to the ethics and standards of the profession.
If you want to learn new skills and are interested in a corporate finance or operations setting, going for an MBA graduate degree may be the better option for you.
If you are mid-career and interested in changing your direction, a great way to do that is by enrolling in an MBA.
The educational requirements include an undergraduate degree, so college students can already plan their career path from graduation.
However, things will not always go according to plan, but an MBA is helpful for widening your pool of options.
If you are not interested in the possibility of changing your career from accounting, gunning for a CPA may be your best choice.
While the CPA is pricey, it is almost incomparable to the cost of an MBA.
Below is a breakdown of the cost of getting a CPA license:
- Application Fee: $50 – $245
- Exam Fee: Total of $1,000 for all four sections
- AUD Fee: $250
- BEC Fee: $250
- FAR Fee: $250
- REG Fee: $250
- Registration Fee: $30 – $150
- CPA Ethics Exam Fee: $149 for members and $189 for non-members
- CPA License Fee: $50 – $500
In total, you should expect a minimum spend of $1,279 to a maximum spend of $3,529 for the application and certification process.
Continuing Professional Education (CPE) credit hours of education which vary from state to state and are required for the regular renewal of the CPA license, are not included yet.
Because MBA costs in the United States can vary greatly, it’s difficult to pin down an average.
The tuition fee of a typical two-year-long MBA program in the United States
Here are some of the top ivy league MBAs in the United States, per academic year (based on 2021-2022 information):
- Stanford Graduate School of Business: $119,964
- Columbia Business School: $118,777
- Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania: $115,464
- Harvard Business School: $111,542
- Sloan School of Management at MIT: $78,954
Note that these are only the figures for the first year of study, and it may cost more for married students to bring their families on campus.
If you are considering whether you should get a CPA or an MBA, you are ready to bring your career to the next level.
Due to the considerable difference between the two credentials, it should be easy to choose the best path to take.
Serious accounting professionals can go for a CPA, and those wanting to learn more and climb the corporate ladder can benefit from an MBA.
However, many brave and determined professionals want to go for both – a decision that can be determined by the facts and figures in this article.
Stanford Graduate School of Business