Returning to School for Accounting

Updated September 29, 2022

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Curious about returning to school for accounting? Learn how you can earn college credit for work experience, reduce out-of-pocket expenses, and study from home.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

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You can return to school for several reasons: gaining experience to advance your career, pursuing a career change, or earning a degree for personal enrichment. You may pursue an accounting degree to increase your earning potential by meeting the educational requirements for CPA licensure or to move into a dynamic career field with multiple job openings.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 7% increase in accounting jobs from 2020 to 2030 and reports that, as of May 2021, accountants earned a median annual salary of $77,250.

If you're returning to school, you may face unique challenges, such as the need to balance your education with work and family responsibilities. You may benefit from the flexibility of an online accounting program, which lets working professionals arrange coursework around their schedules.

Returning students may also worry about paying for their degrees. They may qualify for numerous financial aid opportunities, including federal financial aid and accounting program scholarships. Employers may also offer tuition reimbursement.

This guide helps those returning to school find the best accounting program for their career goals. Learn about the benefits of online accounting programs, the transfer credit process, and how to translate work experience into college credit. We also cover financial aid options and provide a list of scholarships for accounting students.

Online Accounting Programs for Returning Students

If you're returning to school for accounting, you may benefit from the flexibility and convenience of an online program. With the COVID-19 pandemic and developments in virtual education, enrollment in online programs continues to rise: Data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that in fall 2020, 45.5% of students were enrolled exclusively in distance education programs.

Many online programs use an asynchronous learning format, where you complete coursework on more flexible schedules, which often use weekly or monthly deadlines. Because asynchronous online programs do not require you to attend live class sessions, working professionals and learners with family obligations can incorporate coursework into their existing schedules.

Enrolling in online classes also saves time and money on commuting costs, as many online learning platforms let you log on from anywhere, including mobile devices. By considering online programs, you can attend top accounting programs across the country without relocating.

Accounting students in online programs can also complete internship requirements at local sites with program approval. For these reasons, many returning students prefer online accounting programs over on-campus programs.

Transferring Credits as a Returning Student

If you're returning to the classroom, you may have already earned college credits at another institution. Transferring those credits to your new school can decrease the time to degree completion and overall tuition costs. However, colleges and universities have different transfer credit policies, so be sure to research the policies at each prospective school to maximize your transfer credits.

Schools do not automatically accept transfer credits. Instead, they evaluate your transcripts to determine which credits to accept. Colleges often only accept transfer credits from regionally accredited schools. Most also limit the number of credits you can transfer toward a degree. Additionally, while college credits never technically expire, some schools may decide to only accept credits earned within a particular time frame.

General education credits tend to transfer most easily, while you may have to retake courses for the major — especially in fields that change rapidly, like technology. If you're returning to school, you should research each institution and speak to an advisor about the school's transfer policy.

Transferrable Credits

Schools use the transcript review process to determine which transfer credits to accept. Public schools in the same state may have predetermined transfer agreements. Often, community colleges also maintain transfer agreements with nearby public institutions. You should pay close attention to prospective schools' policies about course equivalency, course levels, and quarter system versus semester system credit transfers.

Course Equivalency: During the transcript review process, schools must determine whether a class taken at another institution is equivalent to the school's version of that class. For example, if you took an introductory accounting course at a community college, you may receive credit for a similar introductory accounting course at a four-year university. For classes without exact equivalency, schools may grant elective credits.

Course Level: Course level also affects transfer policies. If you took a 100-level accounting class, you would not receive credit for a 300-level accounting class at your new school. In general, lower-level courses transfer more readily than upper-division classes. Schools may require you to complete major requirements or specialized courses, regardless of earlier course credits.

Quarter vs. Semester Transfers: You can transfer credits earned on the quarter system to schools that use the semester system or vice versa. If you attended multiple schools using different systems, you could use a credit conversion formula to estimate how many credits you may receive. Advisors at prospective institutions can offer insights into transferring credits between quarter and semester systems.

College Credit for Work Experience

In addition to transfer credits, some schools also grant class credit for work experience. These institutions acknowledge that students gain valuable knowledge through workplace training, military service, examinations, independent study, and other means. However, colleges do not simply award credit for experience. Instead, they evaluate what students have learned and how it applies to specific courses. This process is known as a prior learning assessment (PLA).

While the PLA process varies by institution, many use tools like standardized tests, challenge exams, and individual assessments to award credit for prior learning.

Methods of Assessing Prior Learning

Colleges and universities use several methods to assess your prior learning. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning identifies the following common methods of PLA, which can help you gain credit toward your degrees and save significantly on educational expenses.

Standardized Exams: Many colleges use standardized exams — including the College Level Exam Program — to award credit for prior learning. These exams assess your knowledge and skills in particular academic disciplines. Similarly, the DSST examination program offers more than 30 exams in college subject areas. Schools grant credit based on minimum scores or evaluate exams on a case-by-case basis.

Challenge Exams: While independent organizations offer standardized exams, some schools create their own challenge exams. These exams, also known as departmental exams, measure your knowledge in specific course areas. In most cases, a faculty member who teaches relevant classes creates the challenge exam to determine whether students can test out of those courses. If you pass the challenge exam, you receive college credit for that course.

Individual Assessments: In certain fields, institutions award credit based on individual assessments. These assessments take several forms, including interviews and performance assessments. Some schools use portfolio reviews, where qualified faculty members or an external portfolio evaluator examine a collection of materials you provided. Schools may also offer skill simulations for you to demonstrate your knowledge in a particular area.

Evaluation of Non-College Education and Training: Institutions also award credits for education and training you obtained outside the higher education system. This can include military training and workplace experience. In most cases, schools follow the guidelines of independent, third-party organizations that create PLA recommendations. Institutions may also award credit if you completed a certification or licensure process, including credentials in accounting.

How PLA Credits Transfer

Each school administers the PLA credit transfer process differently. Some award credit for prior learning, while others use prior learning to waive course requirements. If you receive credit for prior learning, it may count as elective credit, a general education requirement, or a major requirement.

If you're returning to school, you should research prospective schools' policies on credit for prior learning, including their policies on credit maximums and transferability. Selecting institutions or programs with generous prior learning policies can decrease your educational expenses and total enrollment time.

Paying for School as a Returning Student

If you're going back to school for accounting, you may qualify for various financial aid options, including federal grants, loans, scholarships, and work-study programs.

Filling Out the FAFSA as a Nontraditional Student

If you're returning to school, you should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine their eligibility for federal grants, loans, and work-study programs. to determine your eligibility for federal grants, loans, and work-study programs. You fill out the FAFSA annually. The form is available each October.

Most students meet the eligibility requirements for federal financial aid. All learners at regionally accredited institutions — regardless of age — qualify for federal financial aid, so even returning students should fill out the FAFSA.

The application not only considers you for federal financial aid but also helps you qualify for state and school financial aid. Some private loan providers and scholarship organizations also use the FAFSA to determine your financial need.

To qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen with a valid Social Security number. You must also be enrolled or accepted into an eligible institution. Men must register with the Selective Service System.

The application requires you to provide information about your income and assets. The federal financial aid program calculates your financial need based on this information.

What Information Do I Need to Provide for the FAFSA?

Social Security Number: To fill out a FAFSA, you need a Social Security number. Your name and Social Security number must match your Social Security card. Undocumented students do not qualify for federal aid, but they may qualify for state or school aid.

Driver's License Number: The federal government requires you to include your driver's license number as part of the FAFSA application. If you do not have a driver's license, you can leave this line blank.

Federal Tax Information: To determine financial need, the FAFSA application asks for federal tax information or tax returns. You must provide this information for you and your spouse if married. If you're not a dependent, you do not need to provide tax information for your parents.

Records of Untaxed Income: In addition to federal tax records, the FAFSA requires you to submit untaxed income records. This includes child support payments, interest income, and veteran noneducation benefits. You must provide these records for yourself and, if married, your spouse.

Information on Assets:You also provide information on your financial assets, which include cash, savings and checking accounts, investments such as stocks and bonds, and real estate other than the home where you live. If you are a dependent for tax purposes, you must also submit asset records for your parents.

How to Determine Your Financial Need

Many financial aid sources, including some scholarships and federal grants, determine awards based on your financial need. The federal financial aid program calculates financial need using the cost of attendance (COA) and expected family contribution (EFC).

The COA represents how much it will cost you to attend school. Most colleges calculate the COA per school year by determining factors such as tuition and fees, cost of living, books and other classroom supplies, and miscellaneous expenses.

After determining the cost of attending school, many financial aid programs use your EFC to determine financial aid eligibility. This number varies based on the tax and income information reported on your FAFSA. To calculate EFC, financial aid programs use a formula that considers taxed and untaxed income, assets, benefits, and family size.

If the cost of attendance exceeds expected family contributions, you may receive need-based aid. However, you cannot receive more need-based aid than your financial need. Need-based aid includes Pell grants, federal supplemental educational opportunity grants, subsidized loans, and federal work-study.

You may also qualify for non-need-based aid, which is calculated by subtracting all financial assistance awarded from the COA. The federal non-need-based aid programs include unsubsidized loans anddirect PLUS loans.

Financial Aid for Graduate Students

If you're a graduate student, you can also benefit from several financial aid sources. At the federal level, graduate student aid includes loans, grants, and work-study programs. Graduate students qualify for up to $20,500 per year in direct unsubsidized loans. After meeting this maximum amount, you may also apply for a PLUS loan, which requires a credit check.

The federal work-study program also helps graduate students with education expenses. Qualifying learners work part time — often in a position related to their course of study — and earn money for educational and living expenses.

In addition to federal sources of funding, you may qualify for financial aid through their state or school. Some states provide financial aid such as grants, loans, and loan forgiveness programs for master's and doctoral students. Many schools and accounting programs offer financial aid packages for graduate students, including scholarships, grants, and fellowships.

If you work, you may qualify for financial aid through your employer. Some employers offer tuition reimbursement programs, particularly for employees pursuing career advancement with a degree.

Graduate students also benefit from scholarships offered through accounting foundations and organizations, such as the ones listed below.

Scholarships and Grants for Midcareer and Adult Students

The programs below provide funding opportunities to students. While not an exhaustive list, these scholarships and grants are aimed at midcareer degree-seekers or those returning to school. Some of them directly assist accounting, finance, and business students, although many offer aid to learners across disciplines.

The Government Finance Officers Association Goldberg-Miller Public Finance Scholarship


Requirements: Awarded to one full-time graduate student who seeks to work in state and local government finance, the Goldberg-Miller Public Finance Scholarship is funded by the Girard Miller Foundation. Applicants submit one letter of recommendation for consideration.

Award: $20,000

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The Government Finance Officers Association Jeffrey L. Esser Career Development Scholarship


Requirements: Designed to assist individuals with three or more years of professional experience in public finance, this scholarship accommodates individuals who seek an associate or bachelor's degree. Applicants must pursue a public administration, governmental accounting, finance, or business administration degree part time.

Award: $5,000-$15,000

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The Association of International Certified Professional Accountant (AICPA) William (Bill) Ezzell Scholarship


Requirements: Applicants must be a certified public accountant with an undergraduate or master's degree in accounting and pursuing a Ph.D. in accounting. An intent to teach and research upon graduation is also required.

Award: $10,000

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The Accounting Doctoral Scholars (ADS) Program


Requirements: Students applying to doctorate in accounting programs with a concentration in audit, tax, management accounting, information systems, or financial accounting with a focus on data analytics from an ADS-participating school can apply. Applicants must be a certified public accountant with at least three years of professional experience. Application materials include three letters of recommendation, unofficial transcripts, unofficial GRE or GMAT scores, and a one-page essay.

Award: $20,000

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The Educational Foundation for Women in Accounting (EFWA) Michele L. McDonald Memorial Scholarship


Requirements: The Michele L. McDonald Memorial scholarship accommodates women who seek to earn a degree in accounting, with preference given to applicants returning to college from the workforce or after raising children. Applicants must demonstrate financial need, an aptitude for accounting and business, and clear evidence of career goals.

Award: $1,000

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The Ford Opportunity Program


Requirements: Applicants must be a parent or learner over the age of 25 who resides in Oregon or Siskiyou County, California. Full-time students in associate or bachelor's programs with at least one year of school remaining can apply. Individuals who hold a bachelor's degree are not eligible.

Award: Need-based funding up to 90% of unmet college costs

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The Arizona Business and Professional Women (BPW) Foundation Scholarship


Requirements: Designed to support working women 19 years of age or older, applicants for this scholarship must reside in Arizona and return to school at a community college in the state. Recipients must attend one Arizona BPW Foundation event per year.

Award: Unspecified

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The Executive Women International (EWI) Adult Students in Scholastic Transition (ASIST) Scholarship Program


Requirements: EWI's ASIST scholarship provides financial support to adult learners seeking to enter college, reenroll in college, or attend a retraining program. Applicants must reside within the area of one of EWI's participating chapters.

Award: Unspecified

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The Jeanette Rankin Foundation Emerge Grant Program


Requirements: Applicants must be a woman or nonbinary resident of Georgia and 25 years of age or older. Individuals pursuing a technical, vocational, or undergraduate degree can apply.

Award: Unspecified

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The P.E.O. Scholar Awards Program


Requirements: Applicants must be a woman with a minimum of a bachelor's degree enrolled in a doctoral program at an accredited college or university in the United States or Canada.

Award: Unspecified

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Tips for a Successful Return to School for Accounting

Returning to school can present challenges. If you're going back to school for accounting, you may need to develop or refine certain skills.

Brush Up on Tech Skills: Today's college students use a variety of technologies during the learning experience. Many accounting programs expect you to be familiar with accounting technology. By brushing up on tech skills, such as accounting software and online learning platforms, you can be better prepared for classes.

Find Support Networks: If you're juggling work, family, and school, you can benefit from support networks. Building support networks with family, friends, and employers can help you manage these responsibilities and complete a degree.

Choose a Flexible Program: Flexible online accounting programs can benefit you if you return to school. Self-paced, asynchronous, or independent learning programs may best accommodate your lifestyle if you have other commitments.

Reviewed by:

Lonnie Woods III is a student affairs administrator, professor, and professional development consultant whose work and research examine the career competencies of students interested in pursuing artistic careers or those studying arts-related majors in college.

He has over 10 years of experience working in education with professional experience spanning various institutions, including Pratt Institute, Maryland Institute College of Art, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York University, The George Washington University, and The Whitney Museum of American Art.

Woods holds a bachelor of science in fine art photography from Towson University and a master of arts in higher education and student affairs from New York University. Woods currently serves as a professor in the arts administration master's program at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Lonnie Woods III is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network.

Page last reviewed July 25, 2022

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