The decision of whether one meets the requirements to sit for the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam or to receive the CPA certificate rests with the Pennsylvania State Board of Accountancy (the Board). This posting attempts to summarize the requirements in plain English. Because it is not an “official” interpretation of the rules, a prudent person should verify the rules with the Board.
The completion of specific accounting courses is not mandated by the State Board of Accountancy. The Board requires courses in the areas of accounting, auditing, tax, finance, and business law with content satisfactory to the Board and only the Board can determine which courses it considers satisfactory. Certain courses provide critical preparation for the exam and should be taken, and the references to specific courses in the details below reflect our assessment of critical courses.
Requirements to Sit for the CPA Exam
- Twenty-four (24) semester credit-hours of accounting and auditing, business law, finance or tax subjects covering content satisfactory to Pennsylvania State Board of Accountancy. These courses would usually be undergraduate credits and may be a part of a degree. The entry-level principles of accounting course(s) is (are) counted in the total of these courses. An accounting internship for which the student received academic credit may also be counted. The number of credit-hours allowed for finance is up to the Pennsylvania State Board of Accountancy; no specific guidance was published by the Board at the time of writing this summary in 2013. Please contact the Board if you intend to use more than three semester credit-hours of finance or business law toward your total.
- A bachelor's (or master’s) degree, with a minimum of 120 credit-hours, in any discipline from an accredited college or university. As long as the student meets the 24 credit-hour requirement immediately above, the remaining courses and the degree can be in any discipline. The degree could be in psychology, although that degree would do little to prepare one for the knowledge tested on the CPA exam.
Additional Requirements to Become Certified
- An additional 12 semester credit-hours in accounting, auditing and tax subjects, raising the required accounting and related subjects total from the previously mentioned 24 to 36 credit-hours. Note that finance and business law are excluded from the additional 12 credit-hours. These courses may be undergraduate or graduate courses.
- One hundred and fifty(150) credit-hours overall. The 150 credit-hours requirement does not require a second degree.
One could wait until he or she meets all four education requirements before sitting for the exam, however, taking all or part of the exam after completing the first three requirements can expedite passage, improving one’s employment prospects.
In addition to meeting the above educational requirements, to be certified, one must pass the CPA exam and complete one year of qualifying work experience. The exam itself is the same nationally. See the “Qualifying Work Experience” section below for additional comments regarding the work-experience requirement.
Educational Options for Meeting the Exam Requirements
There are multiple paths to achieving the CPA Exam sitting and certification requirements. Four are discussed here.
Option 1: Undergraduate Accounting Degree as First Degree Completed
The most obvious CPA exam path is to obtain an undergraduate accounting degree with as many accounting electives as possible. A student could complete the majority of the 36 required credits with an accounting degree at Penn State Harrisburg, if the student takes his or her business supporting electives in accounting. The additional credits to reach 150 could be from a graduate degree (e.g., M.B.A. or master of science in accounting) or could simply be additional undergraduate courses of interest to the student, as long as the student makes sure to complete the required 36 credit-hours in qualifying courses in accounting, finance and business law.
If a student elects to complete extra hours to meet the 150 credit-hour requirement with undergraduate courses, it would be beneficial to the student for purposes of future employment to select those extra hours to earn a second major, perhaps in finance or information systems, or to earn one or two minors.
Alternatively, a student that started, but has not completed another major can switch to accounting and count the courses from the other major toward the 150-hour requirement. As long as the student makes sure to complete the required 36 credit-hours in qualifying courses in accounting, finance and business law, the student might qualify for taking the exam and certification (except for the qualifying work experience) upon completion of the undergraduate accounting degree.
Option 2: Undergraduate Accounting Degree as Second Degree Completed
A student returning to school with a degree in a field other than accounting could pursue an accounting degree. If the student has a previous degree in business, the student may only need the accounting and business law courses totaling 36 credits. Be aware that the sequencing of accounting courses makes it likely that this option cannot be accomplished in less than three semesters. Students must complete Intermediate Financial Accounting I, Intermediate Financial Accounting II and Advanced Financial Accounting in a three-separate-semester sequence.
A student with a previous degree outside business is likely to also need quite a few business courses outside of accounting in order to get an accounting degree. The additional management, marketing, economics, and non-business courses, such as English for business majors, can add another 30 or so credits to those required bringing the total needed for the degree to over 60 credits. This option will most likely take a minimum of four semesters. Besides the fact that completing 60 credit-hours takes time, students must complete Principles of Accounting, Intermediate Financial Accounting I, Intermediate Financial Accounting II and Advanced Financial Accounting in a four-separate-semester sequence.
Option 3: Undergraduate Degree in another Area, with Additional Coursework in Accounting
A student returning to school with a previous degree outside business who wishes to minimize the time and cost, could simply pursue completion of the 36 credit-hours in qualifying courses in accounting, finance, and business law.
Be aware that the sequencing of accounting courses makes it likely that this option cannot be accomplished in less than four semesters. As previously mentioned, students must complete Principles of Accounting, Intermediate Financial Accounting I, Intermediate Financial Accounting II and Advanced Financial Accounting in a four-separate-semester sequence.
A student pursuing this option can apply to Penn State Harrisburg as either a non-degree student or a degree student. The primary advantage of enrolling as a degree student is that degree students register for courses at an earlier date than non-degree students register. Enrolling as a degree student does not require one to complete the degree.
Option 4: Graduate Courses
A student with an undergraduate degree with some, but not all, of the required 36 credit-hours of accounting, finance and business law courses might be able to obtain additional qualifying courses within the M.B.A. (master of business administration) program at Penn State Harrisburg or a master of science (M.S.) in accounting. The Penn State World Campus is in the process of instituting an online M.S. in accounting.
Either of these options may require admission to graduate school. However, students with an undergraduate degree can take up to nine credit-hours without admission to the M.B.A. program with permission of the director of the M.B.A. program. Undergraduates with senior standing and a cumulative grade point average over a 3.50 can take M.B.A. or M.S. in accounting courses with special permission from the Penn State Graduate School. Up to nine credits taken as an undergraduate that were not used to satisfy the requirements for the undergraduate degree may even be applied to the graduate degree, upon admittance to the graduate program.
The possibilities under this last option are dependent on a particular student’s transcript and situation.
For students who have an undergraduate degree in accounting who are not close to the 150 credit-hours needed for certification, completing a master’s program may be an attractive option. Often the M.B.A. or M.S. in Accounting can be completed in 30 credit hours with the added benefit of obtaining a master’s degree rather than a second undergraduate degree or additional coursework leading to no degree.
Suggested Plan for Completing the 36 Credit-Hours at Penn State Harrisburg
A suggested plan for completing the 36 credit-hours required for certification as a certified public accountant at Penn State Harrisburg with undergraduate courses is:
BUS 241 Legal Environment of Business (2 credits)
FIN 301 Introductory Finance (3 credits)
ACCTG 211 Financial and Managerial Accounting for Decision Making (4 credits)
ACCTG 340 Cost Accounting (3 credits)
ACCTG 310 Federal Taxation I (3 credits)
ACCTG 403 Auditing (3 credits)
ACCTG 471 Intermediate Financial Accounting I (3 credits)
ACCTG 472 Intermediate Financial Accounting II (3 credits)
ACCTG 473 Advanced Financial Accounting (3 credits)
Total of 27 credit-hours of required accounting, finance, and business law courses for the undergraduate accounting degree.
Three of the following elective courses, some of which are infrequently offered, will complete the 36 credit-hours requirement:
ACCTG 410 Federal Taxation II (3 credits)
ACCTG 432 Accounting Information Systems (3 credits)
ACCTG 440 Advanced Management Accounting (3 credits)
ACCTG 461 International Accounting (3 credits)
ACCTG 462 Governmental and Not-for-Profit Accounting (3 credits) – Strongly advised
ACCTG 495 Internship (3 credits)
27 + 9 = Total of 36 credit-hours of accounting, finance and business law courses
For those pursuing an accounting degree, this is only three credit-hours more than needed for the accounting degree. The accounting degree requires the 27 credit-hours of required courses and two (instead of three) accounting electives.
The above suggested plan for completing the 36 required credit-hours at Penn State Harrisburg with undergraduate courses will work for students who only need the accounting courses for the accounting degree or for students with a non-accounting degree who only want the accounting courses, but are not pursuing an accounting degree. However, a student taking only the 36 credit-hours and attempting to do so quickly could find himself or herself taking more than the desirable number of accounting courses during a given semester.
Qualifying Work Experience
The one-year work experience requirement can be completed before or after passing the exam, although there are some time limits not discussed here. The definition of qualifying work experience has been broadened. Until recently, one-year of attestation (audit) work experience was required. Specific work experience in the audit area is no longer required. Now, various kinds of accounting work experience may be used to meet the work experience requirement. If a student works in an accounting internship, certain types of work performed in the internship may be applied to meet the work-experience requirement providing that no academic credit is earned for the internship.
All qualifying work experience must be completed under the supervision of a licensed certified public accountant. Further discussion of the work experience requirement can be found on the Pennsylvania State Board of Accountancy and PICPA websites linked below.
Continuing Professional Education
Depending on the amount of time between passing the CPA exam and applying for certification, the applicant may be required to complete a certain number of hours of continuing professional education (CPE) before being certified.
Once a person is certified and licensed, additional annual CPE hours are required to maintain certification, along with other requirements. Further discussion of CPE and other licensing-maintenance requirements can be found on the Pennsylvania State Board of Accountancy and PICPA websites linked below.
Getting Specific Information for Your Situation
If you already have some university credits, with or without a degree, and you wish to know the number of credits that you would need for a bachelor of science (B.S.) degree in accounting from Penn State Harrisburg, you may submit your transcripts to the administrative support assistant for Undergraduate Students, Cathy Stoey, for a review [[email protected]; (717) 948-6139].
Evaluation of Academic Credit and Foreign Credit
Courses taken outside the U.S. and three-year bachelor degrees earned outside the U.S. raise special issues relative to evaluation of completed course work. For all academic credit, both foreign and domestic credit-hours, universities and state boards evaluate academic credit separately. Thus, Penn State University and the Pennsylvania State Board of Accountancy each evaluate a student’s transcripts separately. Completed course work may be accepted by Penn State and rejected by the Board. Likewise, completed course work may be accepted by the Board and rejected by Penn State. Further discussion of the evaluation of academic credit can be found on the Pennsylvania State Board of Accountancy and PICPA websites linked below.
Other Questions – Pennsylvania State Board of Accountancy
As appropriate, additional questions may be directed to the state board. But before contacting the Board, please review the information that is posted on their web site.
Besides the web site above, contact information for the Board is as follows:
Pennsylvania State Board of Accountancy
P.O. Box 2649
Harrisburg, PA 17105-2649
Phone: (717) 783-1404
Fax: (717) 705-5540
Email: [email protected]
More Information – PICPA and AICPA
Another helpful website with frequently asked question and responses that are less legalistic is the web site of PICPA (Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants).
The web sites of the PA State Board and of the PICPA should be accessed and the responses to Frequently Asked Questions posted there should be reviewed before seeking additional information from others.
Also, helpful information, including responses to frequently asked questions, may be obtained from the web site of AICPA (American Institute of Certified Public Accountants).
The information provided by AICPA about careers in accounting is especially useful.
Other State Boards of Accountancy
This discussion only covers the CPA exam rules for Pennsylvania. Each state establishes its own requirements to sit for the CPA exam, to obtain qualified work experience, to be certified as a certified public accountant and to be licensed as a certified public accountant. Some states even separate certification from licensing by, for example, allowing certification upon passage of the exam, but requiring qualifying work experience for licensing.
Pennsylvania does not separate certification from licensing. Thus, in Pennsylvania to be certified as a CPA, one also must be licensed as a CPA.
A person considering a move to another state should find the state board for the state of interest to determine that state’s requirements. A link to the various state boards can be found on the web site of NASBA (National Association of State Boards of Accountancy).
Further, every state has a professional organization of CPAs like the PICPA. A listing of these professional organizations can be found on the web site of AICPA.
For a state of interest, the web site of its organization should be accessed for useful information specific to that state.
Because the CPA exam is the same nationally, once a person becomes certified in any state, that person should not need to retake the CPA exam if moving to another state. As long as the individual meets the experience and continuing professional education requirements for certification in the new state, a reciprocal certificate can generally be obtained. However, the rules regarding reciprocal certificates are beyond the scope of this summary.