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CMA vs. CPA vs. CFA: 3 Popular Accounting Certifications and Credentials to Consider

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There’s plenty to like about the potential of an accounting career. It’s a stable field with solid earning potential—in fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the 2017 median annual wage for accounting professionals was $69,350.1 Couple that with a career that lets you tap into your math and problem-solving skills, and it’s easy to see why you might be drawn to the field.

But choosing to pursue an Accounting degree isn’t the only substantial decision on your horizon—there’s also deciding which accounting certification or credential you should pursue. To help you make a decision, we’ve highlighted the three most popular credentials for accounting professionals to help you decide whether a CMA, CPA or CFA is the right option for you.

What is a CMA?

The Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification is designed to develop your ability to make strategic business decisions based on an organization’s financial situation. Becoming a certified management accountant helps you develop a level of expertise in both financial accounting and strategic management.

Certification as a CMA means passing the two-part CMA exam. The exam covers financial statement analysis, working-capital policy, capital structure, valuation issues and risk management among other topics, according to the BLS.1

Applicants need to hold a Bachelor’s degree to be eligible to sit for the test, and you’ll need two years of accounting experience before the credential becomes official.

Why get the certification?

“The CMA certification is a great fit for both accounting and finance majors,” says Kari Grittner, Accounting program coordinator at Rasmussen College. “This credential focuses on management, and strategic planning makes CMA holders a valuable commodity for private businesses.”

And if your own bottom line is a concern, CMA holders report a median annual compensation that is 67 percent higher than their non-certified colleagues, according to the March 2016 IMA Global Salary Survey.2

The CMA certification, like other accounting credentials, comes with a price tag—approximately $600 for student members.

What is a CPA?

The Certified Public Accountant (CPA) credential is perhaps the most widely known credential for accounting professionals. You will often find CPAs working in the public sector versus a corporate setting because CPAs can be paid by individuals or businesses for their accounting and tax services.

A Bachelor’s degree combined with a few years of experience is the most common path to earning your CPA credential, but requirements vary by state. In Minnesota, for example, you can sit for the exams only after completing a Bachelor’s degree. In Florida, you need just 120 semester hours to apply to sit for the exam. CPAs are also required to complete varying levels of continuing professional education in order to keep their state licensure.

Why get the certification? 

“The CPA has always been the gold standard,” Grittner says. Earning your CPA puts you into an elite group of accounting professionals who are trusted for their skills, dedication and quality. The BLS reports that every accountant filing a report with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is legally required to be a CPA, but that other accountants choose a CPA certification to enhance their job prospects.

The certification also shows a commitment to the profession, and highlights candidates that may be interested in leadership and management positions. Many employers will pay the costs associated with the CPA exam, the BLS adds.

What is a CFA?

The Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation is a credential that certifies the competence and integrity of financial analysts. The CFA Institute grants individuals the credential only after they pass three levels of exams covering subjects including accounting, economics, ethics, money management and security analysis.

Individuals considering a CFA credential need four years of experience working with investments, must be members of the CFA Institute and must pledge an oath of ethical conduct—all in addition to passing those exams. Completing the entire program takes most candidates between two and five years, according to the CFA Institute.

Why get the certification?

Earning a CFA is a great way to distinguish your resume from that of other job applicants. Employers know the time and dedication it took to earn the CFA, and it will prove you have the ability, dedication, ethical reasoning and analytical skills necessary to do the job in question. If your ambitions involve climbing into higher finance positions, this credential is an excellent stepping-stone.

Which accounting certification is right for you?

As you can see, each of these accounting certifications comes with its own area of expertise and impact. Some accountants might even wind up with multiple certifications as their careers advance.

But to pursue any of these credentials, you must first have a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting or Finance. Once you’ve earned a degree, it’s clear an additional credential—whether it’s a CMA, CPA or CFA—is important to distinguish yourself in your career. Consider what type of career you’re headed toward and which of these choices will best complement your career.

For that, you might want a little more information on what a career in accounting looks like from the inside. Check out our article, “10 Must-Know Pros & Cons of an Accounting Career” to learn more.

1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [information accessed January 22, 2019] Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Institute of Management Accountants, 2018 Global Salary Survey, [information accessed January 22, 2019]
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2016. It has since been updated. Insights from Grittner remain from the original article.

Brianna Flavin

Brianna is a content writer for Collegis Education who writes student focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She earned her MFA in poetry and teaches as an adjunct English instructor. She loves to write, teach and talk about the power of effective communication.

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