What Is a Forensic Accounting Degree?
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) states that “Forensic accounting services generally involve the application of specialized knowledge and investigative skills possessed by CPAs to collect, analyze, and evaluate evidential matter and to interpret and communicate findings in the courtroom, boardroom, or other legal or administrative venue." In more simplistic terms, "forensic" is an adjective that describes the suitability of something to be used in a courtroom.
While there are online certificate programs in forensic accounting, a bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement for entry-level jobs in this field. With that being said, some employers may require a master’s degree in forensic accounting for even entry-level positions.
While a bachelor’s degree in forensic accounting provides a point of entry into the field, many employers will expect an upper-level job candidate to be a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), which requires earning a master’s degree in accounting.
Students interested in pursuing a career in forensic accounting often first pursue a bachelor’s degree in accounting with a concentration in forensic accounting. While a bachelor’s degree in forensic accounting provides a point of entry into the field, many employers will expect an upper-level job candidate to be a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), which requires earning a master’s degree in accounting and successfully passing the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Exam. The general content areas covered on the exam include Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG).
To earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting — or forensic accounting, if offered — it typically takes a full-time student four years to complete the roughly 120 required credit hours.
Can You Get a Forensic Accounting Degree Online?
Yes, a number of online colleges and universities across the country offer students forensic accounting degrees and general accounting degrees, with specializations in forensic accounting. When considering different online forensic accounting degree programs, there’s one word you need to pay particular attention to: accreditation.
When considering different online forensic accounting programs, it’s important to research an institution’s accreditation status. While there are different accrediting organizations, arguably the most respected one in the field of accounting is The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).
In fact, accreditation is such an important aspect of choosing an online college or university that OnlineU only includes accredited institutions in any of our content, as accreditation provides both an institution and its students with an official seal of approval over its academic programs. Additionally, while not a universal requirement, many employers prefer to hire candidates that have earned degrees from accredited institutions. It's also not uncommon for various professional certifications to require a degree from an accredited college or university.
Common Courses for a Forensic Accounting Major
If you’re good with numbers and have an interest in investigating potential cases of financial fraud, irregularities and criminal acts among other things, earning an online degree in forensic accounting may be ideal.
Explore the following core courses to help you determine whether a forensic accounting degree is the right fit for you:
Whether pursuing a career as a forensic accountant or an entirely different accounting niche, you can expect to take at least one course that specifically covers the basic principles of accounting. These principles provide the blueprint that various companies and other entities must follow in reporting financial data.
Accountants help manage a company or organization’s financial data and reporting guidelines. However, whether a recurring quarterly or annual audit — or an audit aimed at discovering if financial crimes or frauds are at play — an auditing course provides you with the essentials when it comes to the work auditors perform and the processes through which they work.
It should come as no surprise that accountants and forensic accountants need to have a strong working knowledge of finance, as it’s tied to most everything they do as accounting professionals. In this course, you’ll learn about bookkeeping, financial analysis and management, risk analysis, and investments.
A course in business law helps to tie together general accounting and the investigative side of the field. Faculty cover laws commonly encountered in the accounting profession as well as areas such as contracts, real and personal property rights, agency corporations, and a variety of other topics to prepare you for a career in forensic accounting.
What Can You Do With a Forensic Accounting Degree?
One of the best things about a career in forensic accounting is the number of unique professional opportunities it will allow you to pursue throughout your career. From working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other federal and state entities or working in law offices to working in the corporate world.
Financial institutions — including banks, investment firms, and large corporations — are at particular risk of financial fraud within their organization due to the nature of the work. While external financial audits are common requirements of financial institutions, the same entities often have their own forensic accounting teams to help monitor any financial irregularities or fraudulent activity among employees and departments. As a forensic accountant for a financial institution, you would help reduce fraudulent activity before it's discovered by external auditors.
Individuals can work as a forensic accountant, an accountant for a state or federal government agency, an accountant for a business or insurance agency, and more. Below, we highlight some career options for forensic accounting degree holders, including data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Annual Median Salary: $77,250
Job Growth Rate: 6%
Forensic accountants — which are grouped in with "accountants and auditors" in the BLS — investigate all manner of financial crimes, from bankruptcies to fraud and embezzlement. Since they use their detective skills to determine whether an action is illegal, they must have a strong working knowledge of how accounting and finance concepts interplay with the law. They may find work with the FBI, investigating political corruption and terrorism by analyzing the financial records of suspected terrorist groups or looking at possible cases of fraud committed by government employees. Importantly, all forensic accounts may have to testify in court hearings and stay current with the ever-changing laws.
Annual Median Salary: $81,410
Job Growth Rate: 21%
In fraud examination and investigation, financial examiners must be familiar with different financial laws, have a strong understanding of generally accepted accounting principles, be able to recognize common signs of fraud, and uncover facades intended to cover up fraudulent activity by an individual or organization. To help advance their career prospects and show current and potential employers a strong background in the field, many financial examiners decide to earn credentials, such as becoming a Certified Fraud Examiner.
Annual Median Salary: $79,940
Job Growth Rate: 3%
Budget analysts help companies and organizations efficiently plan their finances. In addition to assisting entities in financial planning, they closely monitor where and how the entity spends funds. They also prepare departmental and organizational budget reports and often act as liaisons when it comes to conveying and explaining budget requests to legislative bodies and the public.
Annual Median Salary: $65,170
Job Growth Rate: -2%
Typically specializing in a particular industry, cost estimators help companies estimate the costs to produce or manufacture a product. While they analyze the anticipated financial costs, estimators also construct estimates of costs associated with time, construction materials, and labor requirements. Cost estimators often work with an organization’s contractors, engineers and clients to produce the most accurate estimate possible.
Annual Median Salary: $81,410
Job Growth Rate: 9%
Financial analysts help individuals, companies, and organizations in making financially sound decisions that increase portfolio revenue. In addition, they provide investment recommendations to maximize future financial returns, review an entity’s financial health by closely studying financial statements and prepare reports to help communicate information to management.
Annual Median Salary: $131,710
Job Growth Rate: 17%
In contrast to positions with more narrow and specific financial responsibilities, financial managers typically oversee all aspects of a company or organization’s financial health. Financial managers are instrumental in helping management make sound financial decisions by creating financial statements, audit reports, and financial projections. Financial managers are responsible for keeping a company or organization on track to record profit and analyze the market for new business opportunities.
Is There a High Demand for Forensic Accountants?
Between 2021 and 2031, the employment demand for accountants and auditors is expected to grow by 6%, which is about the average among U.S. occupations. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that there are an estimated 136,400 job openings each year for accountants and auditors. Recently in 2021, there were over 1.4 million accounting jobs, and that number is projected to reach over 1.5 million by the end of the decade.
As the economy rebounds and continues to grow in today’s digital environment, the need for experienced forensic accountants will likely continue to increase. With more online banking and investing businesses, more rules and regulations to help govern online finance, and a growing number of consumers taking their personal financial management online, forensic accountants may experience even greater demand over time as long as the economy continues to prosper.
Does a Forensic Accountant Need a CPA?
Earning a CPA license can help open doors to both advanced careers in forensic accounting and related fields.
While forensic accountants are not required to have a CPA, earning a CPA and passing the licensure exam will help make forensic accountants that much more marketable to prospective employers.
The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) provides professional guidance and education for forensic accountants, while the National Association of Forensic Accountants (NAFA) offers an abundance of resources in addition to certifications and training.
Is a Bachelor's Degree in Forensic Accounting Worth It?
Our research suggests an online forensic accounting degree is worth it. Through factors, such as median annual salary ($77,250 in 2021), continued demand for skilled accountants and forensic accounting specialists (6% job growth through 2031), and the ever-evolving environment of online business, a degree in forensic accounting can help propel your career.
If you’re a numbers person with an investigative mind looking to work in a niche career field with a higher-than-average annual median salary, a forensic accounting career may be worth it. Consider the following pros and cons of getting your forensic accounting degree online:
As of May 2021, the median annual salary among all occupations in the U.S. was $58,260, making the median annual salary for accountants nearly $20,000 greater. As a result, forensic accountants can expect to earn a significantly higher salary over their lifetime than many other occupations.
Forensic accounting students looking to extend their education beyond the bachelor’s level have multiple opportunities to grow their knowledge and marketability. They can earn a master’s degree in forensic accounting or just accounting, become a CPA, and/or earn various professional certifications and credentials.
Technological advances in the industry means that the role of accountants is becoming more focused on higher level thinking, as monotonous tasks, like data entry, are now easily automated. In other words, duties that involve consultations and analysis are taking center stage while the job growth doesn't diminish. So, if you like solving problems and using your critical thinking skills, this job has become more appealing in recent years.
According to a survey on CareerExplorer, accountants are unsatisfied with their career choice in general. They rank their career as 2.6 out of 5 stars, placing them in the bottom 6% of all their career satisfaction surveys. Therefore, it’s important to research the type of day-to-day work forensic accountants perform by researching the role and speaking with professionals. Forensic accountants can experience a great deal of stress and anxiety, as being successful requires tedious, specific, and time-intensive work.
The process of becoming a forensic accountant at the top of your field is a considerable time investment. Despite earning a bachelor’s degree in forensic chemistry, establishing yourself as a qualified job candidate may require earning a master’s degree and becoming a CPA. Some employers will only hire applicants with a master’s degree.
Working toward your bachelor’s degree online may limit the extent of networking you are able to accomplish as a result of not being physically in class with your peers and mentors. While it’s still possible to meet fellow students and build relationships with industry experts, it may be challenging for more reserved and quiet students to feel comfortable networkingin a digital environment.
OnlineU’s online forensic accounting programs are ranked based on federally sourced alumni salary and debt data, which we use to calculate a graduate’s projected earnings over a 10-year period. For those concerned about tuition costs, it may be helpful to point out that federal financial aid is available to students pursuing a forensic chemistry degree at the graduate level. In addition to this type of aid, a variety of public and private scholarships are available to students in accounting-related degree programs.
In terms of what degree is best for forensic accounting, an online forensic chemistry degree program (where available) or general accounting degree with a specialization in forensic chemistry are among the best degree programs for future forensic accountants. Many students also decide to continue their education by earning an MBA in Accounting, or an MBA in Finance.