Many business students and young professionals want to advance their careers, but they aren’t sure what path will help them the most. Some argue that a masters degree will propel them up the ladder and allow them to command a higher salary while others advocate for the respect of the certified public accounting designation.

Both of these career paths are great options for people who want to take over the business world and both of them tend to focus on different career paths. Let’s take a look at each option and see which one is right for you!

What is the difference between a CPA and an MBA?

One is a credential and the other is an academic degree. CPA (Certified Public Accountant) is a credential that you earn by fulfilling educational requirements, experience qualifications, and passing an exam that designates you as being qualified to perform duties associated with public and private accounting. The exam consists of four parts: Auditing and Attestation, Business Environment and Concepts, Financial Accounting and Reporting and Regulation.

An MBA (Master’s of Business Administration) is a post-graduate degree that focuses on a broad scope of business disciplines (typically): Finance, Accounting, Marketing, Information Technology, and Organizational Management/Operations. To be an accepted into an MBA program, you have to meet a school’s requirements that weigh your undergraduate GPA and performance on the GMAT. (Some schools may also consider work experience.) MBA programs are widely offered by universities and colleges worldwide whereas the CPA exam is administered by the AICPA (in the U.S.)

CPA vs MBA Career Path Difference

If you have an MBA, you have a greater choice in career opportunities, depending on your area of specialization. If you have an MBA, you could work as a management consultant, marketing manager, investment banker, chief information officer, operations manager or financial advisor (to name only a handful.)

If you are a Certified Public Accountant, some job titles might include CFO, auditor, tax advisor or forensic accountant. Since the areas of study for an MBA are more wide-ranging, there are more career choices. If you have a CPA license, your options will be focused on accounting and finance. If you get both of them, you’ll have the world at your disposal.

CPA vs MBA Time Requirement Differences

There is no specific timeframe for completing an MBA degree program. How long it takes will depend on if you study full or part-time and if you attend classes on campus or take them online. Some schools also give credit for work experience which can knock off some of the hours required for degree completion. Since an MBA program is a master’s degree program, there is no type of certification exam that you will be required to pass upon completion. You simply graduate from your program. On average, it takes 2-3 years to complete an MBA program.

Becoming a CPA takes longer is much more involved. You must have completed 150 undergraduate credit hours and some states require that you must also have a given number of hours worked under the direct supervision of a CPA. You will also have 18 months to sit for and pass all four parts of the CPA exam. In total it could take about 8 1/2 years to become a CPA (e.g. five years of undergraduate work, two years on the job and 18 months to pass the CPA exam.)

CPA vs MBA Cost

Costs of earning an MBA and CPA are highly variable and depend on such factors as geographic location, private versus public institution, number of hours required, etc. Figure in other costs such as books and/or access to online materials, technology costs, study courses and if you plan to live on-campus, the cost of room and board. The average cost of tuition is around $58,000. Other considerations are income and work experience that you will forego if you choose to become a full-time student. That is why part-time, online and, accelerated MBA programs have become so popular.

It is less definitive to put a price tag on becoming a Certified Public Accountant, but tuition will be a large part of the equation. You should also factor in roughly $2,000 for the cost of any prep courses you enroll in so you can adequately prepare for the CPA exam.

Aside from these, other CPA exam costs fluctuate vastly from state to state. Some state registration fees are contingent on the number of exam sections you need to take, and you’ll need to pay even more if you require a retake. A safe estimate of the cost for all four sections is around $1,500.

Finally, add $150 for the price of a CPA exam license once you’re finished with the exam. After this, the most relevant costs for your certification are regular CPE courses to maintain your state’s license. This could run you a few thousand, but there’s a ton of free content available that drastically cuts down on these costs.

DesignationUndergraduate Tuition (120 hrs)Undergraduate Tuition (30 hrs)Graduate Tuition (30 hrs)Exam FeesPrep Course Fees
CPA License$48,000$12,000Optional$1,500$2,000
MBA or MACC Degree$48,0000$58,00000

CPA vs MBA Potential Salaries

Obviously, earning either of these credentials will vastly improve your career prospects and potential salary; however, you’ll still need to factor in work experience and location. But here’s some more specific info for each option:

When you compare the median annual salary of a non-certified accountant with that of a CPA, you can see that they make approximately 30% more. That’s a pretty good pay increase for all the work that goes into it– but remember that these are just averages. There’s a much higher ceiling on your salary as a CPA than as an ordinary accountant.

On the other hand, MBA salaries are largely affected by your location– particularly when it comes to your alma mater. Ultimately, however, you can expect to earn around $50,000 in your first year. As the years pass, this underwhelming number will consistently increase at a much faster pace than others in your position without this degree.

DesignationAverage Starting Salary4-Year Average Salary10-Year Average Salary
CPA License$62,123$63,351$111,591
MBA or MACC Degree$51,396$60,541$98,800

CPA vs MBA: Which is Better?

There is no clear-cut answer to this question. It all depends on your career interests and aptitude. If you get an MBA with an emphasis in marketing and your goal is to be a public relations director, there is probably little impetus to expend the “blood, sweat and tears” to get a CPA credential on top of that. Likewise, if your passion is auditing, getting an MBA will provide you with a well-rounded business education but it may not be worth the cost.

CPA vs MBA: Why Not have Both?

You can, but it depends on what you want to do. Are you interested in management opportunities or consulting? If so, you can save a lot of time and money and just get your MBA. But if you enjoy working with numbers and want to get paid well for it, you should become a CPA and seek employment at one of the Big 4 Accounting Firms.

However, there are unique career growth opportunities for a CPA whose earned their MBA, including upper management positions. The inverse is also true: an finance-focused MBA interested in corporate finance or taxation, could get a lot of mileage out of a CPA education.

There are a few options to make this a little easier. Since you must earn 150 credit hours to become a CPA, you can begin fulfilling this requirement by starting on your MBA. If you have been led to believe that trying to tackle both at the same time is not feasible, think again. Schools are getting more creative and putting together programs that combine disciplines (e.g. MBA/CPA, MBA/MD, etc.) so with a little research, you might find the perfect program that will allow you to earn both an MBA and CPA at the same time.

If you are currently employed, look into your company’s benefits package to see if tuition reimbursement is offered. While this perk is mostly associated with large corporations, you might be surprised to discover that your company has funds available. However, be prepared to foot a percentage of the bill yourself as tuition reimbursement averages anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Also “read the fine print” — often companies have a stipulation that if they finance your education (particularly in the case of a highly marketable MBA) that once you get your degree you must remain employed there for x-number of years or risk having to repay the tuition. The same strategy applies to Certified Public Accountants. Look into what types of professional expenses reimbursement is provided by your employer. The state you work in will have a number of CPE hours that you must acquire during a given time period (e.g. 20 hours in 2 years) to maintain licensure. The cost of continuing education (and licensure) might be covered by your employer.

If your employer doesn’t provide tuition reimbursement, you still might be able to make the case for them to subsidize your higher education. If you do your homework and can demonstrate what value an MBA level of knowledge will bring to the organization, there is a chance that your employer will agree. Whether or not you’re a CPA and you want to get an MBA then do a personal cost-benefit analysis. Assess the job market and make a determination as to whether or not it is worth it. Pursuing an MBA degree involves a huge time commitment and again, the result will be determined on your present job, positions you aspire to and whether or not your company will pay for your education.

Is it worth it? What do you want to be when you grow up?

Sorry, but there isn’t an easy answer to this question. Tons of research shows that you can have an incredibly rewarding career with either or both, so here’s my advice:

Reach out to people who have one or both of these credentials and hear what they have to say. Based on their perspective, you’ll know whether or not that career path is compatible with your professional goals.

But one thing’s for certain— you should get started as soon as possible!

Kenneth W. Boyd is a former Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and the author of several of the popular "For Dummies" books published by John Wiley & Sons including 'CPA Exam for Dummies' and 'Cost Accounting for Dummies'.

Ken has gained a wealth of business experience through his previous employment as a CPA, Auditor, Tax Preparer and College Professor. Today, Ken continues to use those finely tuned skills to educate students as a professional writer and teacher.