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Accounting vs. finance degree: What's the difference?

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This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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Kathryn Uhles

Reviewed by Kathryn Uhles, MIS, MSP, Dean, College of Business and IT

This article was updated on March 8, 2024. 

If you are interested in a math-driven field, a degree in accounting or finance may be something to consider. Accounting and finance degrees both focus on using math to help businesses succeed, but the two programs have differences. For students studying accounting, this means using their skills to handle budgets, taxes and audits. For those specializing in finance, this means using their skills in more big-picture ways, including in-depth studies in analysis of strategic growth, company finances and business principles.

Here, we speak with Joseph Aranyosi, associate dean of the College of Business and Information Technology at University of Phoenix, about the differences between accountants and financial directors:

Joseph Aranyosi
Associate Dean, College of Business and Information Technology

Joseph Aranyosi

“Typically, accountants manage daily/monthly financial transactions and records (e.g., cash flow, income statements, balance sheets), whereas financial directors oversee overall corporate financial assets/capital (e.g., investing, borrowing, lending, budgeting and forecasting functions). In other words, accounting generally looks at past and present transactions (such as assets, liabilities, equity) while finance focuses on forecasting, profitability and strategic decision-making (e.g., investment opportunities and expected future performance).”

Accounting and finance degrees provide different opportunities. With deeper insight to what each degree offers, you can find the choice that aligns with your goals. 

Interested in accounting? A degree from University of Phoenix is a great place to start!

What is an accounting degree? 

An accounting degree typically refers to an associate or bachelor’s degree in accounting. A Bachelor of Science in Accounting (BSA) can help prepare you with skills to pursue a career in accounting, in which you help organizations run more efficiently. This degree is often a prerequisite for an accounting position.

Accounting programs are an excellent fit for those who enjoy math and the prospect of learning complex financial concepts. Ideal candidates should also have strong attention to detail and value precision.

We spoke with Natalie Pratt, MAEd, MC, MBA, associate dean, College of Business and Information Technology, about important skills and qualities to learn in an accounting program to best step into the field: “In the field of accounting, being good at math, paying attention to details and enjoying diving into complex financial concepts are essential skills. Math ensures accuracy, attention to detail keeps everything in order, and a passion for understanding complex financial ideas fosters success in the dynamic world of accounting.”

Similarly, Aranyosi explains: “Accounting involves a great deal of numerical analysis and computation, requiring accuracy and attention to detail when recording financial transactions and preparing reports. Students who enjoy analyzing complex financial concepts, such as accrual accounting, depreciation, inventory valuation and financial statement analysis, will find accounting engaging. They’ll be able to use a wide variety of problem-solving skills to identify discrepancies in financial data and make corrections to address them.”

What you'll learn with an accounting degree

The money that goes into and out of a business must be tracked and analyzed to ensure the business is financially sound. Accounting professionals work with businesses daily to balance budgets and identify areas of fiscal concern.

When students earn an accounting degree, they generally learn skills in:

  • Accounting
  • Auditing
  • Financial statements
  • Accepted bookkeeping principles

Quality accounting programs provide resources to learn skills that businesses in the current marketplace may be looking for in new hires. The accounting program at UOPX teaches specific accounting skills and principles with hands-on accounting practices. 

Careers with an accounting degree

What can you do with an accounting degree? Within the accounting profession, there are multiple options, including:

  • Accountants and auditors typically examine the financial statements of an organization or entity to ensure accuracy and compliance with laws and regulations. That includes computing taxes owed and preparing tax returns for on-time payment. Depending on the organization, these professionals may also suggest cost reductions and best practices for detecting and minimizing fraud.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), accountants typically require a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Some employers prefer candidates to have a master’s degree, especially if they manage teams or work as organizational controllers. In May 2022, accountants and auditors earned between $48,560 and $132,690. Salaries can vary based on many factors, including the sector where you work and the size of your organization. According to BLS, the job outlook for accounting professionals is projected  to grow by 4% between 2022 and 2032.

  • Accounting managers oversee a team of accountants. They might also create and implement policies and prepare financial reports and budgets.
  • Cost accountants are a specific subset of accountants who focus on a company’s costs. They analyze associated costs for producing a company’s goods or services and provide detailed reports outlining the impact of those costs on profitability.
  • Tax examiners help determine how much individuals and businesses owe in taxes and are usually responsible for collecting them. They typically have a bachelor’s degree in accounting. In May 2022, tax examiners and collectors earned between $36,570 and $107,120.

One important thing to consider is the difference between public and private accounting: Private accountants help businesses with tax prep, financial analyses and internal audits. Public accountants provide these services to private, public or government organizations.  

Pratt shares: “The main difference is that with public accounting, services are being performed on behalf of another entity (e.g., government organization), whereas in private accounting, one is in business for themselves or a privately owned organization.”

Aranyosi further explains: “Both complete similar tasks. The main differences are when they’re busiest (e.g., tax season versus the end of a fiscal quarter or year), how much they get paid (since private firms generally pay better) and the size of their team (private businesses generally have smaller teams than public/government groups).”

Salary ranges are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.

BLS Occupational Employment Projections, 2022-2032 is published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This data reflects BLS’ projections of national (not local) conditions. These data points are not specific to University of Phoenix students or graduates.

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What is a finance degree?

Finance degrees can take several forms, including a dedicated bachelor’s or master’s degree. At schools like University of Phoenix, the finance component might be offered as a Financial Planning Certificate as part of a Bachelor of Science in Business.

A finance degree program usually focuses on a few essential topics that go beyond the scope of day-to-day accounting. Common areas of focus for finance majors include the following skills:

  • Financial planning and analysis
  • Investment strategies
  • Risk management
  • Understanding markets and institutions
  • Corporate finance and budgeting
  • Accounting principles

What you’ll learn with a finance degree

While an accounting degree teaches students to help businesses and individuals with their concrete, day-to-day financial needs, a finance degree often has a bigger-picture focus. Professionals with a finance degree help businesses make solid financial decisions that contribute to growth.

When students take finance classes, they generally learn skills to use as financial analysts, advisors or planners. These skills include investing, financial planning, ethics, and risk management and insurance planning. According to Aranyosi, quality finance programs cover the requisite content needed to pursue careers and certification opportunities in finance. Students might study content such as investments, financial accounting, fraud examination and forensic accounting, public finance, behavioral finance, international finance and trade, financial technology, and retirement and benefits planning.

Careers with a finance degree 

What can you do with a finance degree? Much like an accounting degree, studying finance can open up potential career options. A finance degree can help students develop business skills they need to succeed in the workplace. Individuals who hold a finance degree might work in industries such as banking, investing and insurance. They use their knowledge of math, economics, business and finance to help businesses make strong financial decisions. In some cases, finance professionals can even help individuals plan for their retirement or other goals.

  • Financial managers handle corporate, government, and institutional loans and accounts. These accounts often involve huge sums of money. Financial managers must also act as financial analysts and provide sound advice to organizations. BLS reports that most financial management candidates have a bachelor’s degree in accounting or business and at least five years of experience.

    In May 2022, financial managers earned between $79,050 and $239,200. Between 2022 and 2032, BLS projects 16% growth for this occupation — at least 69,900 job openings each year.
  • Planning analysts often perform budgeting, forecasting and analysis to support major corporate decisions. They frequently oversee several financial affairs, including statements, capital expenditures and expenses. Compared to financial analysts, who look at record-keeping and accounting, planning analysts engage in strategic planning.

    According to BLS, financial analysts earned between $58,950 and $169,940 in May 2022. The BLS job outlook for their role is higher than average, with a projected 8% growth rate (27,400 openings a year).
  • Financial advisors provide advice to individuals with regard to managing their money and planning for their financial future. Most financial advisors are self-employed or work in the finance and insurance industry and have at least a bachelor’s degree in finance or business. Financial advisors earned salaries between $46,700 and $239,200 in May 2022.

    Between 2022 and 2032, BLS estimates an additional 25,600 jobs will open up each year, roughly a 13% growth rate. This estimate is based on a variety of factors. According to BLS, the demise of pension plans is one of these. For employees who have to manage their own retirement plans, it can provide peace of mind and potentially better results to engage a professional in the field to help. 
  • Financial planners share many of financial advisors' responsibilities, but there are a few differences. Notably, financial planners specialize in considering all aspects of a client’s finances to offer comprehensive plans to manage their financial health. In addition, financial planners have a fiduciary duty to act in their clients’ best interests, and they can’t accept third-party payments when recommending services.

Aranyosi shares: “The main difference between the two [financial planners and advisors] is that financial planners generally work in retirement and benefits planning as well as helping customers to manage their personal budget (e.g., loan consolidation, making a budget to meet short- and long-term goals, college and health savings accounts, investing in 401(k)s, Roth IRAs, stocks and dividends) while financial advisors typically help clients with investments, wealth planning and money management, effective tax-saving strategies (tax credits and deductions), estate planning, and that kind of thing.”

  • Store and business managers oversee the retail operations of a store or business. While they often delegate many tasks, some job duties include payroll, hiring, training and sales. 

How to choose between finance vs. accounting degrees 

Choosing which degree to pursue is an important decision. If you are trying to choose between an accounting or finance degree, then consider what your long-term goals are and what kinds of skills you want to develop throughout your degree program.

If you are considering earning a degree online, college advisors can help you understand the benefits of different degrees and which option fits your professional aspirations. In the end, it all comes down to what your goals are and what you are passionate about studying and working toward every day. 

Ready to start your degree? Explore our offerings! Click here!

Pursue accounting and financial programs at University of Phoenix

University of Phoenix offers a variety of programs in accounting and finance. Students may pursue one of the following online programs:

Undergraduate Financial Planning Certificate — Take courses in personal financial planning, finance for decision-making, investment fundamentals, portfolio management and more!

Bachelor of Science in Accounting — Develop specialized skills in managerial accounting, estate taxation, advanced topics in accounting research and more. Earn your online accounting degree and apply your love of numbers to a future as an accounting professional. 

Bachelor of Science in Business with a Financial Planning Certificate — With skills gained in this program, you can help people make wise money management choices. Develop skills in accounting, micro- and macroeconomics, finance, marketing and more.

Graduate Accounting Certificate — Take courses in managerial accounting & legal aspects of business, accounting theory & research, audition, financial reporting and more.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and its Writing Seminars program and winner of the Stephen A. Dixon Literary Prize, Michael Feder brings an eye for detail and a passion for research to every article he writes. His academic and professional background includes experience in marketing, content development, script writing and SEO. Today, he works as a multimedia specialist at University of Phoenix where he covers a variety of topics ranging from healthcare to IT.

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