The number and variety of specialty credentials available to accountants continue to grow. When planning their career paths, CPAs should consider the opportunities that are available; potential employers should consider the specialized knowledge they want their professionals to possess. This article summarizes the major credentialing opportunities in the marketplace and the potential benefits each can provide.
Accountants have many opportunities to expand their knowledge and reputation through professional development and the pursuit of one or more accounting credentials. While the CPA is the only accounting credential to provide its holder with a licensed designation in the United States, many other credentialing opportunities exist in specialty areas such as management accounting, information technology, internal auditing, financial services, business valuation, fraud examination, and forensic accounting. Obtaining multiple credentials not only provides development and reputational benefits; this enables holders and their firms to differentiate and expand their service offerings.
The important role that accounting credentials play in the career of an accountant was noted by the authors in “Navigating the Maze of Today’s Professional Credentials,” (Douglas M. Boyle, Robyn Lawrence, and Daniel P. Mahoney, The CPA Journal, June 2013): “Taking time to consider the pursuit of new credentials can be one of the most important career moves that an accounting professional makes. Of course, identifying areas of specialization that are of genuine interest—rather than just financially lucrative—is an essential part of this process. It is most certainly time well invested, because the result can be a career path that is rewarding in a variety of ways.” The article summarized the various professional organizations and their respective credentialing opportunities. Since that article’s publication, credentialing opportunities have continued to increase, thus making the process of researching the numerous professional organizations and the requirements of their various credentials all the more onerous for busy accounting professionals.
The purpose of the current article is to provide accounting professionals with an awareness of the various credentialing opportunities and the benefits of holding such credentials. The discussion will focus on the more prominent U.S.-based professional organizations (e.g., those with membership in excess of 50,000) and their related credentialing opportunities and requirements.
Professional Organizations and Credentials
U.S.-based organizations that provide credential opportunities for accounting professionals include the AICPA, the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA), the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute (CFA), the ISACA (previously known as the Information Systems Audit Control Association), the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), and the Financial Planning Standards Board (FPSB).
Exhibit 1 lists these organizations and the credentialing opportunities they offer. Bolded credentials have been identified as top certifications valued by employers in “Accounting Certifications Employers Really Want to See” (Robert Half 2018) or “Accounting and Finance Salary Guide” (Robert Half 2019).
U.S.-Based Organizations and Credentials
The AICPA is the granting organization for six specialty credentials available to candidates who already hold the CPA designation. These credentials include: Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP), Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA), Accredited in Business Valuation (ABV), Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF), Personal Financial Specialist (PFS), and Certified in Entity and Intangible Valuations (CEIV). The CPA, CITP, and CGMA have been identified (Robert Half 2018, 2019) as top certifications valued by employers.
The Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP) credential was established in 2000 as a specialty certification for CPAs who have an interest in technology and who obtained supplemental training in emerging trends, security and privacy, business solutions, IT assurance, and data analytics. To obtain the CITP, a candidate must have 75 hours (acquired within five years of the CITP application) of continuing professional development in information management and technology assurance. Additionally, a candidate is required to have 1,000 hours of business experience in the area of information management and technology assurance, and must pass the CITP examination, a four-hour computer-based multiple-choice examination. The topics covered in the examination encompass the CITP body of knowledge: information management, information governance, accounting operations technology services, information technology risk and advisory services, engagement compliance, and IT control and assessment. The cost of the CITP examination for an AICPA member is $400 ($300 for early registration); the cost for a non-AICPA member is $500 ($375 for early registration).
The Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) certification was established in 2012 by two of the world’s leading accounting organizations, the AICPA and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA). This certification is intended to denote an expert who connects all aspects of business, such as technical, finance, and accounting skills, and who understands advanced business concepts and demonstrates strategic leadership capabilities. The CGMA designation is designed for CPAs who specialize in the area of management accounting. To obtain a CGMA certification, a candidate is required to be an AICPA member in good standing, have a minimum of three years of relevant practical management accounting experience and pass the CGMA examination. The examination is a computerized, comprehensive, strategic case study that evaluates the competencies that are essential to success in the contemporary business environment. The concepts covered in the exam reflect four levels of proficiency (foundational, intermediate, advanced, and expert) and four knowledge areas (technical skills, business skills, people skills, and leadership skills). The standard registration fee for the CGMA examination is $325.
The AICPA offers four additional certifications, listed in Exhibit 2.
Other AICPA Certifications
The IMA grants the credentials of Certified Management Accountant (CMA) and Certified in Strategy and Competitive Analysis (CSCA). The CMA demonstrates mastery of critical accounting and financial management skills from a generalized, managerial, and internal perspective; it has been identified as a top certification valued by employers (Robert Half 2018, 2019). To sit for the CMA examination, the candidate must have either a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent) from an accredited college or university, or professional certification. In order to be granted the CMA credential, a candidate must also complete two continuous years of professional experience in management accounting or financial management. In addition, teaching specific accounting or finance courses counts towards the professional experience requirement. The CMA certification examination is a two-part computer-based examination. Part 1 focuses on financial planning, performance, and analytics; part 2 focuses on strategic financial management. The certification entrance fee for professional members is $250, with a $415 fee for each examination part; for students and academic members, the certification entrance fee is $188, with a $311 fee for each examination part.
Both the CMA and the aforementioned CGMA (an AICPA credential) certifications have education requirements that must be fulfilled. The CMA education requirements are straightforward because they require CMA candidates to have a bachelor’s degree in any discipline from an accredited college or university. In contrast, the CGMA education requirements are divided into three levels—operational, management, and strategic—with each level building upon the previous.
CGMA candidates start at the level most appropriate to their educational background. For example, analyst and nonbusiness degree holders enter at the operational level; managers and business degree holders enter at the management level; and CPAs and accounting degree holders enter at the strategic level.
The CSCA specialty certification is intended to demonstrate a mastery of strategic planning. To sit for the CSCA examination, a candidate must be a current IMA member, have an active CMA or CFM, and comply with the IMA Statement of Ethical Practice. The three-hour CSCA examination consists of 60 multiple-choice questions and one case study covering the CSCA body of knowledge (strategic analysis, creating competitive advantage, strategy implications, and performance evaluation). There is a CSCA program entrance fee of $75 and an examination registration fee of $300; special pricing is available for academics.
The IIA offers five specialty credentials: Certified Internal Auditor (CIA), Certification in Risk Management Assurance (CRMA), Qualification in Internal Audit Leadership (QIAL), Certified Process Safety Auditor (CPSA), and Certified Professional Environmental Auditor (CPEA).
The CIA certification has been identified as a top certification valued by employers (Robert Half 2018, 2019). The CIA credential demonstrates competence for individuals working with both internal staff and external clients in areas such as risk, control, and information technology. A candidate must have a minimum of an associate’s degree or equivalent from an accredited college or university. If the candidate does not have either credential, approval can be granted for candidates with seven years’ verified experience in internal audit or its equivalent. To obtain the certification, the candidate must have at least 60 months of internal auditing experience. A bachelor’s degree can substitute for 24 months of this experience requirement, and a master’s degree can substitute for 12 additional months. Candidates may apply for the certification and sit for examinations before the required work experience is obtained.
The CIA certification examination is a three-part, computer-based test. The topics evaluated in part 1 include aspects of mandatory guidance from the International Professional Practices Framework (IPPF), internal control and risk concepts, and tools and techniques for conducting internal audit engagements. The topics evaluated in part 2 include managing the internal audit function via the strategic and operational role of internal audit and establishing a risk-based plan; the steps to manage individual engagements (planning, supervision, communicating results, and monitoring outcomes); and fraud risks and controls. Part 3 topics include governance and business ethics; risk management; organizational structure, including business processes and risks; communication; management and leadership principles; information technology and business continuity; financial management; and the global business environment. The examination application fee is $115 for members ($230 for nonmembers). The examination registration fee for IIA members ranges from $230 to $280 (from $345 to $395 for nonmembers).
Exhibit 3 provides information on three other certifications offered by the IIA.
Other IIA Certifications
CFA Institute Credentials
CFA certification has been identified as a top certification valued by employers (Robert Half 2018, 2019). The CFA demonstrates knowledge and competence in principles of portfolio management, investment analysis, economics, and professional and ethical standards. To sit for the CFA examination, a candidate must have a minimum of a bachelor’s (or equivalent) degree, or be in the final year of a bachelor’s degree program from an accredited college or university. A candidate should have four years of work experience, or a combination of education and work experience that totals at least four years. The CFA certification process involves passing a three-level computer-based examination. The examination is an evaluation of the following 10 topical areas: ethical and professional standards; quantitative methods; economics; financial reporting and analysis; corporate finance; equity investments; fixed income; derivatives; alternative investments; and portfolio management and wealth planning. The standard registration fee for the CFA examination is $950, with an early registration fee of $650 and a late registration rate of $1,380.
The Certificate in Investment Performance Measurement (CIPM) denotes an in-depth understanding of investment performance and risk evaluation, manager selection, and investment reports grounded in accountability. To sit for the CIPM exam, a candidate must have at least 48 months of experience teaching, supervising, or working with economic, financial, and statistical data for decision making; the CIPM does not have a minimum education requirement. The certification is granted upon passing a two-level computer-based examination. Level I focuses on the conceptual foundations of performance measurement, attribution, and appraisal. Level II focuses on performance evaluation and presentation, including the application of the appropriate tools and inputs in more complex situations. The registration fee is $675 ($475 for early registration).
The ISACA offers several systems-related specialty certifications: Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA), Certified Information Security Manager (CISM), Certified in the Governance of Enterprise IT (CGEIT), and Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC) or CSX Practitioner (CSXP).
The CISA is also identified as a top certification valued by employers (Robert Half 2018, 2019). The certification is recognized globally for information systems audit control and assurance. Among the requirements a candidate must meet to obtain the CISA credential is active ISACA membership. The minimum professional experience requirement is five years of professional information systems auditing, control, or security work experience; substitutions and waivers may be obtained. The CISA certification examination is a computer-based examination consisting of the following domains: the process of auditing information systems; governance and management of information technology; information systems acquisition, development, and implementation; information systems operations maintenance; and service management and protection of information assets. The examination fees are discounted for ISACA members and candidates who register online. The regular registration fee is $465 for ISACA members ($415 for early registration) and $595 for non-members ($545 for early registration).
Exhibit 4 provides information related to the three other certifications offered by ISACA.
Other ISACA Certifications
The ACFE grants the professional designation of Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). The CFE has been identified as a top certification valued by employers (Robert Half 2018, 2019). The CFE credential signifies proficiency in fraud prevention, detection, and deterrence. To obtain the CFE credential, a candidate must be a member of the ACFE and agree to comply with the CFE bylaws and code of professional ethics. The candidate must also have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent) from an accredited college or university; two years of fraud-related professional experience can substitute for one year of academic study. The minimum professional experience requirement is at least two years in a field either directly or indirectly related to the detection or deterrence of fraud. Ultimately, a candidate’s educational and professional requirements are determined by a point system. Points are awarded to candidates according to education level, professional affiliation, and experience. A candidate must also pass the CFE examination, which is computer-based and consists of four sections: fraud prevention and deterrence; financial transactions and fraud schemes; investigation; and law. The cost to take the CFE Exam is $400; if a candidate purchases the CFE Exam Prep Course, the examination cost is $300.
The FPSB offers the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) credential, also identified) as a top certification valued by employers (Robert Half 2018, 2019. The CFP is a global certification that demonstrates competence in financial planning, such as the ability to develop comprehensive plans for meeting a client’s long-term financial goals. CFP candidates are required to meet minimum educational and business experience requirements, and pass the certification examination. To sit for the CFP exam, a candidate must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, and must validate all work experience in the financial planning field. The FPSB Board defines work experience as “the supervision, direct support, teaching or personal delivery of all or part of the personal financial planning process to a client.” The work experience must fall within one or more of the six primary elements of financial planning. The CFP certification examination is a computer-based examination covering eight major domains of content: professional conduct and regulation; general financial planning principals; education planning; risk management and insurance planning; investment planning; tax planning; retirement savings and income planning; and estate planning. As of August 2020, the standard registration fee for the CFP examination was $825, with an early registration rate of $725 and a late registration rate of $925.
Is Specialty Certification Worth the Effort?
Today’s accounting professionals face increasing demand for specialized knowledge and capabilities. Fortunately, there exists a plethora of professional certification opportunities, each of which serves as its own indicator of specialized experience, skill sets, professionalism, and the willingness to adhere to rigorous ethical standards. Accounting professionals would do well to identify their specific career objectives and the professional credentials that are best suited to those objectives. After all, the evidence favoring such professional development is compelling, and many employers are ready to provide financial support. According to the Robert Half Blog:
Earning finance and accounting certifications is a big step toward improving your marketability and career advancement Continuing education is an investment in time and money, of course, and your employer may help make the case for credentials. Robert Half research shows that a majority (72 percent) of CFOs interviewed say their company will cover all or some of the cost of obtaining a professional certification, and 76 percent said their organizations help in maintaining such certifications once they’ve been earned. (The Robert Half Blog, by Robert Half, Feb. 23. 2019, https://bit.ly/3aFKTpu).
Of course, such a wide level of employer support would not exist were it not for the very tangible benefits of such certifications to both employers and professionals themselves. Firms and employers reap the benefits of a more specialized staff of professionals—individuals with skill sets and ethical foundations who bring tremendous added value to the organization. For accounting professionals themselves, the benefits are likewise very real and even quantifiable; for example, the IMA notes the following comparative salary figures:
- Those holding the CMA certification have a median total compensation that is 31% higher compared to those holding neither the CMA nor the CPA certification;
- Those holding the CPA have a median total compensation that is 22% higher;
- Those holding both the CMA and CPA earn a median total compensation that is 50% higher than those who hold neither credential. (IMA’s 2019 U.S. Salary Survey, March 2019)
The compensation figures for those interested in fraud and forensic accounting are equally impressive. Specifically, the ACFE notes that CFEs earn 31% more than non-CFEs (“2017/2018 Compensation Guide for Anti-Fraud Professionals,” Association of Certified Fraud Examiners). Not surprisingly, the IIA offers its own evidence in support of professional certifications. Referencing a 2017 “Internal Audit Compensation Study” of the Internal Audit Foundation, the IIA notes that recent median U.S. salaries for accounting professionals are $64,281 for those with no certification, $98,290 with one or more certifications, and $102,925 with the Certified Internal Auditor designation (“2018 Career Guide—The Bridge Between a Good Job and a Great Career,” Institute of Internal Auditors).
Still, it is essential to note that the benefits of obtaining professional credentials extend well beyond the monetary. For example, each of the credentials mentioned in this article offers its holder significantly greater prestige and credibility. Consequently, greater opportunities unfold for advancement to executive-level positions. It seems appropriate to argue that the only downsides are the time and commitment that are necessary to obtain and maintain whatever credentials one believes are a critical part of a successful career path.
Opportunities abound for accounting professionals, regardless of one’s specific interests and aptitude. All accounting professionals should consider pursuing the specialized credentials that are best suited to their interests and career objectives.