Accounting is an important part of businesses big and small. Becoming an accountant starts by studying the essentials. This includes the principles of accounting, finance, and taxation.
Studying to become an accountant in today’s world can be done partially or even completely online. This pathway has made becoming an accountant much easier.
Free online accounting courses, as well as accredited online accounting courses, make up online learning in accounting. These online accounting courses can help you understand accounting principles and earn a certificate. This can lead to entry-level positions in this field.
Let this list of the best online courses for accounting get you started.
To determine the best online accounting courses, we first looked at the course requirements of the top undergraduate accounting program according to U.S. News & World Report, which is the University of Texas at Austin.
This was done to create a shortlist of common accounting courses that are often required to obtain a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Doing so narrowed the list of dozens of potential courses down to six core classes:
- Principles of Accounting
- Introduction to Financial Accounting
- Managerial Accounting
- Introduction to Taxation
- Introduction to Auditing
- Accounting Ethics
Note that these courses are offered under different names depending on the institution. For example, Introduction to Taxation might be designated as Introduction to Taxes or something similar.
With this core of essential accounting courses formed, we then examined online versions of these courses and ranked them according to the following criteria:
For many students, the cost of learning is the single most important factor when selecting online courses.
From free online accounting courses to accredited online accounting courses that might cost hundreds of dollars per credit hour, the range of affordability is quite wide.
It’s important to realize that the cost of an online accounting course does not necessarily mean quality. Free courses can be of equally high quality as those that cost hundreds of dollars.
This criterion is scored as follows:
- Under $100: 4 points
- $100-$250: 3 points
- $250-$400: 2 points
- Over $400: 1 point
You may want to take a free course to save money, but most are not offered by accredited schools. Accreditation is important to consider in online learning to make sure it will transfer to another school.
Accreditation makes sure that accounting students work toward specific learning outcomes. It also keeps faculty accountable to a high standard. Accreditation of accounting programs often looks at other criteria, such as enrollment rates, retention, and graduation rates. It also looks at qualifications of faculty, and availability of resources and other support for students.
This criterion is scored as follows:
- Both the institution AND the accounting program are accredited: 2 points
- The institution is accredited OR the accounting program is accredited: 1 point
- No accreditation: 0 points
Reviews & Ratings
While cost is likely the priority for many students, getting a quality education is also highly important.
For colleges and universities, rankings like the annual U.S. News & World Report Best Undergraduate Accounting Program Rankings provide significant insights for evaluating the quality of an online accounting program.
For other online courses, such as those offered by Udemy or Coursera, reviews of the website, the course curriculum, and the teacher allow prospective students to evaluate whether the course is an adequate option.
This criterion is scored as follows:
- Ranked in top 10 (or 5 stars): 4 points
- Ranked in top 15 (or 4.5+ stars) : 3 points
- Ranked in top 20 (or 4+ stars): 2 points
- Ranked in the top 25 (or 3+ stars): 1 point
- No ranking: 0 points
Ranking the Best Online Courses for Accounting
#6: Accounting Ethics
Accounting ethics courses teach the professional code of conduct for accountants. The code of conduct is created by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA). The coursework teaches why ethics are important and how they should be applied to accounting activities.
Additionally, students will gain the knowledge and skills needed to:
- Practice moral and ethical behavior
- Be unbiased in fact and appearance
- Understand the social and economic damages of unethical behavior by accounting professionals
This online course is offered by the University of California, San Diego’s extension office. It is worth four quarter credits. Students can use them toward meeting the California Board of Accountancy’s Ethics Study licensure requirements.
Accreditations: The University of California, San Diego is accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission and The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)
Ranking: The University of California, San Diego’s accounting program is not ranked.
#5: Managerial Accounting
This course seeks to answer the central question, “how is internal accounting data used by managers to make decisions?”
To answer this question, students need skills to prepare and analyze accounting information. Students will study how internal accounting information is used (and misused) by managers.
By the end of this course, students will be able to:
- Identify and understand key components of managerial accounting, including terms and basic measurement systems
- Analyze accounting information to help with decision-making, including preparing budgets
- Understand accounting theory and its application in decision-making
This course is available from edX in partnership with Indiana University. The course is free and on a 12-week class schedule. It is an advanced class. EdX recommends that students have at least junior or senior standing at a college or university to enroll.
Cost: Free to enroll, but a verified certificate costs $500
Accreditations: None, though partner universities are accredited
Rating: Individual class ratings are not available. However, EdX has a rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars on TrustPilot.
#4: Introduction to Taxation
Taxation courses – like this one from the online learning community Alison – seek to help students better understand the complex tax laws in the United States. Students look at investment topics, including Roth IRAs, real estate mortgages, and 401(k) plans.
Over the course of this class, learners will develop the ability to:
- Understand the key facets of taxation
- Analyze different types of investments
- Explain the costs of borrowing
- Evaluate how taxes impact one’s income
This free course is authored by Khan Academy and available on Alison.com. At the time of this writing, more than 11,000 people have taken the 2-hour class.
Rating: 4.1 out of 5 stars
#3: Introduction to Financial Accounting
Introduction to Financial Accounting addresses financial statements, financial disclosures, and the processes of financial analysis.
Students learn how to read income statements, balance sheets, and statements of cash flow. For example, students explore the concepts of assets and liabilities and are introduced to debit-credit bookkeeping.
Essential learning targets in this course include:
- Learn the “language” of accounting
- Demonstrate how to adjust entries in internal books for financial reporting
- Demonstrate how to prepare a balance sheet and income statement
- Learn to classify cash flows into operating, investing, and financing activities
- Define and discuss ratios and explain ratio analysis
This is a free course offered by Coursera in partnership with the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. The course is self-paced with deadlines that students can reset as their schedule requires. Approximately 17 hours of coursework is required to complete this class.
Cost: Enrollment is free, but may include some fees (typically around $50). Further costs may come with a specialization, which requires a subscription. Learn more about Coursera pricing.
Accreditations: None, though partner universities are accredited
Rating: This class has a 4.7 rating out of 5 stars based on 4,949 ratings
#2: Foundations of Accounting
As a beginner course in this field, Foundations of Accounting is one of the first classes students should take.
This course offers an overview of both financial and managerial accounting. It also introduces students to basic accounting principles such as accounting theories, reporting, data collection and interpretation, and financial statements.
This course helps students acquire the ability to:
- Understand the importance of accounting in making decisions
- Create the three primary types of financial statements
- Understand basic accrual accounting procedures
- Apply financial forecasts for securing funding for a new venture
This course is self-paced, though students must complete all coursework within five months of registration. A final examination must be taken in person at an approved testing center.
Cost: $850 (plus the cost of proctoring fees for the final exam)
Accreditations: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) and The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)
#1: Introduction to Auditing
Courses on auditing give students a framework for understanding how professional auditing standards are designed and put into practice. This course helps students develop the critical skills needed to evaluate assurance services, conduct risk assessments, and create audit reports.
Throughout this course, students might explore topics including:
- Legal liabilities when auditing
- Sampling methods
- Control systems, design, and evaluation
- Auditing deliverables
This class is offered completely online by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in partnership with Coursera. It requires 35 hours of coursework, which can be completed according to one’s own schedule. There is a small fee for this course to certify that you’ve successfully completed the class.
Cost: Free to enroll, but a $158 fee applies to certify completion if needed.
Accreditations: Higher Learning Commission and The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)
Ranking: The University of Illinois’ accounting program is ranked #2 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the best accounting course for beginners?
One of the first accounting courses students should take is Fundamentals of Accounting. This course might also be known as Principles of Accounting or Introduction to Accounting. It is a basic introduction to financial accounting and managerial accounting. This includes learning essential terms, accounting theories, and how to apply basic accounting principles to business situations.
This knowledge and some basic accounting skills are needed before moving on to study more complex topics in accounting. This course is a great place to get started.
How valid is a free online course in accounting?
Not all online accounting courses are made equal. Some courses provide students with excellent opportunities to learn, while others might not offer real value at all.
When looking for free online accounting courses, it’s important to do some research to find the best ones. Courses offered for credit might have greater value because they fulfill the graduation requirements for a degree in accounting. Courses offered by somewhere that is accredited are more likely to count for credit at multiple colleges or universities.
At the same time, how valid a free online course in accounting is has a lot to do with your purpose in taking the course. For example, if you need the course to graduate from college, taking a free course that is not offered for credit won’t do you any good. On the other hand, if you simply want to explore accounting to see if it’s the area of study for you, a short, free online course would certainly work.
If you are looking to change careers, these courses will work well for you. For example, if you currently work in sales and want to start a program in accounting, you might find that a free online accounting course is a great way to get your feet wet.
What is a certificate in accounting?
Think of a certificate in accounting as a stepping stone to a career in this field. A typical undergraduate accounting certificate program helps students who do not have a bachelor’s degree get the skills they need for an entry-level position in accounting. Some examples are a bookkeeper or an auditing clerk.
For students that already have a bachelor’s degree in a field other than accounting, a graduate certificate in accounting can help you transition into an accounting career. Graduate accounting certificate programs focus on advanced accounting topics. These are needed to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). Graduate certificate programs are often designed specifically to prepare students for the CPA exam.
Specialized certificate programs in accounting are available for people who already have educational and work experience. For example, an accountant can work towards a Certified Financial Analyst (CFA) certification or a Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) certification.
These certifications can help advance your career and lead to higher-paying jobs.
Are online courses in accounting accepted for credit?
While many free online accounting courses are not offered for credit, more and more courses are being offered for credit either directly through a college or university or as part of a partnership with an online learning community.
For example, the Accounting Ethics course outlined in this article is offered for credit from the University of California at San Diego. Because this course is offered by a school within the University of California system, the credits earned would transfer to any of the other schools within the system.
Likewise, online accounting courses that are offered by online learning communities like Coursera might be offered for credit. For example, the auditing course described above from the University of Illinois is a non-credit class on Coursera. However, students that sign up for the corresponding for-credit class through the University will earn academic credit from the Coursera course.
It’s best to double-check any online course before enrolling to make sure that the course earns credit and that it will transfer if needed.
How long does it take to get an accounting certificate?
The amount of time it takes to get an accounting certificate depends on the number of credits in the program. An undergraduate certificate program that is 20 credits, for example, will take less time to complete than one that is 30 credits. Whether or not the student is enrolled part-time or full-time also makes a difference.
The format of the program affects how long it takes to get an accounting certificate. On-campus certificate programs include courses that are offered at specific times of day and during specific semesters. So, if a course is only offered during a certain part of the day that conflicts with your job, you might have to wait until the following semester to take the course. Online accounting certificate courses get around this by offering students flexibility in scheduling. This can help reduce the time needed to complete the certificate.
Accelerated programs may be offered for students to complete certificates. A traditional undergraduate accounting certificate program might take four semesters for a full-time student to complete. An accelerated program might require just two or three semesters to do so.
Can I get my accounting degree completely online?
Yes! There are many online accounting degree programs available from colleges and universities throughout the United States and around the globe.
Many online accounting degrees will lead to a Bachelor of Science in Accounting. These degrees usually require around 120 credits. Roughly 60 of those credits are general education courses (i.e., mathematics, science, and language arts). The remaining 60 credits are required courses in accounting and business.
Typically, a program would take four years of full-time study to complete. Online degree programs tend to be more flexible than traditional on-campus degrees. If you need more time to complete your studies, you could extend the time to five or six years. On the other hand, there are many colleges and universities that offer accelerated programs that could cut the required time to graduation down to three years or less.
Another option for getting an accounting degree completely online is a Bachelor’s of Business Administration (BBA) with a specialization (either a major or minor) in accounting. Online BBA degrees offer students a great degree of flexibility to what courses are taken and when.
Whether you pursue an online BBA or BS degree, there are many options for programs. The programs are accredited, prepare students for a wide range of accounting positions, and provide the skills for taking the CPA exam. And, just like on-campus degrees, many online degrees in accounting are extremely affordable.
What jobs are there in accounting?
There are many different accounting jobs. Below are some common ones:
- Certified Public Accountant (CPA) – CPAs are just one type of accountant, and they provide many different services. This includes tax preparation and financial management for individuals and businesses. To become a CPA, you have to pass a big test. Since CPAs need more education, they often make more money and can get jobs with more responsibilities. For example, they might work as the Chief Financial Officer of a large company.
- Accountant – Accountants that have not passed the CPA exam can’t be called a CPA. But accountants do many of the same jobs as CPAs. For example, they might manage a business’s finances. Accountants also make sure a business’s financial records comply with laws and regulations. Some accountants also provide auditing services.
- Tax Accountant – Tax accountants prepare income tax returns. These types of accountants might also do tax planning. Tax planning helps reduce how much income tax a person has to pay. This service also helps businesses reduce how much taxes they pay.
- Finance Manager – A finance manager handles the finances of a company. They are in charge of long-term finances. For example, a finance manager might research ways for the company to earn more money in the future. They also analyze how a company is currently investing its money. Finance managers make reports to business owners on how the company’s finances are doing.
- Bookkeeper – Bookkeeping is an entry-level position in accounting. Bookkeepers keep track of money coming in and going out. They do this in a general ledger. They also create financial statements and take payments. Bookkeepers must also make records of payments and make sure that financial records are correct.
What salary can I expect with a job in accounting?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for all accountants and auditors in May 2019 was $70,500. However, salaries will vary.
For example, accountants that work in the finance and insurance fields earn a median annual salary of $74,690. Those that work in management positions earn a median annual wage of $73,180. Accountants that specialize in tax preparation earn slightly less, with a median salary of $70,640.
Level of education will also affect an accountant’s salary. A CPA, for example, has the educational background for a higher-paying accounting job than someone that has an associate’s degree in accounting. Experience in the field affects earning potential as well. An accountant with 30 years of experience will have a much higher salary than someone that’s a recent graduate from college.
Location can also affect the amount of money an accountant can make. Accountants in large cities often have higher annual salaries than those that work in rural areas. The cost of living must be taken into account. Cities are typically much more expensive to live in than less populated areas.
What are the top-paying accounting jobs?
Many accounting jobs earn a lot of money. How much money depends on your education and experience. Below are some jobs with the best salaries according to Glassdoor:
- Chief Financial Officer (CFO) – A CFO is in charge of a business’s finances. They are responsible for predicting risks with money. They do this by analyzing finances. A CFO comes up with ways to manage financial risks too. Another task they do is to set short-term and long-term financial goals. CFOs can make more than $286,000 per year.
- Accounting Director – Accounting directors are in charge of a business’s accounting. For example, they might be the manager of the accounting staff. Accounting directors are often responsible for hiring people. They also create accounting rules and best practices. Accounting Directors can have a very big income, up to about $174,000 per year.
- Controller – A controller has many different job duties. This includes writing financial reports for their company. They prepare budgets for various parts of the business too. Controllers also supervise payroll. Usually, controllers recruit and train new accounting workers. Controllers can earn as much as $155,000 per year.
- Finance Manager – A finance manager is responsible for managing a business’s finances. They make financial reports, create budgets, and come up with ways for improving a company’s finances. Finance managers often provide support and supervision for employees. They do this in the accounting, finance, and budget departments. Being a financial manager can be a great career, with yearly salaries up to $132,000.
What can I do with an accounting degree besides accounting?
You can use accounting skills in many jobs. Here are a few examples:
- Financial consultants manage a company’s money. For example, you might be in charge of the costs for starting a business. These consultants also make plans. These plans outline how a business can make money.
- An actuary needs good math skills. They look at information and make predictions. They usually work for businesses, but might also work for the government.
- A financial analyst makes decisions about investments. They do this to help businesses make more money. Their decisions are presented as detailed reports. These reports recommend the best way of investing money.
- Budget analysts help businesses manage their finances. They prepare budget reports and monitor spending. Budget analysts also predict the financial needs of businesses.
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