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What’s the difference: MBA vs Master of Accounting degree?


A business-related master’s degree can help you advance your career, earn more money and fulfill long-term ambitions. If you’re trying to decide between an MBA and a Master of Accounting degree, you’ll want to understand the differences before you choose which degree to pursue.

MAC graduates are prepared to sit for the Certified Public Accountant exam and earn their CPA designation.

If you had to boil it down to a single distinction, this is it:

An MBA gives you wide knowledge across several business disciplines, from marketing to strategy to finance, but not necessarily deep expertise in any single discipline.

A MAC gives you in-depth knowledge in accounting and finance, and even early on in your career you’ll often be considered the expert in the room on those subjects. When it comes to critical accounting rules, tax regulations, auditing procedures, or financial analyses, you’ll often know more than clients or colleagues.

>> Read our analysis: “The ROI of the Master of Accounting Degree for Working Professionals.”

Choosing between an MBA and MAC involves more than just what you learn. From the time it takes to earn the degree to the kinds of career paths each degree offers, there are several differences to consider.

Time to degree

Earning a master’s degree in business is really about opening a door to new career choices. So one question to consider is how long you’ll be in school before you can walk through that door.

An MBA typically takes about two years to earn, though there are differences between programs. A MAC degree, on the other hand, can be earned in as little as one year; online programs offer flexibility for students who want or need to continue to work while they go to school. Many MBA programs also require that you first accumulate some professional experience, whereas MAC programs typically do not.

When deciding which degree to pursue and looking at individual programs, you’ll need to consider whether you can afford to step away from your job and if so, for how long. If you can’t, make sure the degree program you choose has enough flexibility to allow you to continue working.

Grant Thorton partner Jeff Burgess discusses the difference between MBA and the MAC.

Cost of the degree

Earning a master’s degree is an investment. Tuition, books, and other expenses are all part of the total cost of any degree program. Though the cost of an MBA or MAC degree will vary depending on the university you attend, MAC degrees tend to be less expensive.

Costs for an MBA program often exceed $100,000, while MAC programs are typically half to two-thirds of the cost. In either case, you’ll need to consider the financial cost of going to graduate school and where the money comes from.

As you talk to different graduate programs, make sure you ask about financial aid.

First job out of school

Once you finish your master’s and those new career choices are open to you, what will your first job likely be. For MBA students, it may depend on their interests — did they love marketing or were they fascinated by finance? — as well as their prior work experience.

When you earn a MAC, however, you’ll be ready to go directly into an accounting or finance job that requires the unique skills of a MAC graduate. MACs can go straight to work in auditing, tax work, corporate finance and accounting, and other jobs that require specific accounting skills and in-depth knowledge.

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Professional licensure

While earning an MBA provides broad knowledge of the main business functions, it doesn’t provide any particular licensure. In other words, an MBA graduate may be qualified for a finance job, but there’s no law — or often even a corporate mandate — that the finance job requires an MBA.

MAC graduates, however, are prepared to sit for the Certified Public Accountant exam and earn their CPA designation. Some auditing and tax jobs, for example, require a CPA. For some other jobs, a CPA can do the work with less supervision and fewer regulatory requirements, making the accountant a more efficient hire for the company. A CPA is proof to clients and employers that you know the legal and accounting requirements that companies must follow.

Career path

You’re not going to go to graduate school just for the next job. You’re going to graduate school for your career — the next job and the job after that and the job after that. So what kinds of career paths do MBAs and MACs have?

MBA graduates start out with broad exposure to business so careers in investment banking and consulting, for example, are common choices. Other MBAs will focus on a particular field, such as marketing or operations, and eventually advance to senior positions, often in the C-suite.

MAC graduates typically start in roles focused on accounting, often in public accounting firms or within corporate finance teams. Like MBAs, careers in the financial industry are common, as is consulting and MAC graduates often rise to higher positions within accounting or consulting firms. Or, also like MBAs, they may work their up through corporate roles, often ending up in senior executive roles such as corporate treasurer, corporate controller, chief accounting officer or chief financial officer.

Other accountants take their know-how and skills to start their own businesses, including public accounting firms, consultancies and others — including many non-accounting businesses.

Those who have MAC degrees have plenty of options in their career paths, but the unique nature of their in-depth knowledge and skills also ensure there will always be a job waiting for them that only they can do.

Interested in how the MAC pays off?
Download our analysis, “The ROI of the Master of Accounting Degree for Working Professionals.” It’s a concise, but instructive, perspective of several facets of the degree and the investment required to earn it.

Review the ROI Analysis