CPA vs non-CPA

Article byWallstreetmojo Team
Edited byAnkush Jain
Reviewed byDheeraj Vaidya, CFA, FRM
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Difference between CPA and non-CPA

Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) and non-CPAs are both professionals in the field of accounting. However, in the context of CPA vs non-CPA, the primary difference between the two is that while the former practices the profession with a license, the latter doesn’t. Naturally, the former has expertise over the latter and thus affects the CPA vs non-CPA salary as well.

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Since a license is not mandatory to practice the accounting profession, non-CPAs also qualify to be called accountants. Hence, an accountant is an all-encompassing term that includes both CPAs and non-CPAs. However, the CPA certification adds greater credibility to accountantsAccountantsAn accountant is a finance professional responsible for recording business transactions on behalf of a firm, reporting the firm’s performance and issuing financial statements. Thus, an accountant plays an important role whether it is a small domestic entity or a large multinational company.read more and also expand their scope of work. The requirements, eligibility, and roles are quite different and we shall understand them through the discussion in this article.

Comparison Table

Let us understand the differences apart from the qualification of both these types of accountants through the comparison table below.

ParticularsCPANon-CPA/General Accountant
DefinitionA state board-issued accounting credential earned after passing the AICPA-administered exam and fulfilling the education and experience requirements.  An entry-level accounting designation.
Eligibility CriteriaUniform CPA ExaminationCPA ExaminationA Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is a US state board-issued license to practice the accounting professionread more, Bachelor’s degree (150 credit hours), 1-3 years of Work Experience (may vary as per state board)Bachelor’s Degree in accounting or related field (not mandatory)
Job ResponsibilitiesBriefing management on the firm’s financial state and suggesting improvements Forensic accountingForensic AccountingForensic accounting is the investigation of fraud and misrepresentation.read more, Budget development, Strategic planning, Preparing and upgrading accounting records (physical & digital), Tax preparation and filing,  Auditing, Forecasting revenues, Analyzing financial records, Supervising daily bookkeeping activitiesPreparing financial reportsFinancial ReportsFinancial reporting is a systematic process of recording and representing a company’s financial data. The reports reflect a firm’s financial health and performance in a given period. Management, investors, shareholders, financiers, government, and regulatory agencies rely on financial reports for decision-making.read more, budgets, or documents Reporting findings to managers or other senior officials Financial consulting, Ensuring regulatory compliance Discussing business policies and opportunities with managers, Verifying the accuracy of records, Conducting financial auditsFinancial AuditsFinancial audit is an independent examination of the financial statements of an entity irrespective of its size. It is done by auditors or audit firms who provide an opinion regarding the accurate and fair view of the facts & figures mentioned in the financial statements.read more Calculating tax details  
Career optionsFinancial advisor Risk and Compliance Professional Accounting software developer, Finance Director, Senior Financial Analyst, Corporate controller, IT Accountant, Chief Financial OfficerChief Financial OfficerThe full form of CFO is Chief Financial Executive, and he or she is a top level executive of the firm who is responsible for the firm's overall finance functions and has the authority to make financial decisions for the organization. read more (CFO)Government accountants, Management accountants, Public accountants, CPAs (after fulfilling the licensing requirements), External auditors, Internal auditors, IT auditors, Senior staff accountant
Industries they work forFinancial forensics, Consulting, IT consulting, Government agencies, Non-profit organizationsNon-profit OrganizationsA not-for-profit organization refers to a legal entity that isn't created to generate profits or revenue for its owners but aims at social, educational, religious or public welfare and service. Such an organization is tax-exempted and run through donations or any other income it makes.read more, Educational institutionsFinance & Insurance, Government agencies, Corporate Educational institutions, Hospitality Healthcare
Required SkillsPeoples skills, Communication skills, Technology know-how, Project management skills, Top ethical standards, Analysis, research, and decision-making skillsListening skills, Computing skills, Problem-solving skills, Critical thinking skills, Organizing skills, Research skills
Benefits of the credentialCareer growth, Job Satisfaction, Professional Reputation, Job Security, Better career opportunities, Higher salaryFlexible work environment, opportunities for growth through specializations, Enhanced understanding of Business Law & Taxation, Stable & ever-growing job sector, Different specializations
Professional statusHigh statusLower professional status as compared to CPAs
Projected Job Growth22% (2020-2028)4% (2019-2029)
Average Annual Salary$119,000$73,560 (May 2020)

What is a CPA?

A CPA is a state board-issued accounting license acquired by a candidate after passing the Uniform CPA exam and fulfilling the educational and experience requirements. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) supervise the entire process to gain a CPA credential. 

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Prerequisites for a CPA license

To acquire a CPA license, an applicant must meet all the following four E’s:

  • Exam – Qualify the Uniform CPA Exam
  • Education – Bachelor’s Degree with 150 credit hours and necessary coursework
  • Experience – 1-3 years
  • Ethics Exam (only if required by the state board)

Apart from the Uniform CPA exam, all other requirements vary by state boards. Besides the above prerequisites, one must also fulfill the Continuing Professional Education (CPE) requirements to retain their license.

Uniform CPA exam

Passing the Uniform CPA exam is the most crucial step in the attaining the license. The AICPA coordinates with the State Boards of Accountancy and NASBA to administer this exam.

The exam consists of four sections to be taken one at a time. An applicant must clear all four exam sections within 18 months of passing the first section. Please note that one needs at least a 75 on a scale of 0-99 in every section to pass..

Roles and Responsibilities

The rigorous preparation for the license infuses a strong set of accounting and managerial expertise in CPAs. With their seasoned skills and unique judgment, they easily adapt to the contemporary needs of the dynamic business world. Some of the key job responsibilities of a CPA are as follows:

CPAs are most valued for their advisory role. With their extensive knowledge of all aspects of finance, they are ideal for guiding you through all your growth plans. From starting a new office or planning a multibillion-dollar mergerMergerMerger refers to a strategic process whereby two or more companies mutually form a new single legal venture. For example, in 2015, ketchup maker H.J. Heinz Co and Kraft Foods Group Inc merged their business to become Kraft Heinz Company, a leading global food and beverage firm.read more, they are the right pick to achieve your desired milestones. 

Career Prospects

The exclusive skills and broad scope of work of CPAs make them eligible for higher pay packages. For coherence with the CPA vs non-CPA salary comparison, CPAs earn nearly 10%-15% higher than their non-certified counterparts. Besides that, they also enjoy a stable career, numerous job opportunities, immense respect, and a professional edge over non-CPAs.

Moreover, as per the Accountancy Licensee Database (ALD), there are 658,267 actively licensed CPAs across the United States. This number is expected to grow further in the coming years. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has reported a 22% employment growth for CPAs during 2021-2028. 

Exclusive rights

CPAs are usually in much demand in all business sectors. However, they are particularly sought after by large corporations and public limited companies. This is due to some exclusive rights they enjoy owing to their license.

Under federal law, public limited companies (PLC) have to offer audited financial statements to their stakeholders. They are also often faced with complex financial and tax concerns and have dealings with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

CPAs offer them dedicated services in the following areas:

  • Writing audited financial statements
  • Filing a report with the US Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC)
  • Signing their tax return as a paid preparer
  • Issuing an opinion on reviewed, compiled, or audited financial statements

Being an Accountant might be good; however, being a CPA is even better. Though it calls for countless hours of dedicated learning and training, the rewarding outcome is worth every bead of sweat on your forehead. 

What is a Non-CPA (General Accountant)?

A general accountant is an accounting professional entitled to record, examine, analyze, and report financial transactions. Their key responsibility is to ensure the accuracy of financial records and compliance to accounting principlesAccounting PrinciplesAccounting principles are the set guidelines and rules issued by accounting standards like GAAP and IFRS for the companies to follow while recording and presenting the financial information in the books of accounts.read more. In addition, they strive to assess and eliminate as many risks as possible to help the business run efficiently.

Educational requirements

To be an accountant, one needs to have at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field like business or finance. However, candidates with an associate degree having relevant experience can also work as junior accountants.

Moreover, accountants can also specialize in management, public, or government accounting to improve their job prospects.

Duties and responsibilities

Some of the job responsibilities of non-CPAs are as follows:

Of late, general accountants have also started leveraging updated technologies like Robotics Process Automation and Artificial Intelligence to assist them in their tasks.

Career prospects

Accountants work in almost every business sector, from thriving government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporations to budding start-ups.

According to the BLS, jobs in the accounting profession are likely to grow by 4% during 2019-2029. So, it is expected to keep enjoying a reasonable market demand in the future.

However, average salary and low prestige compared to CPAs act as an impediment to attaining career stability in this profession. Therefore, accountants must strive to get certified to bridge this gap and ensure sustained professional growth.  

CPA vs non-CPA Choice

Despite sharing a similar job profile, accountants still lag behind CPAs due to their lack of in-depth knowledge, formal training, and relevant experience. The absence of certification also puts them at a disadvantage. They are not licensed to deal with government agencies like SEC and IRS directly or sign tax returns or audited financial statements.

With their niche knowledge and skill, CPAs are well-equipped to offer valuable financial insights, contribute to budgeting processes, and design effective strategies. Though with experience, non-CPAs too can do these.

However, their competency and credibility are debatable. Accountants are generally better suited to perform basic accounting tasks like bookkeepingBookkeepingBookkeeping is the day-to-day documentation of a company’s financial transactions. These transactions include purchases, sales, receipts, and payments.read more, handling common tax issues, and maintaining business accounts.

Moreover, with a regulatory body looming overseeing their practice, the quality and integrity of a CPA’s work is rest assured. However, there are no professional bodies governing non-CPAs. Hence, the onus of choosing the right accountant lies on the clients.

Finally, the choice between a CPA and a non-CPA boil down to a client’s circumstance or situation at hand.  Generally, small businesses with relatively lower budgets and less complex financial and tax issues opt for non-CPAs. On the other hand, large corporations or PLCs favor CPAs as they provide exclusive and reliable accounting services.

Infographics

Let us understand the differences further with the help of visual representation of the comparison table through the infographics below.

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This article is a guide to CPA vs Non-CPA. Here we discuss the difference between CPA and Non-CPA along with infographics and a comparative table. You can learn more from the following articles –

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