What is the Difference Between the CPA and the CMA?

cpa vs cma

The debate between CPA vs CMA is a big one for accountants, since these exams quite literally determine the type of work that professionals will be qualified to perform. Though the CPA is perhaps the most popular accounting certification in today’s marketplace, it’s not the only one. In fact, it’s not even the most lucrative. As accountants consider how they plan to define the next phase of their career in this field, they’d be wise to consider the differences between CPA and CMA certifications, and how those differences might transform their career prospects.

Start with the Popular CPA Certification

Accountants typically gravitate toward the CPA certification. As a Certified Public Accountant, professionals will work on audits, income taxes for individuals and businesses, and financial reporting. This certification prepares accountants for customer-facing roles that typically range from small, private firms, to large corporations like H&R Block. In addition to its unique work setting, the CPA has a few unique requirements of professionals who wish to sit for the exam and begin a career in this area.

First and foremost, eligibility for CPA certification varies between states. Most states require at least 150 hours of business or accounting-related coursework, resulting in a Master of Accountancy degree immediately prior to sitting for the CPA exam. Accountants must also submit a resume documenting at least two years of supervised public accounting experience without any ethical reprimands or serious performance issues. The total cost of the exam, along with its prep courses and other added fees, typically comes close to $3,000. Furthermore, the pass rate nationwide for those who take the CPA exam is just barely above 50 percent. That makes this one of the toughest exams, and one of the most high-stakes gambles, of any in the financial industry. To maintain this top-notch accreditation, CPAs must complete at least 40 hours of continuing education per year.

The CMA: A Managerial Focus Within Accounting

Not all accountants want to work with the public in a customer-facing role. Many choose instead to work for corporations or in large financial departments. In order to land such a job, accountants will need to sit for the CMA examination and receive a passing score. The CMA stands for Certified Management Accountant, and typically lends itself to advancement to a managerial or executive role with experience. The exam doesn’t typically require a graduate accounting degree, though many CMAs do possess a Master of Accountancy or an MBA with an accounting concentration.

In place of a graduate degree, accountants must present evidence of at least two years’ experience in managerial accounting under supervision of a CMA. They must also be members of the Institute of Management Accountants in order to be considered eligible for the exam. After receiving the certification, accountants must pursue a minimum of 30 hours of continuing education every year. Failure to engage in certification “maintenance” will result in accountants losing their CMA designation.

Two Different, But Compelling, Accounting Certifications

The CPA and CMA certifications both allow accountants to maximize their career earnings and their advancement potential. Even so, both exams cost a significant amount of money, both in the initial fee and in ongoing professional development afterward. With pass rates for each exam that barely reach 50 percent, the real decision in a CPA vs CMA comparison should be on which exam is most rewarding, easier to pass, and more affordable to maintain.

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