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Q+A: Comparison of Online Master of Business Administration and Online Master of Science in Accounting programs

As a finance professional, a graduate degree can help you get ahead in your career and master skills and techniques to succeed. But which graduate program is right for you?

Boise State University Online MBA Director Ally Daniels and Josh Filzen, Director of the Master of Science in Accountancy (MSA) Programs and associate professor, discuss the Online MBA and Online MSA programs.

1. What are some of the key differences between the MBA and MSA online programs?

Ally Daniels:

  • The MBA is much broader than an MSA. An MBA is a “generalist” degree. You can specialize through emphasis areas/specializations, but it is really developed for managers and leaders from a variety of job functions and disciplines.
  • The MBA is very strategic – not technical. MBA focuses on leadership and management across multiple areas of a business- marketing, finance, IT, operations, HR AND accounting. Accounting is one of thirteen classes in the Online MBA. It is covered as a core class but is not the focus of the program.
  • An MBA prepares students for a variety of roles in a variety of companies and industries. It allows for maximum flexibility if students move or even change career paths.
  • The Online MBA is ideal for students from every major / education experience. There are no prerequisite courses or required undergraduate majors for admission to the MBA. We have students with engineering backgrounds, business undergrads – even criminal justice, psychology or liberal arts. Our coursework is built so everyone comes in and gets the same business foundation in the Orientation course so students can be successful, regardless of their prior bachelor’s degree discipline.
  •  An MBA doesn’t prepare students for the CPA exam.
  • Experience is emphasized in many MBA programs.

Josh Filzen:

  • The Online MSA degree is the right degree for students wanting to focus on a career in accounting.
  • The MSA degree helps students to fulfill the education requirements to sit for the CPA exam. 
  • To the extent that accounting is covered in an MBA, it is relatively light. Since many MBA students don’t have a business background, that course covers basic concepts.

2. What stage of their careers do most students enroll in the MBA/MSA online programs in?

Ally Daniels:

  • Most students pursue the Online MBA as they are looking to move up and prepare for more significant leadership positions. In 2022, over 70% of Boise State Online MBA students reported a promotion while they were in the program.
  • For our Online MBA, we require two years of management experience, but on average, students have 8.5 years of management experience. The management experience is crucial for success in our program. It allows students to bring in relevant experience, thoughts, and perspectives to make their education more applicable.
  • Some accountants may choose an MBA over an MSA if they want to have more perspective and breadth of education in areas other than accounting.

Josh Filzen:

We have two versions of our Online MSA program, and the type of student we typically see is different between the two:

Online MSA

  • Students who already have (or will have by the time they start) a bachelor’s degree in accounting.
  • An MSA (aka MACC at some universities, which is the same thing) is the best path to help students fulfill the education requirements for the CPA exam and will provide them long-term value for their careers as well.

Online MSA Foundations

This is a two-year program that allows people with an undergrad degree in something other than accounting to complete a grad degree in accounting (they end up with the same Online MSA degree)

There are up to six “foundations” courses that students take (since these students don’t have an accounting degree) before these students take our “normal” master’s courses. Typical students are folks that:

  • Are looking for a career change
  • Have found themselves in a management, finance, or accounting-type role and find they need more accounting exposure to get ahead (e.g., promotion, new job, etc.)
  • Similar to above, folks who want to be eligible to sit for the CPA exam because that is often a preferred or required credential for positions that they have gravitated towards over their career
  • We also get some students who already have another grad degree (such as an MBA) that apply to this program for the same reasons as stated above

3. Is there any difference between the on-campus and online experience in the MBA/MSA curricula?

Ally Daniels:

While the curriculum is very similar between our in-person and online MBA programs, the experience does differ online vs. in person. Online is much more self-directed, often requiring more motivation and communication with faculty and classmates. In-person offers more opportunities for rich networking but lacks flexibility.

Josh Filzen:

This is a strength of our MSA program. Our online MSA courses are taught by the same professors as the in-person sections. We cover the same content, and the courses have the same rigor. The diploma is the same for our in-person MSA and our Online MSA, so it is very important to us to keep the requirements of these programs the same. Finally, we have separate accounting accreditation from the AACSB, and all of our accounting graduate programs are accredited (in-person and online)

4. What is the long-term value of having an MBA/MSA from Boise State?

Ally Daniels:

  • Boise State is the only university in Idaho and among the less than 3% of business schools in the world to earn AACSB International accreditation for both business and accountancy.
  • Whether you graduate with an MBA or an MSA, you can have confidence in the excellent teaching, quality curriculum and nationwide reputation that comes with your diploma.
  • A master’s degree on your resume is an indication to employers, colleagues, customers and others that you have advanced education, strong work ethic and motivation to lead.
  • It’s not just the piece of paper that “opens doors.” With your MBA education, we find that students ask better questions, solve problems more efficiently and are better managers. This is what leads to promotions and the true educational ROI.

Josh Filzen:

The degree itself is valuable (and there are academic studies to back this up, and salary data as well), but meeting the education requirements for the CPA exam (and earning that designation) is also extremely valuable as well. 

5. What are some of the most common career outcomes for MBA/MSA online graduates?

Ally Daniels:

  • Our MBA graduates frequently advance in leadership roles – with roles ranging from President to Manager, Director to COO. The range of roles, salaries and responsibilities is wide. Outcomes often depend upon the size of the organization and the goals of the student.
  • For many of our students, “learning the language of business” is a top priority. Students often feel like they have depth in one area (HR, Marketing, or Project Management) but they need more exposure and education across other business areas where they aren’t as familiar. Post-MBA, we find that students often cite “increased confidence” as their most positive outcome. They feel they can walk into a boardroom and have a much more productive, poised conversation with their earned knowledge.

Josh Filzen:

Many of our grad students go to work for CPA firms (or already have started working for one). We also have students who work in industry or for the government in some capacity. Bottom line: all entities need accountants.

6. What advice would you give to a student enrolling in the MBA/MSA online program?

Ally Daniels:

  • Take the time to consider your goals and your future career path. Think 20+ years -not just in the short term. The vast majority of students only get one master’s – MSA or MBA – so make sure the decision is right for you.
  • Talk to mentors, supervisors, friends, or others whose careers you admire. They may have helpful insights.
  • Choose a reputable school. Consider ROI — ROI is a mix of both investment (time, money) and outcomes (career progression, salary). An affordable school with strong post-graduation outcomes is where you can maximize ROI.

Josh Filzen:

According to Boise State’s MSA Graduate Handbook, it is an understatement to say that graduate work is more intense than undergraduate work. Undergraduate accounting courses are rigorous. But you probably only took two accounting courses a semester. In graduate school, you may be taking up to four accounting courses a semester. And those courses will require more reading, homework, etc., and on more difficult subjects. In addition, you may be in a different stage in your life than you were as an undergraduate. Many of you now have family responsibilities, jobs, or other commitments that take up more of your time than in your undergraduate years.

A business professional types on a computer
Boise State Online MBA graduate Wendy Berkson works on her computer. Photo by Cassidy Latimer, Boise State University

Still unsure if the MBA or MSA program is the right fit for your goals? Connect with a student success coach who can help you assess and find the right program.

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