Forensic accounting combines the principles of auditing, financial tracking, and investigative analysis to conduct thorough examinations of a person or organization's finances. The field's most common application lies in the investigation and prosecution of financial crimes, but forensic accountants also work for accounting and financial services firms, retail and investment banks, insurance companies, and law offices.
According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), demand for professionals with advanced forensic accounting credentials continues to rise sharply. Earning a master's in forensic accounting is an excellent educational path for those pursuing careers in this fascinating specialization. Candidates with advanced degrees generally earn higher salaries and perform better on the standardized examinations issued by prestigious credentialing authorities like the ACFE.
Forensic accounting credentials like the certified fraud examiner (CFE) designation carry considerable value: PayScale data from 2020 indicates CFEs earn average annual salaries exceeding $82,000, compared to about $52,000 for general accountants. This guide explains everything you need to know about earning an advanced forensic accounting degree at an accredited U.S. school, including an up-to-date ranking of top programs.
Top 10 Forensic Accounting Master's Programs
|1||Florida Institute of Technology||Melbourne, FL|
|2||Christian Brothers University||Memphis, TN|
|3||West Virginia University||Morganstown, WV|
|4||Stevenson University||Stevenson, MD|
|5||Bay Path University||Longmeadow, MA|
|6||Florida Atlantic University||Boca Raton, FL|
|7||Carlow University||Pittsburgh, PA|
|8||Utica College||Utica, NY|
|9||Liberty University||Lynchburg, VA|
|10||Pfeiffer University||Misenheimer, NC|
What Is a Master's in Forensic Accounting?
Many forensic accounting positions relate to civil and criminal litigation. In civil disputes, forensic accountants use their expertise to calculate financial and economic losses resulting from contract breaches or tort liabilities. In criminal proceedings they seek, uncover, and catalog financial data that implies or indicates fraudulent activity or other financial crimes, such as money laundering and embezzlement.
More rarely, forensic accountants also work for specialized organizations that conduct independent valuations of businesses or enterprise assets, often on behalf of clients considering an investment in the entity under evaluation. Some law firms employ forensic accountants internally. In such cases, they usually assist lawyers in figuring out the types of damages to sue for and the financial value of those damages.
Given its focus on crime and investigation, the profession tends to attract analytical, detail-oriented individuals with advanced financial literacy and critical thinking skills. Because many forensic accountants assist law enforcement in uncovering and prosecuting financial crimes, people with a strong desire to stop fraud and corruption also excel in the field.
Three specialized certifications apply to forensic accounting: the CFE designation along with certified forensic financial analyst (CFFA) and certified forensic accountant (CRFAC) credentials. The ACFE administers CFE examinations, while the National Association of Certified Valuation Analysts offers CFFA programs and the American Board of Forensic Accounting manages CRFAC credentialing. You can also learn more about the career path by consulting this comprehensive guide.
Comparing Forensic Accounting to General Accounting Degrees
General accounting degrees tend to primarily or exclusively focus on developing student proficiency with the core financial tracking and reporting principles used by businesses and organizations. These include the generally accepted accounting principles endorsed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, along with the professional skill sets used by generalist practitioners such as certified public accountants (CPAs).
Forensic accounting programs also cover these core principles, but extend beyond them to include specializations in auditing and fraud examination. Some programs also include targeted instruction in areas like finance law, tax law, fraud investigation and interviewing techniques, and adjacent topics in the criminal justice field.
|Master's in Forensic Accounting||Master's in Accounting|
|Typical Program Length||2-3 years||2-3 years|
|Number of Courses||10-12||10-12|
|Number of Credits||30-36||30-36|
|Formats||Online, on campus, hybrid||Online, on campus, hybrid|
The 10 Best Forensic Accounting Programs, 2020
The rankings below examine the 10 best forensic accounting master's degrees of 2020, drawing on federal government data and institutional research to generate the list. Expected return on student investment also plays a key role in the rankings, and the programs showcased below all perform exceptionally well in these and other regards.
Rankings lists offer a valuable tool to start your program research, and they make it easy to compare the details of highly regarded study options. Use them to inform your search for a suitable program as you weigh all the considerations that will ultimately inform your decision.Learn About Our Ranking Methodology
Florida Institute of Technology
Master of Science in Accounting and Financial Forensics
Set in Melbourne, Florida Tech offers a master's degree in accounting and financial forensics that teaches students how to investigate fraud, embezzlement, money laundering, and other white-collar crimes. The 30-credit program complements undergraduate degrees in financial investigation but does not require a bachelor's degree in any specific field.
Electives explore areas like taxation, IT, finance, and business intelligence. Previous learners have interned with companies like Merrill Lynch, DRS, State Farm, and Harris Corporation. The institute recommends but does not require the GRE/GMAT for admission. The Florida State Board of Accountancy approves all accounting coursework.
Average Net Price of Program: $22,588
Christian Brothers University
Master of Accountancy with Forensic Accounting Concentration
A Catholic institution in Memphis, CBU hosts an online master's in forensic accounting that full-time students can complete in 10 months. The forensic component takes the form of a concentration attached to the master of science in accountancy program.
The curriculum includes 18 accounting core credits and 13 forensic accounting credits. Students explore topics in information security, compliance auditing, and forensic accounting. The program also features a CPA review course to ready participants for the CPA exam.
CBU waives the GMAT/GRE requirement for students with a previous graduate degree or certification in accounting. All applicants must complete an interview.
Average Net Price of Program: $13,307
West Virginia University
Master of Science in Forensic and Fraud Examination
WVU hosts a forensic accounting master's in a low-residency format. The 30-credit master's in forensic and fraud examination program features primarily online coursework, but students must visit campus in Morgantown for two residencies.
The university's expert faculty helped develop the National Institute of Justice's standards for fraud and forensic accounting programs. The curriculum consists of 10 courses, six of which involve fraud and forensic examination.
Tuition includes the ACFE Exam Prep Course, which readies graduates to sit for the certified fraud examiner exam. The program is accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
Average Net Price of Program: $17,883
Master of Science in Forensic Accounting
A career-oriented institution in Owings Mills, Maryland, Stevenson offers one of the nation's best master's in forensic accounting programs. Designed for working adults, Stevenson's online program trains accounting professionals to evaluate risk, detect fraud, assess evidence, and communicate findings in courts of law.
The curriculum features a dozen classes in subjects like accounting fraud, investigative auditing, tax investigation, business valuation, and litigation theory. Students must maintain a minimum cumulative 3.0 GPA to graduates. They must also complete a capstone portfolio.
Stevenson holds membership in the FBI National Academy Associates and offers additional master's programs in digital forensics, cybersecurity, and forensic science.
Average Net Price of Program: $8,040
Bay Path University
Master of Science in Accounting with a Concentration in Forensic Accounting
A nonprofit institution with several locations across Massachusetts, Bay Path hosts an accounting master's degree with a forensic accounting track. The online program customizes the curriculum according to the CPA requirements of each student's state. The 30-credit curriculum includes seven accounting core courses and three electives.
Full-time students can complete the fully online program in one year. Coursework covers topics like auditing, cost accounting, financial reporting, IT, security, and fraud examination. Most distance learners conclude the program with a capstone that examines current developments in accounting.
Bay Path offers five start dates per year and schedules no classes from January to mid-April; students often pursue internships during this break.
Average Net Price of Program: $23,787
Florida Atlantic University
Executive Master of Accounting with a Concentration in Forensic Accounting
FAU's master's in forensic accounting meets standards put forth by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Based in Boca Raton, the two-year program can be completed online or on campus.
The 30-credit curriculum includes accounting foundation coursework and a concentration in forensics and communication. Students must maintain a minimum 3.0 GPA to graduate. Most courses feature a flexible, asynchronous format, allowing students to balance their studies with personal and professional obligations.
FAU requires GMAT/GRE scores for admission. The program meets the educational requirements to sit for the CPA exam. The university does not accept transfer credits toward the degree.
Average Net Price of Program: $11,081
Master of Science in Fraud and Forensics
A private Catholic school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Carlow offers an online master's in fraud and forensics that prepares graduates for the CPA and certified fraud examiner exams. Students can access top anti-fraud resources due to the university's relationship with the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.
The master's in forensic accounting was designed by certified subject-matter experts in accounting, law enforcement, government, and business. The cohort-based program takes one year to complete, and learners complete one class at a time. Students may also pursue graduate certificates in fraud and forensics and cyber-threat research analytics.
The university welcomes applicants with a 3.0 GPA or better from any discipline, though it prefers applicants with a year of experience in a related field.
Average Net Price of Program: $18,494
Master of Science in Financial Crime and Compliance Management
Utica hosts one of the top master's in forensic accounting programs in the country. Offered through the Economic Crime and Cybersecurity Institute, the mostly online program features a four-day, on-campus residency. Students take two classes per semester and finish in two years.
The master's in financial crime and compliance management includes courses in management, technology, and financial crime and compliance. Students culminate the degree with a professional project or thesis.
The program prepares learners for the certified anti-money laundering specialist examination. Utica stresses that the U.S. Department of Labor puts forensic accounting jobs, like fraud examiner, in its "bright outlook" category of occupations.
Average Net Price of Program: $22,030
Master of Science in Accounting – Forensic Accounting
An evangelical Christian institution in Lynchburg, Virginia, Liberty offers a master's in forensic accounting with a Christian worldview. Delivered entirely online, the program features biblically based courses that emphasize the business uses of forensic accounting.
The 30-credit program prepares students for the CPA exam and includes courses on topics like accounting ethics, fraud examination, and information technology and fraud. Courses span eight weeks and feature a mostly asynchronous format. Most students graduate in one year.
Applicants need a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution with a minimum 3.0 GPA. The program holds accreditation by the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs.
Average Net Price of Program: $8,333
Master of Science in Financial Fraud Investigations
A liberal arts university affiliated with the Methodist church, Pfeiffer offers an online forensic accounting master's with specializations in cyber forensics, anti-money laundering and law enforcement, and business administration. The program prepares students for professional exams in the field.
The 30-credit master of science in financial fraud investigation features seven core classes in areas like fraud analytics, financial information analysis, and internal controls. Concentrations consist of three classes on advanced topics. Students culminate the degree with a research project or internship. Applicants must hold a bachelor's degree and submit GMAT or GRE scores.
Average Net Price of Program: $12,024
What To Expect From Your Forensic Accounting Master's
Most forensic accounting master's programs consist of 10-12 courses, with most schools awarding three credits per course for a total of 30-36 credits for the degree. Full-time students can usually complete core requirements in four semesters. Business schools increasingly cater to the needs of working professionals returning to school, creating stronger support structures and flexible delivery formats that appeal to part-time and distance learners.
Format options include traditional classroom-based learning, but institutions and students continue to embrace online learning at robust rates. A growing number of schools offer 100% online master's in forensic accounting programs, as the subject matter translates well to the virtual classroom. Students can also seek hybrid programs that blend in-class and online delivery, and accelerated programs that lead to graduation on compressed timelines.
Costs vary significantly between schools, but costs per credit typically start in the $600 range. The subsections that follow examine degree types, specializations and concentrations, typical courses, and admission requirements that usually apply to graduate forensic accounting programs.
Different Degree Types and Specializations
Most master's in forensic accounting programs lead to a master of science (MS) designation. Schools typically add brief descriptors to the MS designation that indicate the degree's specific focus. Common examples include an MS in forensics and fraud examination, MS in financial crime and compliance management, and MS in fraud and accounting. Another common configuration allows graduates to earn a generalized MS in accounting with a concentration in forensic accounting.
Business schools also offer degree paths leading to a generalist or executive master's in accounting (MAcc) or master's in professional accounting. Furthermore, some MBA programs feature forensic accounting specializations, offering an appealing path to learners seeking this prestigious designation.
MS degrees usually maintain a laser-sharp focus on specialized courses in auditing, financial forensics, and investigative techniques. MAcc and MBA programs tend to include more generalized business content, boosting their versatility.
Admission Requirements for Forensic Accounting Programs
Schools maintain their own internal admission standards and policies, making it difficult to generalize about the exact qualifications applicants need. However, most programs share common requirements. For instance, candidates almost always require a bachelor's degree in forensic accounting, general accounting or another accounting specialization, or a closely related subject such as business administration to earn consideration.
As an alternate path, applicants who do not already hold an undergraduate accounting degree can still qualify if they possess significant professional experience in bookkeeping, accounting, or financial management. Candidates fitting this profile still need a bachelor's degree in an applicable field. Forensic accounting master's degrees also tend to carry relatively high minimum GPA requirements, with minimum 3.0 cumulative undergraduate GPAs as a common benchmark.
If the school requires standardized test scores, they usually cover the GRE or GMAT examinations. In addition to academic transcripts, officials may also request supplementary documentation such as personal statements, letters of recommendation, and CVs or resumes.
Popular Master's in Forensic Accounting Courses
Forensic accounting master's programs differ in their course offerings, which vary depending on factors like the specific focus of the degree and the type of course (core requirement, elective, thesis, or capstone). However, many programs offer a similar set of courses that develop targeted, valuable proficiencies that graduates can draw on time and again during their professional careers.
Principles of Auditing
In this class, students build on their existing understanding of financial reporting standards and financial statement analysis. Enrollees learn how to apply auditing practices and techniques to the analysis of individual or organizational financial records. The class also enhances familiarity with auditing terminology and teaches students how to plan, prepare for, and execute financial audits.
Principles and Practices of Fraud Examination
Learners usually take this core course early in the process of completing their forensic accounting degrees, as it informs many other aspects of professional practice. Subjects explored include financial transaction and financial data analysis, fraud detection, asset misappropriation techniques, investigation planning, and proper handling of evidence.
Statistical Methods in Forensic Accounting
Forensic accountants and fraud examiners require an advanced command of targeted statistical analysis methods and techniques. This course introduces students to key concepts including inferential data analysis, discrete and continuous probability distributions, regression and correlation, and sampling.
Forensic accountants who provide support and analysis for civil litigation frequently conduct thorough, comprehensive valuations of businesses and enterprise assets in preparing cases. This course builds student familiarity with essential business and economic valuation principles.
The Master's Capstone or Thesis
Many master's in forensic accounting programs culminate in an advanced research project, case study, or thesis course. These requirements give degree-seekers an opportunity to display their mastery and synthesis of the core knowledge and concepts taught in the program while providing faculty with an effective means to evaluate the sum total of student learning.
In many cases, these degree completion requirements are equal to one or two of the usual 10-12 courses covered by the program. Specific requirements vary depending on the program's configuration, but capstone projects usually include a comprehensive case study or sample financial audit or fraud investigation.
Thesis courses typically take a more academic than applied approach. Instructors prompt students to conduct advanced, argument-driven analyses of key forensic accounting theories, concepts, and professional practices. They may also examine a specific area of focus in the discipline, such as money laundering techniques used by criminal syndicates or emerging topics like cryptocurrency or financial cybercrime.
While some forensic accounting programs require a thesis or offer degree-seekers a choice between a thesis or a capstone, case study capstone projects are generally more common.
What Jobs Can Forensic Accounting Degrees Get You?
Accounting specializations carry high value to employers seeking specially trained professionals with advanced, highly focused skill sets. Forensic accounting certainly fits this bill, as the vast majority of generalist accountants lack the practical and technical knowledge to carry out accurate, detailed audits and fraud examinations.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects strong demand for accounting and finance professionals with exceptional investigation and analysis skills. For instance, the BLS projects a 7% growth in demand for financial examiners from 2019-2029, which significantly outpaces average growth for all professions. The BLS also reports excellent median pay of more than $81,000 per year for financial examiners as of 2019.
The list below provides a closer look at career paths and job opportunities available to professionals with a master's in forensic accounting.
- Financial Examiner
Financial examiners usually work for government agencies or financial institutions. They analyze financial transactions to ensure full compliance with tax codes and legal standards.
- Certified Fraud Examiner
CFEs lead investigations in suspected fraud cases to identify tangible instances of criminal wrongdoing. These professionals apply their detailed knowledge of forensic accounting, document analysis, data analysis, financial reporting, interviewing, and white-collar crime.
Auditors conduct precise, thorough analyses of financial records and documents to ensure compliance with tax codes, applicable laws, and financial reporting standards. They usually work for government agencies.
- Financial Consultant
Forensic accounting specialists sometimes work as consultants and analysts, either independently or with financial consulting firms. In these capacities, they usually conduct business and economic valuations, assess an organization's vulnerability to financial crimes, and analyze financial data, records, and reports on behalf of end clients.
Selecting the Right Forensic Accounting Program
Selecting the right accounting program for your personal and professional goals requires careful consideration of several critical factors. In business-related fields like accounting, school and program prestige tends to draw a high level of interest among applicants, but this is only one of many elements that demand close scrutiny.
Depending on your learning style and personal preferences, you may also want to consider factors such as school size, typical class sizes, alumni resources, career center resources, and faculty credentials, among others.
Should You Get Your Master's in Forensic Accounting Online?
Schools increasingly offer fully online and hybrid master's in forensic accounting programs, as the subject matter translates very well to digital delivery formats. These formats facilitate the easy review of lecture material and other instructional content, helping students build familiarity and confidence with important concepts at their own pace.
Online forensic accounting degrees offer many other benefits:
- Degree-seekers can engage with lectures and lessons on their own schedules, making online learning ideal for working professionals.
- Learners may accelerate or decelerate their learning as needed.
- Online degrees may reduce attendance costs, as online students do not need to physically relocate or travel to and from campus to attend classes.
- Some schools offer reduced tuition rates to online learners, either through distance-based reductions or by offering in-state tuition to all online students regardless of location.
However, some students are better-suited for online learning than others. Successful online students tend to possess higher levels of independence, self-discipline, and digital literacy. If you feel that you come up short in any of these regards, the traditional in-class learning experience may offer a better fit.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What can I do with a master's in forensic accounting?
- Professionals with master's degrees in forensic accounting typically work for governments, law enforcement agencies, law firms, or private sector employers. They work in roles that deal with civil or criminal litigation, fraud investigations, and other white-collar crimes.
- Which is better: An MBA, or a master's in accounting?
- Both degrees offer significant value, and the answer depends on your career goals. Students seeking to specialize generally prefer MAcc designations, while MBAs often deliver more versatility and career flexibility.
- How much do forensic accountants make?
- PayScale data from 2020 indicates that the typical U.S.-based forensic accountant earns about $81,680 per year by the time they reach their midcareer period. This applies to professionals with about 10 years of on-the-job experience.
- What's the difference between a CPA and a forensic accountant?
- Certified public accountants hold versatile but general skill sets that cover a broad range of practice areas including financial reporting, financial planning, tax preparation, and regulatory compliance. As accomplished specialists, forensic accountants possess targeted, advanced fraud investigation and detection skills.
- How do you become a certified forensic accountant?
- According to the American Board of Forensic Accounting, candidates require valid CPA licensure, including current registration and good professional standing, as a core requirement. Applicants must also hold at least a bachelor's degree and two or more years of professional auditing experience.
Forensic Accounting Professional Organizations
Students and graduates alike enjoy great benefits through membership in professional organizations. Forensic accounting organizations offer services to their members such as career centers and job boards, professional development, certification, and networking opportunities. Members may participate through online forums, local chapters, and annual conferences.
- National Association of Forensic AccountantsFocused on continuing education and certification for forensic accountants, NAFA provides members with a wealth of training and credentialing opportunities. Other benefits include discounts, newsletters full of industry updates, and other publications.
- Association of Certified Fraud ExaminersOpen to CFE-certified accountants, the ACFE is an anti-fraud organization. Member benefits include regular publications and newsletters, webinars, a career center and job board, networking opportunities, and professional development.
- Institute of Certified Forensic AccountantsOffering CPFA credentials for forensic accountants, the ICFA is a nonprofit to advance the multidisciplinary profession. Members gain access to various certification opportunities, an online resource center, and industry publications.
- American Board of Forensic AccountingLaunched in 1993 as an independent overseeing organization for CFA certification, the ABFA promotes the profession and evaluates members' skill sets. Member services include continuing education opportunities, mentorship and research assistance, referrals, discounts, networking, and publication opportunities.
- American Institute of Certified Public AccountantsSetting fundamental accounting standards across the nation, the AICPA serves its membership through career guidance, continuing education opportunities, webcasts, publications, and conferences.