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.
Recommended Online Accounting Programs
Top 5 Forensic Accounting Master's Programs 2021
|1||Florida Institute of Technology||Melbourne, FL|
|2||West Virginia University||Morgantown, WV|
|3||La Salle University||Philadelphia, PA|
|4||SUNY College at Old Westbury||Old Westbury, NY|
|5||SUNY Polytechnic Institute||Utica, NY|
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 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.
Florida Institute of Technology
Private university in Melbourne, FL, accredited by SACSCOC
Founded in 1958 with a 130-acre campus in scenic Melbourne, the Florida Institute of Technology offers more than 200 academic programs online and on campus. Florida Tech also hosts certain courses at satellite campuses in Florida, Maryland, Virginia, and Alabama.
Florida Tech's MS in accounting and financial forensics consists of 30 required credits that degree-seekers may complete in 3-4 semesters. Ideal for students with an undergraduate background in accounting, the program also encourages applications from non-business majors.
The program features six core courses and 12 credits of electives. The core curriculum explores topics in fraud examination and advanced internal auditing, and concludes with a capstone in advanced problems and current topics in forensic accounting.
During the program, students also complete the 150 credit hours required for Florida CPA licensure. Qualified candidates may sit for the CPA exam upon graduation.
Applying to Florida Tech
Applicants must submit letters of recommendation, a statement of objectives, a formal resume, and official undergraduate transcripts. Students may submit optional GMAT scores. Degree-seekers with GMAT or GRE scores receive preference for scholarships.
Program at a Glance
Required Credits: 30 credits
Delivery Format: On campus
West Virginia University
Public university in Morgantown, WV, accredited by HLC and AACSB
Founded in 1867, West Virginia University now serves a student body of nearly 30,000, enrolling learners from 118 countries and all 50 states. WVU offers 360 unique academic programs online and on campus.
WVU offers a 30-credit master's in accounting, typically completed in one year of full-time study. Degree-seekers may select one of three concentrations: assurance, forensic, and fraud examination; business data analytics; or tax.
The core curriculum includes courses in economic decision-making, financial accounting, and assurance. Enrollees who pursue the emphasis in assurance, forensic, and fraud examination take additional courses in fraud investigation, accounting for forensic and fraud investigators, and fraud data analysis.
Students must complete undergraduate prerequisites in accounting and business prior to beginning the program. Qualified candidates may take the CPA exam upon graduation. The school reports that 97% of graduates received a job offer within six months of completing the program.
Applying to WVU
Admission requirements include an academic background in business or accounting, official transcripts — ideally with a minimum 3.2 undergraduate GPA — and GMAT scores within the 60th percentile or higher. The admissions committee may also consider applicants' work experience and previous graduate work.
Program at a Glance
Tuition: $4,410/semester (in state); $12,420/semester (out of state)
Required Credits: 30 credits
Program Length: 1 year
Delivery Format: On campus
La Salle University
Private university in Philadelphia, PA, accredited by MSCHE
A Catholic school founded in 1863, La Salle University sits on a 140-acre campus in Philadelphia. The school enrolls a small community of just over 4,900 students from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds.
La Salle's 36-credit MS in economic crime forensics offers two concentrations: corporate fraud and network security. Delivered fully online in accelerated eight-week terms, the program includes 10 required core courses.
The core curriculum explores topics in corporate ethics and compliance, criminal justice, investigative principles, economic risk analysis, and information security. All degree-seekers complete an integrative capstone project designed by each student and a faculty mentor.
Applying to La Salle
Applicants must submit an application form, official transcripts demonstrating a minimum 3.0 GPA, a professional resume, and a 500-word personal statement. Applicants must also sit for an interview.
Program at a Glance
Required Credits: 36 credits
Program Length: 1 year
Delivery Format: 100% online
SUNY College at Old Westbury
Public college in Old Westbury, NY, accredited by MSCHE and AACSB
Located just 22 miles outside of Manhattan on a scenic 604-acre campus, SUNY College at Old Westbury enrolls 5,027 students in 64 academic programs. Old Westbury boasts an average class size of just 22 students, and hosts more than 60 unique student organizations.
Old Westbury's MS in forensic accounting is the very first graduate degree in the field offered on Long Island. The 30-credit program takes three semesters to complete, typically requiring one calendar year of full-time study.
The core curriculum includes foundational and professional courses in fraud examination; criminology and white-collar crime; accounting information systems; and forensic interviewing, fraud, and the law. The program culminates in a capstone project in forensic accounting research.
Offered on campus, the program consists of evening courses to accommodate working professionals. Graduates typically meet requirements to sit for the CPA and certified fraud examiners licensure exams.
Applying to Old Westbury
Applicants must hold a bachelor's degree and submit official transcripts. Students without a background in accounting may also need to complete prerequisite courses. Applicants must submit GMAT scores, two letters of recommendation, and an essay.
Program at a Glance
Tuition: $462/credit (in state); $944/credit (out of state)
Required Credits: 30 credits
Program Length: 1 year
Delivery Format: On campus
SUNY Polytechnic Institute
Public college in Utica, NY, accredited by MSCHE and AACSB
Founded in 1966, SUNY Polytechnic Institute enrolls more than 3,000 students at its 400-acre campus in Utica. With a student body representing 20 countries, the school maintains a strong commitment to experiential learning, affordability, and student growth.
Ideal for students with an undergraduate background in accounting and business, SUNY Poly offers a fully online MS in accountancy. The 33-credit program includes a concentration option in forensic accounting and valuation.
The program's core courses explore topics in financial management problems, auditing theory, income tax research, and quantitative business analysis. The forensic accounting concentration features three courses: forensic accounting and fraud examination, financial statement investigations, and forensic accounting valuation.
Degree-seekers without a background in accounting must complete certain undergraduate prerequisite courses. This program allows students to complete the 150 credits required to sit for the CPA exam.
Applying to SUNY Poly
Students must submit official undergraduate transcripts, a resume, one professional or academic recommendation, and official GMAT scores with a minimum score of 400. The school admits applicants using a 1,000 point scale: 200 multiplied by the applicant's undergraduate GPA, plus the GMAT score.
Program at a Glance
Tuition: $5,655/semester (in state); $11,550/semester (out of state); $6,785/semester (out of state online)
Required Credits: 33 credits
Program Length: 1-2 years
Delivery Format: 100% online
What the Best Forensic Accounting Programs Have in Common
Each forensic accounting master's program offers a unique experience with different requirements and course offerings. Still, the best programs feature many similar characteristics.
- They are accredited. All schools in our rankings hold regional accreditation. Accreditation provides quality assurance for schools and their academic programs, ensuring they meet rigorous standards. Schools may hold either regional or national accreditation; regional accreditation is more widely recognized and carries more prestige. Regional accrediting agencies are approved by the U.S. Department of Education. Look for one of the following agencies: the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE); the Higher Learning Commission (HLC); and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).Additional programmatic accreditation for these programs may come from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).
- They offer academic excellence. Our rankings feature schools with a history of academic excellence. We look for schools with programmatic accreditation, a strong graduation and retention rate, and selective admission standards. Schools with strong academics offer rigorous education that prepares students for professional work in the field.
- They are reputable. Degrees from reputable schools and programs carry weight in the field. Employers recognize that the best programs uphold high standards and produce graduates who possess marketable skills and knowledge. The MS in accounting and financial forensics at the Florida Institute of Technology connects students with internships and job placements with large well-known corporations, including State Farm and Merrill Lynch.
- They are affordable. Earning a master's in forensic accounting involves a substantial financial investment. We strive to feature programs offering affordable tuition rates and ample opportunities for financial aid. SUNY College at Old Westbury, for example, offers an in-state tuition rate of just $462 per credit.
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.