Accounting and finance professionals face tough decisions every day. One is this: CPA vs. CMA. Yes, that's whether to pursue a CPA (certified public accountant) license versus a CMA (certified management accountant) certification.
What's the difference? Both provide their own benefits, and when it comes to deciding what credential to pursue, it’s not a matter of which one is better. It’s a matter of which is better for you. (Sometimes, the answer may be both.)
Here’s a quick, side-by-side "CPA vs. CMA" summary to help you evaluate the options when exploring which certification is best, the CMA certification or the CPA:
Take a look at the CPA
Are compliance and regulation in your wheelhouse? Do you find you focus on taxes, financial reporting, audits and customer-facing areas in your accounting and finance jobs? Finally, do you find your client base consists of individuals and businesses? If so, a CPA may be your best finance certification. The American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) represents the CPA profession and develops the CPA exam, which allows qualified individuals to become licensed CPAs in the U.S.
What you’ll need: A bachelor’s degree (with additional requirements in accounting and business-related college courses) and one or two years of experience under the supervision of a licensed CPA. These requirements vary from state to state.
Exam pass rate: Around 49 percent in 2016
Maintenance: Completion of various levels of continuing professional development — usually 40 hours annually, but it depends on your state — in order to keep your licensure. Courses can be taken online or on site.
Cost: Exam, application and licensure fees combined with a review course fee (mid-range cost: $1,700) and an ethics exam (obligatory in some states) can be as high as $3,000.
Perks: The CPA is often considered the most desired designation, for both public and corporate accounting positions.
Compare the CMA certification
If you find your personal interests or your comfort zone lands you solely in the realm of corporate finance and accounting, you may consider a CMA finance certification. While the CPA designation is a state license, the CMA is a globally recognized credential. This is especially valuable to professionals interested in enhancing their abilities to analyze an organization’s financial condition and make strategic business decisions based on what they find.
What you’ll need: IMA (Institute of Management Accountants) membership, a bachelor’s degree and two continuous years of management accounting or financial management. These requirements can be fulfilled seven years before or after passing the CMA exam.
Exam pass rate: The pass rate differs by geographic region but averages about 40 percent on part 1 and 50 percent on part 2.
Maintenance: You’ll need to take 30 hours of certified professional education each year. Two of those will need to be in ethics. Courses can be taken online or on site.
Cost: Standard fees including entrance and exam fees run about $1,330, plus the cost of IMA membership.
Perks: Holding a CMA shows employers you have a head for business, as well as numbers.
CPA vs. CMA: advantages of both
Employers see the time, money and effort to acquire either the CPA and CMA certifications as a testament to an individual's commitment to succeed as an accounting and finance professional. This demonstration of commitment, focused study and knowledge can even serve as the tiebreaker between two qualified candidates for a job.
Both certifications also offer salary rewards. According to Robert Half's latest Salary Guide, professionals with an industry-recognized designation can expect starting salary offers to be 5 to 15 percent above the market average.
As also noted in the guide, there are a number of other valued certifications, including the chartered global management accountant (CGMA) from the AICPA, certified internal auditor (CIA) from The Institute of Internal Auditors, and certified payroll professional from the American Payroll Association.
Whatever you ultimately choose, obtaining a CPA or CMA certification — or both — will be a solid investment in your career. Good luck!
Editor's note: This post was published in 2014 and updated recently to reflect current information.