Although Al Capone is infamous for committing deplorable acts of fraud, vagrancy, bribery, theft, and homicide, he was finally brought to justice by the scrupulous application of a growing subfield of forensics: forensic accounting.
In fact, according to the National Association of Forensic Accountants (NAFA), Capone’s conviction for evading taxes is anecdotally the earliest known use of forensic accounting, a discipline that doesn’t deal with blood spatters and DNA analyses but rather patient examinations of financial crimes such as money laundering, insurance fraud, and embezzlement.
So what can aspiring professionals expect to learn in a forensic accounting program? The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE)—one of the primary certifying agencies for this field—reports that forensic accountants offer a variety of investigative services, including analyzing financial data; tracking illicit funds and hidden assets; valuing businesses; preparing reports; communicating findings to cross-disciplinary teams; assessing damage or negligence; and testifying in court as expert witnesses. This career provides a stimulating blend of criminology, ethics, and data analyses.
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not track data specific to forensic accounting, the growth rate for accountants overall is expected to be 7 percent from 2020 to 2030, which is similar to the national average for all occupations (8 percent).
Read on to discover what to expect from a forensic accounting degree or certificate program—both on-campus and online—and information about professional certification and accreditation.
There is a wealth of forensic accounting programs for this class of aspiring professionals, ranging from an associate of science in forensic accounting (AS-FA) to master of forensic accounting (MFAcc) degrees. For many employers, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), candidates should have a bachelor’s degree.
The University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY), provides a master of science (MS) in forensic accounting accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). This one-year master’s program fulfills the 150-hour education requirement for CPA licensure.
This 30-credit one-year program is ideal for undergraduate majors in accounting seeking specialized, employment-ready skills and produces graduates who are “highly recruited” by 16 renowned governmental and private organizations internationally. With courses such as financial statement analysis, advanced management accounting, and digital forensics, this SUNY school prepares students to become certified fraud examiners (CFE).
Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, has a 36-credit master’s degree in forensic accounting with specialized preparation in criminal & civil investigation, forensic analytics, cyber forensics, legal procedure, and internal auditing. Boasting experienced accountants and attorneys among the faculty to impart real-world theory applications, many Webster graduates have secured employment in accounting firms, private companies, and government agencies.
Furthermore, students can earn continuing professional education (CPE) credits as part of the program to be applied to various certifications.
The University of Colorado, Denver (UC Denver) offers a 30-credit master of science (MS) in accounting with a specialization in auditing and forensic accounting. This program imparts the fundamentals of the discipline, such as internal auditing, fraud examination, and financial reporting. It makes students proficient in the US Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and international standards. Students can choose to attend full- or part-time and attend classes with a 7:1 student-faculty ratio.
The program curriculum is focused on passing the certified professional accountant (CPA) exam offered by the American Institute of CPAs. The GMAT and GRE are optional for admission, and a dual MS/MBA degree optional is available.
Here are common application requirements & prerequisites, courses, and sample programs for each level of forensic accounting program:
In addition to ForensicsColleges.com’s list of online forensic accounting programs, the following are four online and hybrid learning options for prospective students that may not be able to commit to an on-campus program:
Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) provides an online 120-credit bachelor of science (BS) program in forensic accounting and fraud examination. With a focus on analyzing theft, fraud, and financial malfeasance cases, SNHU imparts a wealth of employment-ready skills to its graduates. Courses include cost accounting, federal taxation, and auditing & forensic accounting. This school also offers a 30 percent discount for active-duty service members and their spouses.
SNHU also offers an online MS in accounting with a concentration in forensic accounting, requiring students to take courses in forensic accounting, including interview techniques/legal aspects of fraud and detection and prevention of fraudulent financial statements. Depending on a student’s undergraduate major, students can complete this program with a minimum of 12 and a maximum of 21 graduate courses.
The forensic accounting concentration requires 12 credits of courses in introduction to forensic accounting/fraud exam; detection and prevention of fraudulent financial statements; interview techniques/legal aspects of fraud; and investigating with computers.
Based in Columbus, Ohio, Franklin University offers an online bachelor’s program for aspiring forensic accounting. Franklin not only has top-notch, hands-on coursework in fraud examination, accounting research & analysis, and corporate governance & internal control assessment, but also prepares its graduates to seek national certification, including certified fraud examiner (CFE), certified public accountant (CPA), or certified internal auditor (CIA).
As part of the curriculum, students engage in a simulated investigation of a growing company’s questionable financial statements, streamlining the corporate accounting system using the Microsoft® Visio program, the industry-standard software, as well as learning concepts outlined in educational standards by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), and the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE).
Northeastern University in Boston has an online graduate certificate in forensic accounting. Developed in response to the slew of conspicuous white-collar scandals that have rocked the business world, Northeastern’s curriculum teaches awareness of corporate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley 2002 legislation and other financial reform ordinances from 2010.
Through four courses—forensic accounting principles, dissecting financial statements, investigative accounting, fraud examination, and litigation support—Northeastern’s 16-credit certificate takes 12 to 18 months to complete and imparts the fundamentals of the field, teaching students how to identify and collect evidence of financial crimes.
West Virginia University (WVU) in Morgantown offers a 30-credit online master’s program in forensic and fraud investigation (FFE) comprising 10 total courses, six of which are focused on forensic accounting: FFE examination skills, fraud investigation, fraud data analysis, fraud criminology & legal issues, advanced analytical techniques, and advanced fraud investigation. Four of these courses parallel those taught as part of WVU’s nationally ranked MBA program.
Furthermore, the FFE coursework involves performing real-world case studies—analyzing evidence, preparing reports, presenting evidence orally, and offering mock court testimonies. Two short weekend residencies are required as part of this program. This online master’s program can be completed in as few as 12 months via the intensive pathway. WVU also offers a graduate certificate in forensic accounting and fraud examination (FAFE).
As part of some educational programs, students are offered preparation for various licenses and certifications. As it stands, existing certificates specific to forensic accounting are not as developed or widely recognized as those in general accounting. In fact, Wm. Dennis Huber of Capella University published an article in the Journal of Accounting, Ethics & Public Policy calling into question these entities’ quality, consistency, and vetting processes, preferring to view them as profit-seeking corporations rather than recognized, valid certifying entities. As forensic accounting is a relatively new subfield of the discipline, this may change in the coming years.
That said, there are three recognized professional certifications provided for forensic accountants.
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) provides the widely known certified public accountant (CPA) license. Most states require at least a bachelor’s degree to qualify and two years of experience and passing a comprehensive exam. Additionally, this group offers the certified financial forensics (CFF-AICPA) designation, created in 2008.
The CFF-AICPA certification is designed for qualified and licensed CPAs who have extensive experience in electronic data analysis, fraud prevention and detection, financial statement misrepresentation, and other essential areas.
The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) offers the certified fraud examiner (CFE) credential following an exam that covers four areas: fraud prevention and deterrence, financial transactions and fraud schemes, investigation, and law. CFEs must complete 20 hours of continuing education (CE) annually to maintain the certification and pay a membership fee.
The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) has a certified internal auditor certification (CIA) established in 1973. Candidates must hold at least a three- or four-year postsecondary degree to qualify plus two years of experience or seven years of verifiable experience. Additionally, aspiring CIAs must obtain character reference forms from a supervising, licensed accounting authority. Upon approval, applicants must take the CIA exam within four years.
Prospective forensic accountants are encouraged to verify the accreditation status of their schools and programs.
The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)—an internationally recognized accreditation body for assessing undergraduate and graduate-level business and accounting programs—evaluates criteria such as the relevance of the curriculum, the quality of faculty instruction, and opportunities offered to students. Offered to only five percent of the world’s 13,000 business schools, this accreditation is a testament to the program’s quality.
In addition to the AACSB, six institutional accreditation organizations are recognized by the US Department of Education that evaluate entire universities. Organized by region, these agencies include:
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).