Vocational route is a nicer earner
The Association of Accounting Technicians claims its own qualification could put students, who earn as they learn, pound;59,631 ahead of university-trained accountants by the time they graduate.
Research by the AAT using data from the Hays Salary Survey and the Department for Education and Skills indicates someone taking the vocational route could have earned pound;44,631 over the three years that a graduate has accrued pound;15,000 of debt - creating a difference of nearly pound;60,000.
Jane Scott Paul, chief executive of the AAT, said: "What we hope to show through this research is the benefits of a college education that are sometimes overlooked.
"With the vast majority of our students progressing on to become chartered at the same pace as, or even quicker than, graduates, this money could be seen, for some, as simply extra."
Through the AAT, it takes two to four years to become an accounting technician. For graduates, she said, it is likely to take four because a year's work experience must be completed.
Those on the vocational route can gain that year's experience at the same time as studying part-time, while graduates need to find work after university.
Clare Morley, director of education and training at the AAT, said: "If you want the university experience, go for the degree, but if you know you want to be a chartered accountant then the AAT shows commitment from an early age."
Both graduates and those trained vocationally can go on to become chartered accountants through the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).
Mark Protherough, head of operations in Learning and Professional Development at the ICAEW, said there may be little financial benefit in choosing an accountancy degree - unless employers have a graduate-only recruitment policy.
He said: "We don't have any evidence that people who go through the fast track suffer in terms of development and promotion. It is just being realistic that some employers will ask for degrees but, if you don't want to go to university and rack up debt, there is another way.
"People automatically assume you have to have a degree to become a chartered accountant and that has never been the case. Our current chief executive doesn't have a degree. It is how good you are at your job, not what entry qualification you have."
He said the high proportion of graduates in accountancy jobs is partly down to people choosing university at 18 as an easier option than starting work.
Schools tend to encourage pupils to take the university route, he said, because they want to be seen to be setting as many as possible on the path to a degree.
Most people enrolling for chartered status are graduates. In 200405, 83 per cent of the ACA (Associate Chartered Accountant) intake were graduates.
But the ICAEW believes this will change as the introduction of top-up fees and increasing concern over student debt encourages teenagers to look at their options.
Mr Protherough said: "If the long-term ambition is to become an accountant, then I tell parents to look at the AAT because their children could be qualified quicker and not incur debt. That's a no brainer to me," he said.