Public accounting firms hired the largest number of accounting graduates ever last year, according to the American Institute of CPAs.

The AICPA said Monday that enrollments in undergraduate and graduate accounting programs also increased in the 2013-14 academic year, crossing the 250,000 mark for the first time.

On the recruiting side, the record number of accounting graduates hired by accounting firms in 2014 represented a 7 percent increase from the previous survey, according to the 2015 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and Demand for Public Accounting Recruits report.

Both universities and firms believe the accounting profession will continue to grow. Ninety-seven percent of bachelor’s programs and 70 percent of master’s programs anticipate their enrollment will remain the same or higher within two years of responding to the survey.

In addition to their record levels of hiring last year, 91 percent of firms expect to hire at the same or an increased level this year. Larger firms are particularly optimistic about hiring, with all firms employing over 200 CPAs reporting that their hiring will either increase or stay the same this year. This indicates that job prospects for current enrollees in accounting programs and recent graduates remains extremely bright.

While the data on enrollments and hiring represent a continued upward trend and increase from the previous survey, the number of degrees awarded for both undergraduate and graduate degrees combined showed a slowing of momentum. Degrees awarded held steady at the previous record high level (less than a 1 percent decrease), which was driven by a sharp increase in master’s degrees awarded (31 percent) and a decline in bachelor’s degrees (11 percent).

“The data in the Trends report is very positive overall, and the outlook for accounting students entering the profession is bright,” said AICPA president and CEO Barry Melancon in a statement. “At that same time, we’ve continued to see a slight widening of the gap between the number of students who are graduating with accounting degrees and the number of candidates sitting for the CPA Exam, although the growth of the gap has slowed. It is critical that we’re producing enough CPAs to replace the retiring baby boomers and that the profession is continuing to meet the ever-changing needs of the U.S. capital markets. We’ve been looking into this issue in great detail, and are considering a number of profession-wide initiatives to complement our existing programs and ensure that qualified accounting graduates are earning their CPA license.”

Accounting programs that stress the importance of the CPA and on-campus employer recruiting both increase a student’s interest in becoming a CPA, according to AICPA research. Once students graduate, the single greatest influence on sitting for the CPA Exam is support from their employer to pursue their license, including time off to study and financial compensation. Conversely, accounting graduates who are recruited by companies directly out of college, and foreign accounting students who return to their home countries after graduation, are less likely to earn their CPA license than those who begin their careers in public accounting.

The AICPA has two programs, Start Here, Go Places. which provides resources for high school educators and students) and This Way to CPA, developed for college accounting students and CPA Exam candidates, to educate students on the possibilities of a career in accounting and supply them with resources and guidance as they enter the profession. In addition, the AICPA offers many scholarship opportunities for accounting students throughout their academic careers.

The results of the Trends report are consistent with the findings of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2014-2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, which forecast employment of accountants and auditors will grow 13 percent from 2012 to 2022, representing an additional 166,700 jobs. The BLS Handbook notes that many accountants become CPAs to enhance their job prospects and gain clients, and that some employers prefer to hire applicants with a master’s degree, which also aligns with the findings of the Trends report.

The report found that the number of accounting students graduating with master’s degrees has continued to increase dramatically. In 2014, public accounting firms hired the largest number of accounting graduates with master’s degrees, reflecting an 11 percent increase from the previous report.

“There has been a growing trend of specialization in the profession, as well as a higher level of performance expected for today’s entry level CPAs,” said Joanne Fiore, AICPA vice president of professional media, pathways and inclusion. “Accounting students have responded to that marketplace demand by increasingly earning master’s degrees and developing specialized skills to complement their strong technical base before they enter the profession.”

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