Will the Certified Information Technology Professional designation survive?

It's a question that has been on the minds of many CPAs - especially those who have already paid the application fee and taken the comprehensive exam to earn the credential.

While the brand has shown flashes of promise, the lack of marketing and slower-than-expected membership growth have hampered the prestige factor that the American Institute of CPAs was looking to attach to the acronym.

Established in 2000, the CITP was formed "to bridge knowledge of information technology and business" into one credential for accountants. Only CPAs can achieve the CITP credential, and the designation is considered by the AICPA to be a "mark of excellence," moving the CPA into an executive level.

But the credit has long been under debate as a lasting and effective accreditation.

In 2003 at its Fall Meeting of Council, the AICPA asked its governing board of directors to keep the accreditation alive, along with the other AICPA credentials - the Accredited in Business Valuation and the Personal Financial Specialist.

The board decided that each credential must meet a financial break-even point and have a required number of members at a specified date. According to the guidelines, the CITP must have a minimum of 1,700 members by July 31, 2008 - or the plug may be pulled.

As of June, there were 659 credentialed CITPS, with about 50 in the pipeline - a gain of just 132 designees since 2003, leaving it far short of the needed growth rate to continue on through 2008.

Yet many in the profession have expressed some optimism on its future.

Mike Dickson, a CPA with Midwestern regional firm Plante & Moran, and chairman of the AICPA's CITP Committee, said that at Tech 2005, the institute's recent annual information technology conference, more CPAs had stopped asking, "What does CITP stand for?" and started asking, "How do I become a CITP?"

"I think it's going to be fine," said technology guru and CITP holder Dana "Rick" Richardson. "It's getting continuing support from the institute. It's doing just what the mission says it's going to do. It's not going to be 10,000-people strong, maybe 2,000 to 5,000 people, but I don't think that's bad. [But] I think it should be harder to get."

The requirements

To become a CITP, candidates have to hold a valid CPA certification, complete an application test and pay a $550 fee.

To maintain the CITP, a member has to first pay a $350 annual fee; receive verification of 60 continuing education hours over three years; complete a written statement of intent to continue to comply with all recertification requirements; have a valid CPA certification; and be in good standing with the AICPA. Currently there is no requirement for re-testing.

However, there is no CITP exam scheduled for 2005. Dickson explained that the test has been cancelled because the costs involved in running the exam were far outreaching the number of CPAs taking it. This may bring joy to some CPAs, as the exam was thought of as long and too complex.

"I have heard people talk about how it's a real big thing to get through," said Randy Johnston, executive vice president at the business and technology consulting firm K2 Enterprises. "Some of our CPAs that went through it reported back to me that it took three to six hours."

Only 10 of the total number of CITP credential holders have taken the test, with most of them being "grandfathered" in due to their work in the field and university degrees. And most of those CPAs, even though they did not take the test, say that the test, while comprehensive and arduous, is a positive aspect of having the certification.

"The AICPA has to stop grandfathering in people like they did with me," said Yigal Rechtman, a CITP and CPA at Person & Co. LLP in New York. "I'm pretty sure all the CPAs that are familiar with this committee have been grandfathered in and have not taken the test. They should change it now to be test-only. If that happens, the certification will definitely survive. I would be surprised if it'll be phased out."

Dickson said that grandfathering is a misnomer. "Nobody is actually grandfathered in," he said. "The process from Day One is that you have a combination of experience and lifelong credit, and CPE, and the test is for people that didn't have enough experience. Not very many, it's true, needed to take the test, but some did take it to get the points they needed."

Richardson, who was the winner of the CITP Lifetime Achievement Award at the AICPA Tech 2004 conference for his work helping CPAs for the last 25 years in technology, said that he believes that CITP holders should not only be tested, but tested every three to four years to ensure that they have kept up to speed with the new technology emerging every day. "Once you pass the CPA Exam, you never have to be examined again. But a lot has changed - it's not reflective of what's happening today in public accountancy."

Branding and education of clients about the credential are two of the major hurdles that the CITP Committee has faced over the last few years.

Two years ago, the institute board recommended that retention strategies for the credentials not include national branding and advertising campaigns, because of resource constraints and the effort required to achieve national recognition. This recommendation may have backfired, however, as a national branding is just what some, like Johnston, believe is needed to make the CITP a nationally recognized and desired credential. Instead, the board urged members to spread the branding by word of mouth in their local areas.

"Even though I have to spell it out for clients," said Rechtman, "once I do, they feel it stands for something. My feeling is that it can stand for much more and become more prevalent, but it does give value."

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