Developing a pipeline of CPA candidates is critical, now more than ever. In July, the American Institute of CPAs responded to this need by announcing the acquisition of the Accounting Pilot and Bridge Project (APBP), a training program developed by Dr. Dan Deines of Kansas State to bring higher-quality accounting curriculum to high school educators across the country. The overall goal is to expand the number of state societies educating high school teachers so that they can begin teaching early-stage accounting fundamentals in the classroom.
Still, despite all-time highs in college-level accounting program enrollment, the number of candidates taking the CPA Exam has remained flat over the past five years. And even though last year’s exam numbers showed signs of life — participation was up 9 percent, according to NASBA’s 2016 Candidate Performance on the Uniform CPA Examination – Jurisdiction Edition — these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, due to the significant exam changes that went into effect in April.
How can the industry increase the number of CPA Exam candidates on a year-over-year basis? The answer is simple: Broach the topic early and often while candidates are still learning the ropes.
EARLY STAGE AWARENESS
Considering the amount of time it takes to study for all four parts of the CPA Exam — on average, 300-400 hours — early awareness can only benefit candidates and, ultimately, the profession. If a college freshman or sophomore accounting student hears about the laborious process of earning a CPA credential after graduation, they would likely understand the importance of adopting exam-specific concepts sooner rather than later. Most students know whether accounting is their calling during their first few college years — based on family background or a specific interest in numbers — so being able to hear about the required steps and what it will take to succeed on the CPA Exam is to their advantage.
Furthermore, accounting professors are active participants in the community, and often, their work sparks students’ passions for careers in accounting, making professors best equipped to prepare the next generation of accountants for what lies ahead. If accounting professors incorporated a handful of exam questions — or expanded course curriculum to include exam specifics — during each required course after the intermediate level, student confidence in their ability to complete the exam changes drastically.
How can professors help change the narrative? Here are a few high-level ideas to incorporate into classroom dialogue:
- Make it personal. Share real life stories with students that showcase positive experiences (achievements/victories) about the education to profession transition, not just war stories of the exam.
- Gold-standard license. Explain the strength of the CPA credential and why it’s been the “gold standard” for decades.
- Now or later: Discuss the short- and long-term rewards of completing the exam and being able to fully focus on their career as close to graduation as possible.
WHERE TO START?
There are a number of accounting programs — St. John’s University and the University of California at Berkeley, to name a few — out in front of the CPA candidate pipeline issue that are already incorporating concepts at a baseline level. The starting pointing is easy: Speak up! Mentioning “The CPA Exam requires X, Y and Z and you will see 1, 2 and 3” is the most important step in the process. Planting the seed and managing expectations up front will not only allow professors to add to their expertise, but also increase their level of interaction with students.
There are a couple of easy ways that professors can add to existing accounting courses. Students in intermediate courses learn about a variety of topics they will also encounter on the CPA Exam and throughout their career — for example, the statement of cash flows. Based on the difficulty of the subject matter, students often welcome additional resources, such as video lessons and memory aids. By pairing these resources with exposure to CPA Exam questions, students are introduced to a difficult concept early on, helping expand their abilities to succeed on the exam.
In addition, the CPA Exam went through drastic changes in April, with the primary goal of ensuring that the exam better reflects the skills required of a newly licensed CPA. A great example of immediate application in the classroom has been in auditing courses and the new “Document Review Simulations.” Professors are now able to present the new question types to students, while also building bridges to the topics taught to the CPA Exam.
The reality is that the CPA community hasn’t seen a flat CPA pipeline like this before. There may not be a direct solution to the problem because there will always be changes that ultimately impact any industry. That said, there is a clear opportunity to bridge the concepts of the exam with the standard accounting curriculum. Encouraging early knowledge of the CPA Exam will provide students with a deeper understanding of the higher-level skills needed to make the transition from academia into the accounting business world as a CPA. After all, if students are already required to take a number of accounting course credits, why not integrate the concepts and questions that they’re more likely to be asked during the early stages of their career?