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4 Reasons Why the Profession Is Struggling to Convince Students to Become CPAs, #4 Will Not Shock You

a woman carrying a large stack of books

I buried the link I’m about to share with you all in Footnotes last Friday; however, since its author intended for it to spur a conversation about the profession’s pipeline problem, I thought it best to highlight it in its own post should any of you feel like discussing it.

“In my view, the future of the CPA profession is at risk,” writes Yigal Rechtman, CPA, CFE, CITP, CISM in a letter to the editor published by The CPA Journal. Time to whip out an ancient Game of Thrones meme here:

It is known gif Game of Thrones

The 2021 AICPA Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits report released a couple weeks ago tells us that the number of accounting graduates trended downward in the 2019–2020 academic year (most recent data available), with decreases of 2.8% and 8.4% at the bachelor’s and master’s levels, respectively; accounting grad numbers have been trending downward since 2015-16 with the 2019-20 number showing the most significant drop-off of recent years (3,391). Can we blame the pandemic for some of that? Maybe. We’d be wise to wait for the 2023 AICPA Trends report to see if the trend continues before getting too worked up about it.

The issue of the accounting pipeline problem has been discussed here ad nauseam but this is accounting so we really have so few things to talk about, why not throw a few more ideas into the flaming dumpster fire? Here are the reasons Rechtman gives for why the future of the CPA profession is at risk, an issue that could potentially cripple capital markets and therefore our capitalist system entirely:

  • Lack of mission or purpose To counter this perception, the accounting profession could be rebranded as a foundational force of social stability and progress, and not just as “a job” with long hours and low return on investment (ROI) on education.
  • A narrow focus on numbers Accounting provides a golden toolkit of critical thinking and information brokering that can work in both traditional and innovative ways. For example, every startup would benefit immensely from having a CPA among its founders.
  • An exclusive brand. There is another way of putting this: Accounting is a profession whose brand has not been diluted. For example, the AICPA’s idea of expanding its membership by opening the certified in financial forensics (CFF) certification to non-CPAs runs counter to the exclusivity of the CPA brand.
  • The pay isn’t worth the educational investment Here we need to make changes to the ROI calculus of education costs. The “fifth-year” experiment has had the unintended consequence of costing prospective entrants a 20% premium just for the chance of passing the CPA exam. With a 40% pass rate, this is a tough sell. It’s time to drop the fifth-year requirement.

Let’s talk about that last point. While it may be a tough sell, the AICPA has tried to sell it anyway. Here’s a list of reasons why a traditional four-year undergraduate program is no longer adequate for obtaining the requisite knowledge and skills to become a CPA (in their words):

  • Significant increases in official accounting and auditing pronouncements and the proliferation of new tax laws have expanded the knowledge base that professional practice in accounting requires.
  • Business methods have become increasingly complex. The proliferation of regulations from federal, state, and local governments requires well-educated individuals to ensure compliance. Also, improvements in technology have had a major effect on information systems design, internal control procedures, and auditing methods.
  • The staffing needs of accounting firms and other employers of CPAs are changing rapidly. With more sophisticated approaches to auditing now in use, and with the increase in business demands for a variety of highly technical accounting services and greater audit efficiency, the requirements for effective professional practice have increased sharply. The demand for a large quantity of people to perform many routine auditing tasks is rapidly diminishing.

These bullet points may be true — the expansion of the entry-level CPA’s knowledge base certainly is, and will only be larger when the redesigned CPA exam launches in 2024 — but none of them make any mention of the value to the student who may be wondering if a master’s is literally and figuratively worth it (spoiler: it is literally not).

OK so the AICPA sucks at selling the fifth year requirement, whatever. Problem is the fifth year requirement sucks at selling itself, too.

A 2018 paper by John M. Barrios at University of Chicago Booth School of Business shows us that the 150-hour rule reduces the supply of accountants (you know, that whole pipeline thing everyone is worried about) AND doesn’t do much to improve the quality of the supply who are required to meet said rule:

Although the Rule reduces the number of entrants into the profession, an analysis of labor market outcomes shows that accountants subject to the Rule are more likely to be employed at a Big 4 public accounting firm and specialize in taxation. However, accountants subject to the Rule have the same likelihood of promotion, the same duration until promotion, and exit public accounting at faster rates than their non-Rule counterparts. Moreover, Rule accountants earn a wage premium relative to non-Rule accountants. These findings suggest that restrictive licensing laws reduced the supply of new CPAs and increased rents to the profession without drastically improving quality in the labor market.

Many years back when not all states required 150 hours, the state — sorry, Commonwealth — of Virginia realized that its then-extraordinary 150 hour requirement was causing the state to lose CPA candidates to other, less restrictive states, a side effect that was costing them money. “The Commonwealth doesn’t want to lose its valuable CPA candidates and wants to retain those Exam takers. In addition, reducing the requirement would have a positive impact on Virginia’s budget,” said the Virginia Society of CPAs. The issue was so urgent that then-governor Tim Kaine signed emergency legislation in May of 2009 allowing Virginia CPA exam candidates to sit for the exam with just 120 hours. So that’s a consideration too, the time and financial investment necessary to meet the 150 hour requirement could be partially contributing to the gap between high numbers of accounting graduates and mostly steady or even declining CPA exam candidate numbers. That decline means fewer application and exam fees collected by The Powers That Be (a.k.a The Dark Triad of the AICPA, NASBA, and Prometric along with individual state boards of accountancy), an issue that should certainly get their attention.

150 hour bike fall meme

“Filling” the CPA pipeline is one of the AICPA’s primary strategic initiatives in 2022 and when we look at the list of things they’re doing toward this goal we see the bulk of it is marketing and PR. From the Trends report:

To address the US CPA pipeline’s downward trend, we collectively need to promote:

  • K-12 and high school students interest in accounting
  • University students majoring in accounting and other related majors
  • University students deciding to sit for the CPA Exam
  • CPA candidates securing the CPA license
  • Young professionals further exploring sitting for the CPA Exam
  • The promotion of the accounting profession and the CPA license globally

If the profession is that worried about the future (it ought to be), it’s time to have the difficult conversation about self-imposed barriers to the profession. Pushing for accounting to be classified as a STEM field and initiatives to plant the seed in kindergartners’ minds of accounting as a career may not be enough.

If things get really dire we could just abolish the CPA exam altogether but let’s maybe try some less extreme measures first, maybe starting with getting better at demonstrating the value of a career in accounting (firms, this is where you start paying people better) and justifying the burden of a fifth year of education for licensure. Yeah, that should do for a start.

Photo by cottonbro

12 thoughts on “4 Reasons Why the Profession Is Struggling to Convince Students to Become CPAs, #4 Will Not Shock You

  1. We’re really overthinking all this IMHO:

    1. Fewer accounting students means smaller supply of CPAs.
    2. Smaller supply of CPAs means higher wages
    3. Higher wages means more students decide to major in accounting

    #2 is the important part, but instead of higher wages we’re getting pizza parties and unlimited PTO.

    We don’t need to spend time and money on promoting the CPA profession. We just need to let market forces do their work.

    1. Except that higher wages has really only happened for the “best of the best” students, and at certain firms. The vast majority of the industry has *not* offered higher wages.

      I also think you are vastly underestimating the influence “extra year of college” has on the average college student. We have winnowed out all the people who “kinda like accounting, might try this out” down to zero. All we are left with are the die-hards who wanted to do accounting anyway.

      Your typical college student doesn’t care an iota about making an extra $5k or $10k per year when they are deciding on their major. Soooo many students think about the extra year and switch to finance, you have no idea. Source: am college professor desperately trying to get more students in upper division accounting courses.

    2. Smaller supply of CPA’s means more outsourcing. The midsize firm I work at is looking to India in the next year just as the larger firms have done for more than a decade. The problem with tax is that it’s become too complex. Every year the returns grow in size with no change to the business or individual returns. It’s been unsustainable for years, but covid bought a couple years with the extended busy season. If this tax season didn’t break you, next year will.

  2. This is certainly a novel idea for the decline in CPA exam takers and general Accouting educational declines. However, I disagree. I have chosen to forego sitting for the exam (at least for now) for two primaey reasons.

    1 – The education taught, even in graduate school does not align with the CPA exam.

    2 – I don’t want to work insane hours for 1-2 years when I know I won’t be staying, just to get a license so I can work in industry.

    While #2 is personal, #1 is a real problem. The fact that I can get a masters of accounting, or a PhD in accounting and still not be able to parlay that education into an exam Pass is problematic. Accounting faces one of the worst kinds of cash rackets of any profession.

    Instead of marketing, AICPA should focus on helping school programs better align with the exam. You shouldn’t have to pay a secondary training program to teach you the material for the CPA exam just to be able to pass it. Especially if you have a graduate degree in the sbject.

    1. You bring up excellent points, I appreciate you including your personal perspective.

      As to your last point, I believe this is what they’re working toward with the CPA Evolution project, they’re working closely with academia on how to better align the exam with education as well as the real world knowledge base. Good read from The CPA Journal on this project: There’s a lot of work yet to be done.

      It remains to be seen if they are able to pull this off, I’m hopeful.

    2. Nailed it! If they did away with such confusing wording maybe the education given would aligned with the exam. For those not good at test taking but very good at what they do, the CPA is a turn off for many. I know someone who has pased the exam but lacks knowledge of basic accounting skills, in my opinion.

  3. The 150 credit requirement is useless, if you meet the accounting minimums you can get credits in anything or just take a CLEP exam to get meaningless credits. So why do we even have the 150 requirement?

  4. One word – overtime. This article completely ignores why people don’t want to become CPAs. Overtime, the lousy culture, and terrible leadership in CPA firms. Demanding management that refuses to recognize that people want a real work life balance and decent human beings as managers not the woke culture they think people want.

  5. The odds are stacked against graduate trainees at Big 4 firms. We work your butt off, pay for your exams but of you fail you’re out. The big firms have been taking the rise for years. They may continue to get away with it as there is an over supply of graduates i(especially n the UK) but one senses the mood music is changing.

  6. Just automate accounting with software. Don’t try to trick kids into thinking that being an accountant is the best thing that they can do with their life.

    1. Oh I love that automate idea—only I have been a cpa in tax for over 35 years and if you figure out how to automate business issues with the appropriate decision for federal/state/international tax, please come to me because I will buy shares in your company immediately. It is laughable to me every time someone brings up the automation idea. Even some of the most simple transactions now need analysis for various state and local jurisdictional consequence that there is zero automation possible to plug all that data in and get the right solution.

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