It has now been more than a decade since the AICPA observed — and worried about — a growing gap in the number of accounting graduates and the number of those graduates who pursue the CPA exam. In the time since, that gap has only widened and much effort has been expended to figure out why.
In 2014, AICPA President, CEO, and Steely Dan fan club treasurer Barry Melancon gave his state of the profession address and in it he mentioned the gap and how they planned to put some brain power into figuring out how to fix it:
We have had about six consecutive years of record numbers of people majoring in accounting. That’s a great thing. For the last three years, however, we’ve basically had a level number of people taking the CPA exam. So there is a gap that’s building.
A major research project under way will help us to better understand that development. We want to find out what’s causing people to sit or not sit for the exam and then design tactics to deal with it strategically. The results will help us design and implement tactics to reverse the trend. That will involve the AICPA as well as state societies, firms themselves and management accounting functions or finance functions in business.
It seems that effort did not bear much fruit and now here we are all these years later facing not just a slight disinterest in the CPA exam but rather a critical disinterest in the profession as a whole referred to as the accounting pipeline problem.
Because we know the AICPA is tied up with all manner of initiatives to attract people to the profession and thus very busy, I’m going to propose a suggestion that might attract at least a couple accounting students to the CPA who might have otherwise given it the snub. Old-timers, y’all might want to hit the “back” button on your browser now because you aren’t going to like this. Extend the CPA exam window to 24 months.
That’s it. Just six little months. Give people just a little bit more cushion to sit for and pass all four parts. I mean, if you really want to be generous you could add another six months to that but let’s be reasonable in our demands here and say two years would be great.
“The 18-month period is set in board rules, regulations and statue. There are no plans to change this period,” reads a NASBA FAQ published in 2021. We get it, rules are rules. So change them. They’ve done it before. They’ve done it recently even.
In the not-so-distant past, you couldn’t take the CPA exam in March, June, September, and December. Like at all. Over time, these “blackout months” turned into shorter blackout dates and then they threw the idea out altogether and launched continuous testing in 2020, eliminating regular blackout dates completely. So change is not only possible, it’s necessary. If it wasn’t, you’d still be taking the exam on paper.
When the Illinois CPA Society did a little research into why accounting graduates are less interested in the CPA than they used to be, the feedback ICPAS received shed light on the mystery of lower candidate numbers. Why aren’t people choosing to pursue the CPA exam?
- They feel they can take off in their anticipated or chosen careers without it.
- They believe that any value the CPA credential holds is outweighed by its lack of relevance to their personal endeavors and the time commitment necessary to obtain it.
- They don’t see the personal or financial return on investment.
- Their employers or prospective employers aren’t supporting or requiring it.
- They see other experiences as being more valuable.
TL;DR: “It’s hard, it’s costly, and I don’t need it to succeed in my career path.” You can’t make the actual exam any easier but perhaps making the process a bit easier — as has already been done with computerization and continuous testing — would have a positive impact on candidate numbers. Busy seasons are getting longer, staff shortages are causing associates to work harder, and let’s be real, firms aren’t aggressively pushing the CPA like they used to. These factors can’t really be changed, the time allowed to complete the exam could be. Can it not?
Look, at this point it’s either that or drop the requirement to sit down to a GED and a pulse, you want candidates then you gotta start thinking about what’s standing in the way.
Anyone who wants to argue why the CPA exam window absolutely must be 18 months and not a day more is welcome to do so in the comments. We also welcome any comments that start with “back in my day.”