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Do Older Students Automatically Do Better on the CPA Exam?

A tipster would like an answer to the following:

Why are the students at Thomas Edison State College are scoring better on the CPA exam than the average bears? According to Susan P. Gilbert, Ph.D., (Dean of the School of Business and Management at TESC): they are self directed, more discriminating due to age, and have life experience. WHAT SAY YOU, OH WISE ONES?

Well I went and checked out this Thomas Edison State College claim and here's why they say their students are so successful:

1. Thomas Edison State College offers online degree programs for self-directed adult students. They claim to have caring faculty and staff, online tutoring and hours that respect their students' busy lives, achieving a supportive environment minus the micromanaging and babysitting. Sounds good so far.

2. Students at Thomas Edison State College are older on average than at traditional residential colleges at an average age of 36. The school feels they are more discriminating when it comes to their use of time and money. In other words, these students are less likely to throw away money on review programs that don't work or waste time with courses they've invested in. With jobs and families to worry about, the concept here is that they are somehow better equipped to manage their time and more likely to take advantage of the tools given to them than younger students. That sounds a little ageist, doesn't it? I could point you to some 36-year-old little boys in San Francisco who show a similar level of maturity to 10-year-olds playing Call of Duty on XBox. Being older may make you more likely to focus but it doesn't make you a superior CPA exam candidate by default.

3. Many students in Thomas Edison State College's undergraduate accounting programs are already working as accountants. This work experience is supposed to prepare them better for the items they are tested on when taking the CPA exam. The school claims working professionals are more invested in achieving a professional certification goal than someone younger or someone who is studying at an earlier stage in their accounting career.

Now. Where to start with these points? First, on the surface, they're mostly right. In the years I worked with CPA exam candidates, the older ones – generally speaking – seemed to perform better on the CPA exam. Was it because they had been around the block a few times and already knew this stuff? Was it because they were more mature? Was it because old folks are somehow better at buckling down and being disciplined enough to get through it?

It's probably some combination of the above. Sometimes it was that they screwed around when they tried to take the exam fresh out of school, blew it off, gave up and now returned to it a decade later ready to focus. That experience alone might motivate you to get through it once and for all. For others, they were coming into accounting from other industries around the time the economy imploded and therefore felt they had something to prove so they tried harder than someone forced into accounting by his or her parents who wasn't really feeling it at 23 years old.

What bothers me most about this claim is that there is no mention of the school's superior curriculum that better prepares its students. So, you get the family folks looking to advance their careers? So does Keller Graduate School, so why do they have a 31.1% pass rate (2011) and Thomas Edison State College has a 54.6% (2011)? Doesn't Keller get a bunch of olds? Based on the statements above alone, you'd think those numbers would be closer. 

For the record, Thomas Edison State College slipped into second place in New Jersey last year, with the College of New Jersey placing first in CPA exam performance at a 59.3% pass rate. Wonder what they credit that awesome number to. I bet it has nothing to do with the fact that College of New Jersey just so happened to also have the youngest average age (25) of all schools in New Jersey last year.

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