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How Do The U.S. News Top Accounting Rankings Compare on CPA Exam Scores?

I'm sorry if you guys are sick of these stats but someone suggested we hit these rankings and last time I dared to write about something other than CPA exam scores, I was essentially laughed right off the Internet. Thanks for supporting my dreams, people, that'll teach me to try to get you all excited about the tedium ever again.

Anyway. U.S. News ranks top accounting programs across the country but I have to admit I'm not entirely clear on the methodology. New Yorker writer and bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell happily trashed the U.S. News rankings writing "who comes out on top, in any ranking system, is really about who is doing the ranking." What the study calls "reputation" is really a mass cattle call of deans and MBA program directors, who are asked to rank other schools based on a perception. That's great and all but what good is prestige if students don't have the employability and professionalism to back it up? Just look at our friend the whiny Wake Forest BEC failure. Maybe four years at a state school would have better prepared him for the reality of the real world (well, probably not… but let's pretend like it would have for the sake of this argument).

So here's the U.S. News ranking (undergrad):

  1. University of Texas – Austin
  2. University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign
  3. Brigham Young University
  4. University of Southern California
  5. University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
  6. University of Pennsylvania
  7. University of Notre Dame
  8. Indiana University – Bloomington
  9. New York University
  10. Ohio State University – Columbus and University of Washington (tie)

Now, if we were going strictly on CPA exam results, the most recent data available would rank those 10 schools like this (this is all testing events, both first-time and repeat by undergrad and graduate candidates):

  1. Brigham Young University 79.1%
  2. University of Michigan – Ann Arbor 76.5%
  3. University of Pennsylvania 72.8%
  4. University of Notre Dame 72.4%
  5. University of Washington 71.9%
  6. University of Texas – Austin 62.7%
  7. Indiana University – Bloomington 62.4%
  8. Ohio State University – Columbus 60.2%
  9. University of Southern California 57.3%
  10. University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign 57.2%
  11. New York University 56.1%

Interesting how different the list looks with CPA exam scores as the only way to sort them. So what exactly does U.S. News value? Quality of life on campus? How other academics perceive the school? What good does that do you if you are ill-prepared for the CPA exam and end up spending a year and a half of your early professional life trying to take down BEC? All the reputation in the world can't help you recover from the hit your ego will take when you walk into Prometric for the 11th time.

In fairness, the comparison between U.S. News ranking and actual CPA exam performance is not entirely accurate. U.S. News ranked undergrad accounting programs but the CPA exam stats include both graduate and undergrad candidates. There is no comprehensive data available on its own that covers both repeat and first-time exams taken by undergrad candidates and I'm too statistics challenged to somehow deduce some percentages out of provided data, or it is impossible to do.

By comparison, Oregon State University came in at 64.1%, better than more than half of the top US News schools. Oregon State! No offense, OSU, I'm just using it as an example, I'm not trying to imply that you're all a bunch of degenerate losers. In fact, I'm trying to point out how much superior you all are to these "prestigious" pedigree grads, so really you should thank me.

At the end of the day, there are a lot of reasons to choose a certain accounting program and its success on the CPA exam in years previous is just one important detail. As Gladwell argued, rankings are only as useful and relevant as those doing the ranking. Not to mention that lots of things impact CPA exam scores, not just where you went to school (if only it were that easy, all of you would have graduated from Wake Forest). All the preparation in the world can't save a candidate from his or her own laziness or lack of motivation, and prestigious or well-respected schools certainly have their upsides, CPA exam track record notwithstanding.

So take all this with a grain of salt.