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Is It Ethical to Endorse an Educational Path That Is Susceptible to Cheating?

person with a question mark for a head standing in front of chalkboard

By Sharon Lassar, PhD, CPA (Florida)
John J. Gilbert Professor and Director of the School of Accountancy, University of Denver

The AICPA’s website includes a statement titled Purpose in action that, in its 129 words, uses “trust” (twice), “integrity”, “ethics”, and “public interest”. Yet, its pipeline acceleration plan proposes an Experience, Learn & Earn (ELE) Program that, in my opinion, may perpetuate academic dishonesty. The initiative would enroll first-year staff in asynchronous courses to earn as much as 30 hours of academic credit while they work. What could possibly go wrong?

Is it ethical to promote a path to earn the extra 30 credit hours of college credit required for CPA licensing without addressing threats to academic integrity in online education? Cheating in college courses has gone on as long as college courses have existed. However, the Internet increased the ease and speed of obtaining and sharing coursework. There has been a proliferation of businesses built to “help” students succeed in college. Students have long been able to purchase term papers that are marketed as “research assistance” by providers who fully expect students to submit the work as their own. Anti-plagiarism tools moderate this behavior. In a fully asynchronous setting, like that proposed by ELE, students can hire someone to take their classes. Google “take my online class.”

The CPA Exam is not offered in a fully remote setting – for good reason. In July 2022, FINRA barred two individuals for cheating during online qualifications exams. Cheating has even happened on relatively low-stakes exams, like CPE exams to maintain a CPA license. The SEC charged its largest ever penalty to an accounting firm, $100 million to EY, for cheating by its audit professionals. The double irony is that EY cheating happened on ethics exams.

Ok, let’s say all available security measures are taken and that we can somehow gain comfort over the academic integrity of the courses. Is online education for young professionals a good idea? And, if it is, how is it any different from first year professionals completing online training modules provided by their employers, Linkedin Learning, Coursera, or any other number of providers? Oh, I know! Training by those other providers does not appear on a college transcript. And, the CPA profession has a licensing law written into the Uniform Accountancy Act that 150 hours have to appear on a college transcript. It sounds to me like it’s time to change the law. After all, isn’t the ELE simply a way around its intention?

But, I digress. What are some other factors about online education that should be addressed before continuing to promote ELE? There are too many to include in the word limit of this article. Online learning is fantastic for the highly-motivated, self-disciplined learner. I taught in the first fully online Master of Taxation program in the country around 2004 and was proud of the learning that took place. But, it was a highly-technical program where assignments were built on new tax law with no clear solutions. Hiring someone to take the class would have been possible. But, people with the technical knowledge needed to pass the course would have been too expensive to hire. This is not the kind of course the AICPA is proposing for ELE. In fact, we don’t know what the curriculum will be. My prediction: 9 hours of internship and 21 hours of content that could be found on Linkedin Learning or Cousera. Just what is the value proposition?

Again, I digress. Is providing the extra 30 hours online a good idea? Maybe. Overall, the empirical evidence is mixed on whether online students perform at the same level as their traditional student counterparts. I found one study that looked specifically at online versus face-to-face accounting education. Morgan (2015) found online accounting programs have much lower average CPA pass rates than their matched face-to-face counterparts. I won’t rely solely on one academic study, especially if it is published anywhere other than the most rigorously reviewed academic journals. But, if the goal of ELE is to produce more CPAs, it might fall short.

The AICPA justifies the 150 hour requirement with remarks about the complexity of business, the proliferation of standards, and the increasing sophistication of audits. I agree. High level knowledge and skills are needed to assure the quality of services provided by CPAs. The AICPA states that “In most cases, the additional academic work needed to acquire the technical competence and develop the skills required by today’s CPA is best obtained at the graduate level.” Yet, ELE credit hours would not even be part of an undergraduate degree program. Are we supposed to trust the quality of this plan?

The AICPA should disclose exactly what will be taught in the ELE program. If it moves forward, it should disclose the characteristics of the students enrolled; the courses selected, attempted, and completed with grade earned; the parts of the CPA exam attempted and those passed by the candidates before they started the ELE program; the parts scheduled, attempted, and passed while enrolled; and, the time to complete this pathway to licensure. If this model is one that the profession uses to justify the continuation of the 150-hour rule, it should also then show the progression of these candidates through their careers. Each year’s annual salary and rank should be disclosed. Let’s get some real data that is open for academics to analyze.


4 thoughts on “Is It Ethical to Endorse an Educational Path That Is Susceptible to Cheating?

  1. Expanding on the concluding paragraph, we have seen a decrease in availability of data about CPA pass rates. Universities used to be able to get detailed pass rates on groups of students (not individuals), but that has ceased to be available from NASBA. The data currently available does not allow for determination of who is included in the rates calculated for a school. Specifically, we can not determine whether graduate level education or testing after after 120 hours makes a difference to pass rates. Accounting is a data profession, but NASBA is not taking steps to provide data for decision making despite requests we have made. Unacceptable.

    1. Context is critical. The fifth year requirement was really triggered by a 1968 study (The Beamer Study) based in part on the complexities of accounting. We were still issuing APB Opinions – the FASB did not even exist. The rules were adopted mostly two decades later in the 80s and 90s. None of the laws and rules dealt significantly with the triggering issue. The “Pipeline” issue may be real but is certainly not “caused” by the fifth year. If that were true there would be no doctors, no lawyers and no professors which all require MORE than 30 hours. The cause is simply economic. If the students saw value (extra comp value exceeds the cost and time of education) finance majors would run not walk to accounting. And you would not have to worry about cheating. I have developed this perspective from 40 years in the profession, serving as a chair of the Florida Board of Accountancy, Chair of the FICPA, active member of NASBA (serving on the UAA committee), and serving on the AICPA.
      Follow the money!!

      1. Hi Dave,
        I’m glad to see you serving on the UAA. If you believe the extra education is needed – push for UAA to require a master’s degree. Also, influence NASBA to release data. All they would need to do is delete identifying information and make it publicly available for download. Academics could analyze it. If you can’t get NASBA to do this, maybe start with Florida. Florida has good record keeping for all students who move through its educational system. Analysis of linked state education data could determine which courses, in specific, are important for CPA licensure and success in the profession.
        I agree that the pipeline issue is not caused by the 5th year — I argue that the 150 hour rule as written is meaningless when it can so easily be worked around. Either fix it or get rid of it.

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