October 24, 2021

Opinion: It’s the AICPA’s Own Fault No One Wants to Be a CPA Anymore

[Ed. note: we received the following in response to my newsletter column dated September 14, 2021. In the column, I referenced the 2019 AICPA Trends report, which stated that non-accounting majors made up 31% of all firm new hires at that time. The reader comment is published here with permission from its author who wishes to remain anonymous. We are sharing it with you in order to facilitate the ongoing discussion about low candidate numbers and the long-term value and viability of the CPA credential.]

Going Concern:

Some 20 years ago in the dead of night the AICPA’s Professional Ethics Enforcement Program (PEEC) changed the historical requirement that only CPAs can be partners in CPA firms to a mere majority. They then lobbied NASBA to get all the State Boards of Accountancy to include the “watering professionalism down” provision in their individual state laws.

Surprise, surprise the Big 4 firms are now primarily interested in attracting non-accounting majors as new employees. The foreseeable result is a significant reduction of student interest in our profession and the death of the 150 hour programs in our colleges and universities. Notwithstanding the stellar efforts of the CPA Exam Division the number of CPA candidates has significantly dropped and frankly this self-inflicted decline will continue.

This also puts at risk the “professionalism” of the whole CPA calling. No other profession – law, medicine, architecture, nursing, engineering etc. etc. – has knowingly diluted the professionalism of their own calling.

It also is a slap-in-the-face to any CPA who worked so very hard to pass the CPA exam.

– Professional Contributor

Further reading:
Time to Panic? New CPA Exam Candidate Numbers Are Lower Than They’ve Been in More Than a Decade [GC, August 2019]
NASBA Sees Significant Decline in CPA Exam-Related Revenue [INSIDE Public Accounting, November 2020]
Trends Show CPA Gap Widens [NASBA, November 2019]

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15 Comments

  1. This feels like a chicken/egg thing. Did changing the requirements for ownership of public accounting firms cause this? Or was that their logical demand based on the view the firm’s had that services other than those provided by CPAs would become increasingly valuable?

  2. The 150 hour requirement is to blame. If you can take and pass the CPA exam with a four year degree, where is the benefit of a 5th year? There is certainly downside, delayed entry into the workforce and another year of expensive schooling.

    In 1983, the 150 hour requirement was first implemented in Florida, devised to prevent retired CPAs from hanging out a shingle in sunny Florida and under-cutting the fees of full-time professionals. And it was successful for that purpose.

    Subsequently it was adopted by other states as a way to elevate the educational background of CPAs and make the profession more exclusive. And it was not successful on that front. CPA candidates must take and pay for another year of coursework. But that coursework is not specified; the additional courses can be in anything.

    Why would anyone want to sign up for an additional $25k in college debt to take courses that do not have any bearing on passing the CPA exam?

    In IT, a four year degree isn’t necessary anymore, as long as you can pass certifications to demonstrate technical ability. If you can pass the exam, should it matter how long you went to school?

    1. My audit instructor in college was on the state board here in AZ when they moved to the 150 hour rule and she claims it was because they wanted CPAs to have more diversity in their education with classes in things like art, history and literature, but instead the universities turned it into a scheme to make all of the accounting students feel like they had to get their masters degree to sit for and earn their CPA. I think any firm would rather have a new staffer with 2 years of experience than one that has their masters degree. What a joke

    2. Spot on. The 150-hour requirement tips the scales. But I say let them have their CPA shortage, it props up our rates.

      Even without the 150-hour requirement, it’s a tough call to take the CPA route. I remember my first year out of college making 42k, preparing a tax return for a client’s kid also right out of college working for an investment bank. His salary was 70k plus a 100k bonus just because the company had a good year.

      1. I don’t believe it props up rates, unless your doing something only a CPA can do. Once the public realizes they can get tax and advisory service from anyone, the credential will have no advantage in that world. Maybe the AICPA actually has done a decent job making the public think a CPA is necessary, but when some of these big firms start separating their audit and tax practices (as they are now doing), those big firms might start making it known.

  3. I think it is funny that no one thinks it is the ridiculous hours that is driving people from public accounting. When I considered hours into my salary and bonus I was making $8.00hr. Not to mention, how can you be a good parent or spouse working 100 hour weeks?

    1. You are spot on…CPA’s are work horses and not much respected anymore especially in the tax arena, and often its the CPA themselves shooting themselves in the foot. Many CPAs wont admit it, but its true.

      The 150 hours replaced the experience requirements, which in my opinion is way more useful, educational, and effective. The ONLY thing that makes a CPA unique is the ability to OPINE. Very few CPAs today have the ability to opine.

    2. John, I totally agree with you!! When I started in public 15 years ago every single firm I went to “claimed” to have work/life balance and flexibility, yet all were the exact same – not practicing what they preached. If I had to guess, this is 70% of the reason students aren’t going into the field/public accounting! No one wants to work 80 hour weeks during busy season, whether you have a family or not – so played out!!

  4. Please, it is not the 150-hour rule. Rather it is a cost/benefit analysis. Why should I torture myself to do a CPA where the returns are so minuscule where as I can do a teck degree or even go to a vocational online college and come out with a diploma and make more than a CPA?

  5. Simply put: This why academia cannot be in charge of anything except a college. They do nothing for an industry but justify their own existence with nonsense, which includes entry into the profession, existence of practical knowledge, standards set that, again, justify their existence by putting something out no matter the usefulness. The leadership has no practical experience for the last 17 years, therefore, it is worthless and damaging to the profession as a whole. The leadership reminds me of the liberal arts school I attended, whom I would never recommend to anyone that doesn’t give any consideration to theory. Academia does not teach practical applications, because they are not knowledgeable enough to do so. The AICPA is all about credentials just like the academic world. Have you ever noticed how academia is in charge of who becomes credentialed? We are talking about the proverbial “Big Boys Club”. It would be nice to have a CPA with ethics that is not from the club of academia to lead the profession instead of a career academic. Does this phrase ring any bells in a simalarly structured industry called politics?

  6. To suggest that this “watering down” of the ownership requirements is why firms aren’t hiring CPAs shows the writer is out of touch with the technology and service lines that are causing this shift.

    We don’t have new CPAs because of the 150 credit hour requirement. It doesn’t help that most firms are sending work offshore to avoid raising fees or salaries.

    We’re killing our own industry.

    1. All responses are pretty much correct about the CPA profession downturn.
      I did not see, however, any reference for the technology and business that has been captured by companies like Intuit.
      I am a CPA. I would like to work part-time in accounting, audit, or seasonal tax preparation. I received no interest when I applied even to CPA firms where I live (recent relocation) for either part-time or full-time.
      I applied with Intuit for a virtual tax expert. The job link said they were interested in non-credentialed and credentialed. It did not state 3 years recent experience preparing 30 or more returns. My last year with a CPA preparing tax returns was 2015.
      When the person from Intuit learned the year of 2015, the interview very quickly ended. I rec’d a form letter stating I was not selected. I continue to pay each year for continuing educ., a CPA license, and dues.
      After reading everybody’s comments, why do any CPA’s have to pay for our continuing education when we are unemployed and are having difficulty in finding a good position in our field?
      Is it time CPA’s made a united effort to demand changes to the AICPA to save the profession and how would we start? Our names and emails are not available from our comments here.

  7. I think the AICPA is way too committed to the CPA title in and of itself. The breadth of the exam, while ensuring a wide variety of knowledge of “accounting”, doesn’t really allow for the depth that a potential CPA needs for most jobs. Everyone jokes about how they couldn’t pass the CPA exam now, whether they passed 3 or 30 years ago. This is because most CPAs can forget at least two-thirds of the material on the exam the minute they pass that fourth section with no impact to their professional aspirations whatsoever.

    In other words, I think there’s a huge gulf between what needs to be demonstrated to attain the CPA designation and what actually will make for a successful accounting professional. Nevermind the fact that what it takes to be a successful accounting professional varies a ton based on the nature of the job.

    But! The public’s nearly unconditional admiration of the CPA title means that the powers-that-be haven’t really been forced to reconsider the “get five years of school and pass a really hard test” system. I’m a tax accountant doing the work most average people think all CPAs do (individual and small business income taxes). I’m the tax manager but the partner of the firm started it, has his name on the firm, and thus many clients think he’s a one-man shop when in reality we have eight employees. A lot of them bristle when their work gets handled by me instead of him, but probably 98% of them go “oh ok” when he tells them I’m a CPA.

    Now obviously I know what I’m talking about (or at least I think I do) but the fact that I’m a CPA, in and of itself, means ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about whether I can capably handle their tax return. In fact, my partner and I constantly laugh about how many CPAs’ tax returns we prepare, some because they just don’t want to, but most because they legitimately don’t know how.

    I guess what I’m saying is, while people have put a lot of trust in the title, the letters CPA tell you very little about whether someone can handle the job you need them to do. And I feel like the AICPA is willfully ignoring that fact and/or simply hoping the public never realizes it’s true.

    (I think all the other stuff about low pay, crappy work-life balance, etc is totally true. But that’s true of a lot of jobs. Doesn’t make it okay! But it’s not unique to accounting, and there’s the problem. The vast majority of decent pay for lots of hours don’t require five years of school and a strenuous test.)

    So the question is, is the AICPA going to continue to spend their time and energy trying to convince everyone that the CPA still means something? Or are they going to actually do the work to make sure that it really does mean something?

  8. Has anyone that is a member of the AICPA ever noticed that, regarding the governance of the AICPA (and this is true of my state CPA society as well) that the membership has never been asked to cast a vote for a single officer. How can it be called a membership organization if the members have no say in its leadership? Is this even a legal structure for an organization that is tax exempt and files a form 990? I do not know as that is not my area of expertise. But I will say that the AICPA is not very transparent or inclusive. Also, I can’t explain how Business Week named Barry Melancon as one of the 10 worst CEOs in the country and the AICPA subsequently rewarded him with a multi-year contract renewal. The AICPA is responsible for incompatible roles. It tries to serve as a membership organization, a standards-setter, a regulator, and as a seller of books, CPE courses, and software through its for-profit subsidiary, CPA.com. There are obvious conflicts of interest in their trying to serve in all of those roles.

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