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What Would the Accreditors Say About AICPA’s ELE Program?

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

Last week I raised the question of whether it is ethical to promote an educational path to CPA licensure that is (highly) susceptible to cheating. The AICPA’s pipeline acceleration plan proposes an Experience, Learn & Earn (ELE) Program that is so outrageous to the academic community that I keep hearing the same question, “Does AACSB know about this?” The implication being that AACSB would never allow such a program to be delivered. Unfortunately, reliance on AACSB to question ELE is misplaced. AACSB will not review these courses.

AACSB is the organization that top business schools turn to for accreditation. AACSB requires schools to undergo quality review by a team of peers every five years. AACSB-accredited schools generally deliver higher quality degree programs than those not accredited by AACSB. I have served on over a dozen peer review teams and am therefore familiar with accreditation standards.

News Flash! AACSB accredits degree programs – as in bachelor, master or PhD programs. The courses planned for ELE would not be part of a degree program and therefore would not be subject to quality review by AACSB.

Why is this important? Courses that students take outside of AACSB-accredited degree programs are frequently not worth taking. ELE courses would be outside of degree programs.

How do I know that courses outside AACSB-accredited degree programs are of questionable quality? When students apply for admission to programs I oversee, it is up to me to determine whether students should receive transfer credit or have met the prerequisites required for courses they wish to take. For example, the MAcc at University of Denver requires students to have demonstrated competence in the prerequisite courses of Intermediate Accounting I and II. Students demonstrate competence by taking Intermediate as part of an AACSB accredited degree, passing competency tests on Intermediate material, or (re)taking the courses as part of our MAcc.

Students who take Intermediate Accounting at schools not accredited by AACSB frequently fail our competency tests. They retake Intermediate Accounting with us as they work towards our MAcc or Master of Science in Accounting, Technology and Analytics.

Last week I alerted readers about ELE courses being susceptible to cheating and hinted at quality issues. A response I’ve heard is that the partner institution will be an AACSB accredited institution. To that I say, so what. ELE courses will not be subject to AACSB peer review and being offered at an AACSB accredited institution therefore does not mean they will be quality courses.

There is another, even bigger, problem. That is, ELE courses will land on a transcript issued by an AACSB-accredited school even though the courses do not need to meet AACSB quality standards. This will cause confusion (dare I say fraud?) in the evaluation of transcripts. Hang with me. I need to go deep into the weeds to explain what I mean by confusion in evaluating transcripts. I’ll use transfer students as an example.

When a student wants to transfer from one school to another, the second school typically does not require the student to repeat a course that the student took at the first school. The assumption is that the student had been admitted to a degree program, had started working towards that degree, and experienced a situation necessitating a transfer from one school to another. Schools accommodate transfer students through blanket acceptance or course-by-course review.

What I call blanket acceptance is generally spelled out in an articulation agreement where transfer of credit is guaranteed by the agreement. For example, if a student earns an associate’s degree at a community college, the state university system in the same state will typically give the student 60 semester hours of credit for the associate’s degree when the student transfers into a university. The community college and state university systems execute these agreements so that students do not need to worry about whether they will receive credit for a particular course upon transfer.

When a student does not meet the terms of an articulation agreement, a university will evaluate the student’s transcript on a course-by-course basis and decide whether to grant transfer credit for each course independently of any others taken. Universities try to perform such an evaluation only once. For example, I am asked to evaluate courses for transfer credit frequently. Once I approve a course, it is placed on our transfer credit list and I am not asked to evaluate it again. Schools maintain databases where students can look up whether a course from one school has previously been evaluated and granted credit by the second school.

With the creation of courses offered outside of degree programs, registrars should no longer trust their long-standing transfer credit process. As far as I know, there will be nothing to indicate whether a course was completed as part of a bachelor’s degree or as part of an ELE program. Suppose a course is titled Accounting Information Systems 301. Is that AIS class part of the peer-reviewed degree program, or is it an AIS class that was 100% asynchronously delivered as part of ELE? If it is the latter, I would not accept it for transfer credit. But, how would I know?

If I learn of a school participating with ELE, I will ask my registrar to remove all previously approved classes from our transfer credit list so they can be re-evaluated. Is the student asking to transfer an ELE course (which we may deny) or is the student asking to transfer a course taken as part of a degree program that was subject to quality review (which we will likely accept)? And, if only 1% of the transfer course requests are for ELE courses, we are creating a paperwork nightmare for 99% of the transfer requests. Wow. What a mess. All this so that the AICPA can create a questionable path to meeting the extra 30 credit hours required for licensing.

In a way, I am glad the AICPA proposed the ELE program. Until now, I generally accepted credits on transcripts for transfer into my university. Now I know to question them. In fact, I learned one of the Big 4 firms already has a program similar to ELE with a partner institution. And, I’ve admitted a student from that school to our MAcc. Fortunately, the student did not request transfer or prerequisite credit for Intermediate Accounting and is taking the courses with us as he completes his MAcc. Whew! I dodged a bullet that I didn’t know about until recently.

3 thoughts on “What Would the Accreditors Say About AICPA’s ELE Program?

  1. The author(s) of this post seem like terrible gatekeepers and utter elitist tools. AACSB accreditation is so utterly useless it’s hilarious. You state the fact that schools that have AACSB accreditation have higher pass rates and automatically assume that it’s because of how rigorous the coursework is versus other programs due to the peer review process put in place. Those success rates are obviously skewed because people of higher socioeconomic status are disproportionately represented at top tier universities which all have the AACSB accreditation. While people of lower socioeconomic status will skew towards smaller institutions that cannot afford such a lofty certification. Since a higher percentage students going to AACSB institutions are in the middle class and above they have better access to the study materials actually used to pass the CPA Exam.

  2. Most state university system business schools are accredited by AACSB and they do a very good job of serving their states’ residents. For example, any Florida resident who graduates high school in Miami-Dade county with a C or better GPA is granted admission to Miami Dade College (where tuition is $83 per credit hour). If that student earns an associate’s degree, they are automatically admitted to FIU where in-state tuition is $206 per credit hour. FIU is AACSB accredited. Many states offer a relatively seamless community college to state university system transfer process where tuition is very reasonable, especially after scholarship programs and Pell grants that many students receive. Accreditation is not foolproof but the process of peer review causes a faculty to think about what they’re trying to achieve and how to do it better.

  3. I’ve been involved in the AACSB peer review process at the business school of a regional campus of my states’ (Indiana) public university system. The AACSB accreditation is meaningful to the students and to employers in our region. This school is our firm’s #1 source of employees, most of whom worked while attending and are far from “elitist.”

    Thanks for raising these issues, Dr. Lassar.

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