Aug 01, 2022

Is STEM the Root of Solving CPA Pipeline Issues?

Keith B. Bittel, CPAMichael Shipman, CPA, EdDJoseph M. Hargadon, CPA, PhD, CMA, CGMABy Keith B. Bittel, CPA, MBA, MS Ed, Michael Shipman, CPA, EdD, and Joseph M. Hargadon, CPA, PhD, CMA, CGMA

“How do we positively impact the pipeline of the accounting profession?” That was the overarching question attendees wrestled with at the June 8 PICPA Accounting Educators Conference. It is a question the profession is focused on, and will continue to focus on for the foreseeable future.  

Jen Cryder, PICPA’s CEO, spoke about how the PICPA is working on getting students interested in accounting earlier in their educational advancement (particularly in grades K-12) to drive more students – particularly more diverse students – toward the accounting profession. One particular point – getting accounting to be included in core STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education holds the key for many potential pipeline breakthroughs.  

High school teacher in front of an accounting classOfficially recognizing accounting as part of the STEM curriculum – renaming it STEAM, with the A referring to accounting instead of arts as it is sometimes portrayed – very well may encourage more school districts to devote additional resources to accounting in terms of teachers and curriculum. Additional resources would expose more students to accounting and may increase the number of talented students interested in studying accounting.

A common misperception of accounting among students is that it is a lackluster profession. The shrinking emphasis on business and accounting education in K-12 schools reduces the number of students exposed to the accounting profession at a young age, thus compounding this perception problem. Getting accounting under the STEM umbrella would help.

So too would exposing high school students to accounting professionals. These interactions can help negate misconceptions of accounting that abound and generate interest in the profession. According to AICPA research, the experience a student has in their first accounting class will greatly influence their decision whether or not to enter the accounting profession. Having students interact with engaging and successful professionals will enhance the student experience.  

Some colleges use a financial literacy angle to interest current and prospective students in business and accounting. One panelist shared Widener University’s program of inviting high school counselors to the college to share what its accounting program offers. That way, high school counselors are better informed when speaking to their students about the accounting major. This generated discussion about other ways colleges and high schools can work together on “financial aid nights” to address the affordability of college programs, having alumni in accounting present at their old high schools to generate more real-life connections.  

Not only is growing the CPA pipeline urgent, but so too is increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion within the profession. In fact, by including accounting within the STEM education core, we can also help the profession’s efforts at increasing diversity. The AICPA’s 2021 Trends Report shared that diversity within the profession had increased slightly in 2020, but only 5% of professional staff identified as Black or African American and only 7% of professional staff identified as Hispanic or Latino. In an April 2021 report by the Pew Research Center, Black workers comprised 9% of the STEM-related workforce and 8% of all STEM workers were Hispanic.  

While Blacks and Hispanics are still underrepresented in STEM fields, these industries are doing a better job of attracting diverse candidates than accounting. At least part of the success that STEM professions are having in attracting more workers of color can be attributed to the extra attention and resources that K-12 schooling devotes to STEM education.  

During an AICPA pipeline update, Jan Taylor, CPA, PhD, and Wendy Achilles, CPA, PhD, pointed to a pair of bills in Congress that have the intent of including accounting in STEM curriculum. The first bill, the Accounting STEM Pursuit Act of 2021, was introduced by Reps. Haley Stevens (D-Michigan) and Victoria Spartz (R-Indiana) on June 11, 2021. The AICPA and other accounting-related organizations subsequently wrote to Stevens and Spartz in support of their bill. In December 2021, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada) introduced a companion bill, the STEM Education in Accounting Act of 2021-2022.

Both bills, however, are languishing in the respective House and Senate committees, with little chance of passage during the current session of Congress. But the fact that both chambers of Congress have discussed adding accounting to the STEM curriculum is notable.  

Academics don’t have to wait, though. They can influence the decision to make accounting part of STEM by treating it as such. College accounting departments are frequently told by employers of the need for accounting candidates who are proficient in technology. Colleges are responding by incorporating more technology into their accounting programs. Yes, the process to have accounting recognized as part of STEM will be an uphill climb, but it is one that may prove fruitful in terms of attracting new talent to the profession.

Kari Natale from the Illinois CPA Society presented the results of a survey surrounding why interest in the accounting profession and becoming an accounting major has been declining. The results showed that potential CPAs care more about the type of employer, career goals, advancement opportunities, and their own marketability more than how much money they make or obtaining a specific certification (such as the CPA). Natale noted that even when students show interest in the CPA, the process is so daunting that even breaking down the process into building blocks may not be enough to overcome a fear of failure. As educators, we must continue to attract students to the profession, but then we must help them overcome that fear, because we know students will become even more successful in our profession if they embrace that fear as a challenge to learn more and not as a career landmine.

To help remedy this particular hurdle of the overwhelming requirements to achieve a CPA designation, Cryder mentioned that Pennsylvania House Bill 1328 will allow CPA candidates in the state to sit for the CPA Exam after they have completed 120 credits, even if they have not yet earned their bachelor’s degree. (Some students in a 4+1 program don’t get a degree conferred until after they earn their master’s degree and 150 credits, which delays their ability to take the CPA Exam.)  

Finally, we would like to send out congratulations to a colleague who has done so much for accounting education and the accounting pipeline over the years. Dave Wagaman, PICPA member and professor emeritus at Kutztown University, received the 2022 Outstanding Educator Award from the PICPA, and there could not have been a more deserving recipient. Wagaman exemplifies, in every way, what this award stands for.

The discussions over what we need to do to enhance accounting education, pull in more accounting majors, and spread the word about the CPA Evolution exam changes have only just begun. Look to PICPA’s CPA Now blogs, the Pennsylvania CPA Journal, and virtual town halls and roundtables for more updates and ideas as they become available.

Keith B. Bittel, CPA, MBA, MS Ed, is an assistant professor in the school of business at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa. He can be reached at bittelkb@westminster.edu.

Michael Shipman, CPA, EdD, is an assistant professor in the school of business at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, Pa. He can be reached at mshipman@mtaloy.edu.

Joseph M. Hargadon, CPA, PhD, CMA, CGMA, is professor of accounting at Widner University in Chester, Pa. He can be reached at jmhargadon@widener.edu.

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Statements of fact and opinion are the authors’ responsibility alone and do not imply an opinion on the part of PICPA officers or members. The information contained in herein does not constitute accounting, legal, or professional advice. For professional advice, please engage or consult a qualified professional.