The most recent AICPA report on the supply of accounting graduates, published in 2015, indicates a continuous increase in accounting enrollment, particularly in master’s degree programs in accounting. Yet, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) reports that candidacy for the Uniform CPA Examination has remained flat during the past few years. Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business has experienced this same growth in the accounting program, especially at the master’s level, while the pursuit of the CPA credential remained flat.
We sought to explore why students did not immediately target the CPA Exam upon graduation. When Pennsylvania implemented the 150-hour college credit requirement on Jan. 1, 2012, there was a short-term spike in CPA candidates for those who would be grandfathered under the old requirements. However, as of 2016, sitting for the CPA Exam by Drexel University graduates has remained flat once adjusting for those who are in the master’s program and are fully focused on pursuing the CPA Exam.
NASBA provides an annual report of data regarding CPA candidates by states, by school (including undergraduate and graduate), and other background information. We used its list of schools with the highest CPA Exam passing rates, and noted their graduation rates were in line with their CPA Exam pursuit rates.
We obtained comprehensive information about these programs, and noted that the underlying common attributes beyond the entrance factor (SAT, ACT, or GMAT scores) was student engagement. We found that several accounting schools and departments provided dedicated staff or faculty advisers to serve as career counselors that went beyond generic campus or business school advisers. Specifically, they appointed someone who would help navigate students through the maze of career choices in the accounting profession. Although the AICPA, NASBA, state CPA societies, and CPA Exam review companies provide a wealth of free material to guide students in terms of careers and pursuing the exam, the social-media-driven generation of today apparently embraces the personal touch of a dedicated career adviser.
Several schools also offer specializations within their undergraduate and graduate accounting programs. This provides students with another level of engagement: if they seek to pursue corporate finance, for example, then their level of commitment is enhanced with their specialization in additional courses. It also allows further engagement within a smaller cohort of students who share the same career interests versus a mass that has a general goal of pursuing an accounting career. Leading MBA programs also use this specialization model, which they report leads to a more enriched student experience and placement outcome.
Several schools integrated a dedicated CPA course that has sought to provide guidance and insights about the exam. A review of quotes from students from some of these institutions indicates that these programs helped take the fear and anxiety out of the exam. The students heard from alumni, faculty, and current professionals who had taken the exam. They also heard from representatives from various CPA review providers about the exam. Certainly, NASBA has an outstanding website that provides a wealth of information on careers and the CPA Exam, but students also like the ability to have direct interaction with faculty, professional, and alumni to discuss the exam and career options.
The schools with the top passing rates also excelled in their digital communications, as their websites were supportive to new students, current students, and other stakeholders in terms of career guidance, the CPA Exam, and engagement during matriculation on campus from student organizations such as Beta Alpha Psi or volunteer opportunities through volunteer income tax assistance. The school websites were clear on many career options, from taxes to internal auditing to public accounting to corporate or not-for-profit/government paths. While the personal investment from staff and faculty to provide guidance for careers was noted to be essential, the complement value of a well-designed website was also an important asset for student engagement.
Drexel University has already begun to embrace the findings noted in our research. During the current academic year we appointed our first knowledge-dedicated faculty member to enhance the accounting student pipeline at the undergraduate level. At the graduate level we launched four concentrations to provide for specializations and enhance student engagement.
These findings are relevant not only to academic institutions, but also to members of the PICPA. Professionals have been shown to play a key role in the accounting programs that excel in motivating students to take the CPA Exam.
Hubert Glover, PhD, is an associate clinical professor of accounting at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business and a faculty member for Drexel LeBow Corporate and Executive Education in Philadelphia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jennifer J. Wright, CPA, is a clinical professor of accounting and assistant department head at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business. She can be reached at email@example.com.