CPA Exam Changes on the Way

Mar 01, 2021

Factors such as specialized core competencies, expanded CPA skill sets, and advancing technology are bringing significant changes to the CPA Exam. According to the AICPA, the percentage of nonaccounting graduate degree hires in public accounting firms increased from 20% in 2016 to 31% in 2018. This reflects how the evolving business environment is affecting the profession and the CPA licensure model.

The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) and AICPA recently launched the CPA Evolution initiative (see “The CPA Evolution Project: Preparing the Profession for the Future” in the 2020 digital-only PICPA’s Guide to CPA Careers in a Changing Business Landscape), having solicited input from over 3,000 stakeholders, including AICPA council members, state boards of accountancy, state CPA societies, academia, regulators, students, and technology experts. Feedback included suggestions for an updated exam format with revised core competencies and a greater emphasis on technology and expanded skill sets. 

A refresh of the CPA Exam is set to be implemented July 21, 2021. A practice analysis conducted by the AICPA and other stakeholders resulted in the new CPA Exam Blueprints, released on Nov. 20, 2020. It had no changes to the exam format itself, but it did affect the Auditing and Attestation and Business Environment and Concepts sections.

The CPA Exam Blueprints have a new requirement for emerging CPAs to understand how automation, risk, and internal controls pertain to business processes. Specifically, CPAs will be expected to assess auditor reliance on technology and IT controls. In addition, an expanded focus on data analytics will measure CPAs’ data-driven analytical skills, as well as data management and relationship knowledge. Lastly, upcoming changes will target the differences between System and Organization Controls (SOC) 1 and 2 reports. Many of the changes rely on an increased use and understanding of technology. These are indispensable in the assessment and audit of business processes, as well as the use of data analytics and SOC 1 and 2 reports. Material removed from the exam includes evaluating the differences between international financial reporting standards and generally accepted accounting principles, as well as trusts and estate taxes.

Likely Changes for 2024 

As referenced in the 2020 digital-only Pennsylvania CPA Journal,1 the proposed 2024 model would feature revised core competencies in accounting, auditing, tax, and technology with an expectation that not all material covered in the current CPA format will be considered “core.” There would also be an option for certification in specialized disciplines related to business analysis and reporting, information systems and controls, and tax compliance and planning. Candidates would be required to complete the core section plus one discipline to meet the licensure requirements. The AICPA and NASBA conducted a survey of more than 600 university students and recent graduates, and found that 90% of the participants already knew their area of focus.

The main objectives of this “Core + Discipline” model are as follows:

• Serve the public by providing a pool of CPA candidates with the knowledge to meet the evolving needs of organizations and individuals.
• Incorporate a strong foundation of accounting, tax, auditing, and technology into the core competencies.
• Build deeper expertise in one of three disciplines: business analysis and reporting, information systems and controls, and tax compliance and planning.

• Create a community that is nimble and adaptive to future changes in the profession.

Current CPA candidates would be able to sit for the CPA Exam in the current format until the expected implementation of the new format in January 2024. NASBA and the AICPA will be working with educators to better incorporate the new licensure model into the academic curriculum. A gap analysis is currently being conducted to assess what is taught today in the classroom compared to what will be tested on the new CPA Exam. 

Recommendations for Emerging CPAs

Current accounting students can acquire the skills needed to be successful with this new version of the exam in school. Emerging CPAs already in practice should consider upgrading their skills to reflect the new core competencies and strive to adjust to the upcoming specializations.

Below are some tips for emerging CPAs:
• Career specialization – Emerging CPAs should consider specializing in specific areas mirroring the CPA Exam changes, including business analysis and reporting, information systems and controls, and tax compliance and planning. At the undergraduate and graduate levels, opt for these courses to better prepare. Experienced CPAs should consider refining their career specialization and streamlining their experiences. In terms of IT, CPAs should target areas of focus such as data analytics, artificial intelligence, and blockchain.
• Education and training – Emerging CPAs in public accounting firms should look to technical resources such as webinars, white papers, and professional training, including continuing education opportunities and trade publications. 

• Enhanced expertise through professional certifications – Emerging CPAs should consider obtaining additional and enhanced expertise through professional certifications.2 One example is AICPA’s Blockchain Fundamentals for Accounting and Finance Professionals, which is geared at providing accounting professionals with increased digital and technical proficiency. For a more complete list of these certifications, consult www.picpa.org/certificates.

As the accounting profession continues to evolve, incoming and emerging CPAs must stay ahead of upcoming changes by acquiring, developing, and maintaining the necessary abilities and skills. To learn more about CPA Evolution, please visit www.evolutionofcpa.org.  

1 Jerry J. Maginnis, CPA, and David D. Wagaman, CPA, “The CPA Evolution Project: Preparing the Profession for the Future,” PICPA’s Guide to CPA Careers in a Changing Business Landscape (April 2020). https://mydigitalpublication.com/publication/?i=658167&ver=html5&p=6 

2 Ashley L. Stampone, CPA, and Amanda S. Marcy, CPA, “Emerging Technologies Will Impact More than Office Duties,” Pennsylvania CPA Journal (Fall 2019). https://mydigitalpublication.com/publication/?i=615374&ver=html5&p=12


Marie Solange Lopes, CPA, is an assistant professor of accounting at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., and a doctoral student at the University of Scranton in Scranton. She can be contacted at mlopes@stonehill.edu.

Daniel J. Gaydon, DBA, is the associate vice president of financial reporting at Geisinger Health in Wilkes-Barre and an adjunct accounting instructor at the University of Scranton. He can be contacted at daniel.gaydon@scranton.edu.

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