Who Is Sitting for the CPA Exam and Why?

Mar 01, 2021

The AICPA’s Private Companies Practice Section consistently finds that the recruitment of qualified staff is a top concern for CPA firms. In its 2019 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits, the AICPA reports a decline in CPA candidates, yet the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment for accountants and auditors to grow by 6% from 2018 to 2028. These opposing trends have important implications for the public and profession, especially considering the high number of CPAs expected to retire soon.

Students’ perceptions, attitudes, motivations, and demographic variables all affect intentions to sit for the CPA Exam. We surveyed 394 accounting students from 13 Pennsylvania colleges and universities and asked them about their intention to sit for the CPA Exam. We collected basic demographic data and asked them to rate 28 statements. In our model, we investigated the impact of continued education, social influence, self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, and a desire to engage in nontechnical business activities. Logistic regression models were used to evaluate the relationship between student intentions to take the CPA Exam and the explanatory demographic and index variables. Our sample included an equal number of males and females, with 76% of males and 75% of females reporting an intention to pursue the CPA Exam.

Quite a few variables did not demonstrate a significant association with an intention to pursue the CPA designation: we found no significant association between gender, grade point average, academic level, and age with exam intent. While most students highly valued extrinsic factors, such as financial and job security, there was no association with these factors and a student’s intention to take the CPA Exam. Likewise, students who reported high levels of self-efficacy were not significantly associated with an intention to pursue the CPA designation.

We had expected students intending to pursue the CPA Exam to be less inclined toward engaging in unstructured problems, making strategic recommendations, and participating in “nontechnical” activities, but that was not the case. This is good news for firms striving to recruit students who want to do more than crunch numbers in isolation. 

After analyzing the data, there were three variables that had a significant association with the intention to take the CPA Exam: intrinsic motivation, continued education, and social influence. 

After controlling for other variables, we found that for every unit increase in intrinsic motivation, an accounting student is 2.37 times more likely to intend to take the CPA Exam. These students report stronger agreement with statements that accounting is genuinely interesting, will be personally fulfilling as a career, and fits their self-image. These results should be encouraging as our industry enters a critical transition period. It is reasonable to believe that students with intrinsic motivation are more likely to find work satisfaction and consequently stay in the profession, advance, and potentially succeed owners. 

The debate over implementation of a 150-semester-hour requirement is essentially done, but it still appears to play a role in students’ intentions regarding the CPA Exam. Students who intend to pursue the exam are not as sensitive to the prospect of continuing their education beyond 120 hours. While the 150-semester-hour requirement certainly provides a cognitive and financial hurdle, most states’ licensure requirements are broad in terms of what courses or degrees qualify. Colleges and universities that provide valuable programs and clearly defined paths for undergraduate students to achieve these credits may be more successful in enhancing perceptions about continuing their education. 

Students intending to take the CPA Exam also report stronger agreement with statements that family, friends, or employers would encourage them to sit for the CPA Exam, and that society would think highly of them. We find that for every unit increase in social influence, an accounting student is 1.75 times more likely to plan to pursue the CPA Exam. These results serve as an important reminder to those with influence over accounting students. Educators, employers, and professional organizations should not presume that students understand that pursuing the CPA certification is admirable. We must purposefully and explicitly communicate approval. For educators, this may mean allocating class time to educate and encourage students. When considered in the context of this study, seemingly nonteaching activities such as these could be some of the best lessons an accounting instructor could give. Not only can the CPA credential pave the way for a variety of career paths, but it also can instill a sense of achievement that can be transformative.  


Brian Trout, CPA, DBA, CMA, is an assistant professor of accounting and finance at Millersville University in Millersville. He can be reached at brian.trout@millersville.edu.

Eric Blazer, PhD, is chair of the accounting and finance department and associate professor of accounting and finance at Millersville University. He can be reached at eric.blazer@millersville.edu.

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