The Competency-Based Preprofessional Curriculum: A Key Component of Vision Success


The CPA Vision Process, a profession-wide initiative, helps the CPA profession stay on top of the change curve. It focuses on the competencies and values accounting professionals need to be competitive now and in the years ahead. While it builds on the current strengths of accounting professionals, it is clear they will need new skills to succeed in the future. CPAs will acquire these Vision-aligned skills from experience and various forms of continuing education. But the foundation for such skills must be developed through higher education in colleges and universities. “Academic support is a necessary precedent to the profound changes forecasted for the profession,” according to AICPA President Barry M. Melancon.

The AICPA accounting education executive committee (now the precertification education executive committee) charged a special task force to develop a competency-based framework that would prepare students for entry into the profession.

The AICPA Core Competency Framework identifies the skills and competencies necessary for all persons entering the accounting profession, regardless of the specific career path they choose. It also provides the foundation for lifelong learning because individuals will build their specialized skills upon those the framework identifies. While this program is important for the educational community, its ramifications extend across the accounting profession. “The framework reflects the needs of the profession at large since it is based largely on the national, grassroots consensus obtained in the CPA Vision Process,” said Robert K. Elliott, AICPA chairman and former accounting education change commission member.

What the framework encompasses

The framework focuses on skills and competencies—not specific topics, subjects or a common body of knowledge. In developing the framework, the preprofessional competency task force’s objective was to identify all competencies necessary for everyone entering the profession, regardless of the specific career path pursued. Numerous academic and professional models were used to identify requisite competencies.

A key issue for the task force was the relationship between the framework and topics covered on the CPA exam (see figure 1). A primary difficulty was that their objectives differ. According to Bill Holder, professor of accounting at the University of Southern California and an AICPA board member, “It’s important to note that the competency recommendations contained within the framework are, and almost certainly always will be, broader than the scope of the CPA exam.”

Figure 1: Core Competency Framework vs. the CPA Exam

The three competencies

The task force identified the competencies and grouped them into three categories—functional, personal and broad business.

Functional competencies. These relate to the technical competencies most closely associated with the unique value accounting professionals contribute. Accountants of the future will be expected to have broader skills than those traditionally needed to succeed in the profession. What accounting professionals bring to a business will allow them to move up the “information value chain.” Look at decision modeling, for example. Students preparing to enter the accounting profession must be able to use strategic, critical approaches to decision making. They must objectively consider issues, identify alternatives and implement solution- oriented approaches in order to deliver services and provide value.

Personal competencies. These competencies involve the attitudes and behavior of those preparing to enter the profession. They enhance the way such individuals handle professional relationships and they facilitate learning and personal improvement. Communication is one example of a personal competency: Individuals entering the profession should have the ability to listen, deliver powerful presentations and produce effective business writing.

Broad-business-perspective competencies. These relate to understanding the business context in which accountants perform services. Strategic or critical thinking is a broad-business-perspective competency. It encompasses the ability to link data, knowledge and insight from various disciplines to appropriate information helpful in decision making.

The ability to leverage technology is a critical component in each of the competency categories. And because technology has permanently altered the landscape, adaptability is a primary requirement for today’s accounting professional.

Integration. Though all the above elements are necessary for success, educational institutions will need to weight competencies to fit their individual needs. While functional, personal and broad business competencies are each independently important, students must be able to integrate the skills from all three categories. Higher education has traditionally employed a “silo” approach—with each area standing separately on its own merit. In the framework, the competencies overlap (see figure 2). Peter Wilson, an accounting professor at Boston College, suggests that students can enhance their professional value by maximizing the area of overlap.

Figure 2: The Framework

Best practices task force

A core-competencies-framework best practices task force is currently developing resources in the following three areas for educators:

Recognized teaching practices. The core competency framework will link to specific teaching practices that show how an educator can address specific competencies in the classroom. For example, if a professor wants more information on decision modeling, this section will provide links to illustrations of how other educators have addressed the decision-modeling component in the learning environment.

Links to general learning strategies. Traditional educational techniques have relied heavily on the lecture method. Since students have different learning styles, different teaching approaches can enhance the educational process. This section will provide links to general learning strategies, such as the case method, service learning, cooperative learning and student portfolios.

Links to other guidance. This section will provide links to related professional and academic sites and to documents that bear on curriculum consideration. Examples include links to Web sites for the AICPA, the Institute of Management Accountants, the American Accounting Association, the Information Systems Audit and Control Association and the Institute of Internal Auditors, as well as to legislative issues and other professional models.


A curriculum evaluation task force is developing tools that will help administrators and faculty evaluate how well their programs or courses are aligned with the framework. These online tools will include assessment programs, sample instruments and sample strategies and should be available by August 2001. This task force is also arranging for designated schools to serve as pilot schools.

Significance for the profession

While the framework is designed primarily as a resource for educators, all members of the profession are encouraged to ensure entry-level individuals have the requisite skills and competencies necessary for success. Employers must take a proactive stance in communicating their needs to the academic community, and the framework provides a central starting point for these conversations.

In hiring decisions, the framework provides a benchmark for competencies that employers should expect from entry-level employees. Members of the profession who serve on college advisory boards should voice their support for the framework and encourage schools to consider it as a resource in curriculum decisions.

Numerous professional models have been developed to capture specialized knowledge necessary for specific career paths, and, combined with experience and other lifelong learning opportunities, these tools should help individuals become more aligned with the Vision.

More information on the framework can be found at .

Paula B. Thomas chairs the AICPA preprofessional competency task force and is professor of accounting at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee.


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