In 1905 when the Journal of Accountancy made its debut, a high school education was the common expectation among the few states that had passed CPA legislation. Experience in practical skills was a CPAs key feature. It would be 20 years before all states had passed comparable CPA statutes, and decades before a bachelors degree would become the norm for CPA qualification, along with the emphasis on technical (CPA-exam-driven) skills. Then, in 1967, the landmark study Horizons for a Profession introduced a more complete view of formal accounting education. Today, a majority of new CPAs have achieved the postgraduate educational level and CPAs are being better prepared for an ownership society, serving more sophisticated clients who demand greater accountability.
Education is a key to fulfilling what we can do as CPAs. Because much has to be understood for someone to become technically proficient, we often focus our educational efforts on competency alone, while viewing social responsibility as an add-on rather than a built-in curriculum feature. Technical skills are significant in todays educational environment, in which we are adjusting to a new psychometrically validated computerized testing process and new mandates from recent legislation and regulation. As important as technical competence is to satisfying the markets demand for efficiency, however, it is but one aspect of the purpose of a CPAs education.
Our 21st century world features instant change, global connectivity and perpetually perplexing pressures, so our responsibilities require more than an average educational experience. They demand an education worthy of a learned profession, not merely a technically credentialed one. Despite recent turmoil, we remain a profession so long as we seek first to serve one of the most important rights of our free enterprise systemthe constitutional right of an individual to own private productive property. This right is at the core of our economic system, with its opportunities and its promise of prosperity and liberty. It is now exercised commonly in equity and security investments and begets a right to reliable information. Without this information, individuals are less able to control their investmentstheir private productive propertyand end up forfeiting them to capital market intermediaries or agents.
The CPA professions role in our society is to satisfactorily serve this right to information. Our educational programsthose at entry level, those that maintain our competency and those that reach out to improve the financial literacy of our communitiesare incomplete without a strong sense of commitment to this information right. Both technical competence and our commitment to this information right, therefore, are the necessary components of education for CPAs in the 21st century. Our challenge is to address this simple but powerful purpose.
Gary John Previts, CPA, PhD, is professor of accountancy at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. An advocate of professional education, he has worked to advance research about, and the study of, the history of accounting thought and regulation.