How accounting programs can help students pass the CPA Exam

Best practices include setting up on-campus study rooms for off-campus students and creating academic champion programs.
By Gregory Gaynor, CPA, Ph.D., and Sidney Askew, CPA

How accounting programs can help students pass the CPA Exam
Image by TimArbaev/iStock

The CPA Exam remains a rigorous rite of passage for those entering the accounting profession. Because protection of the public interest is one of the profession's primary goals, it is imperative to have a strong pipeline of CPA candidates who demonstrate their proficiency by passing the exam.

In recent years, concerns have been raised regarding the demographic challenges facing the profession. A large percentage of active CPAs are approaching retirement age. In addition, the growth in accounting enrollments has recently outpaced the number of candidates sitting for and passing the CPA Exam.

In response, we conducted the CPA Candidate Success Research Project in 2015 with the ultimate goal of finding ways to help increase CPA Exam sit and pass rates. The study focused on identifying best practices that college and university accounting programs employ to help their students achieve success on the exam. (A report of the project's findings is available at aicpa.org.)

Schools often cited the following factors as primary keys to their success:

  • Ability to recruit and retain great students;
  • Students securing jobs with firms that pay for a review class;
  • Advising students about state requirements for exam/licensure;
  • An accounting program structured, especially at the graduate level, to facilitate students' attaining the necessary credits for the exam; and
  • The positive signal and confidence boost that current students receive when older students they know succeed on the exam.

BEST PRACTICES FOR IMPROVING EXAM SUCCESS

The survey results point to three particularly important best practices for schools that wish to improve their students' exam pass rates:

Offer CPA review classes on campus

This recommendation is straightforward but also may not be feasible at all schools, especially those with smaller budgets and enrollments. Some schools may be unable to handle the relatively large costs of administering these rigorous courses or may be unable to sustain the enrollment attrition that can result from imposing additional requirements on student performance. Also, if you're considering offering such classes for academic credit, find out whether the state boards of accountancy in the states where your students most likely will work will accept these credits toward fulfillment of the exam's education requirement.

Create a study room on campus—and a practice testing computer lab if possible

It can be difficult to secure licensing agreements with various CPA review course providers to run proprietary software on student-accessible campus computers. As an alternative, schools may find it useful to offer a dedicated space for students and faculty to convene to discuss and study for the exam outside normal class hours. Such spaces can be a valuable tool for enhancing camaraderie and moral support among commuter students or those who take primarily online classes.

Designate a faculty member to be the academic champion for the CPA Exam

A pilot AICPA Academic Champion program launched in August 2016 with 19 academic champions. The program will roll out to more universities in the coming years, with a goal in 2017—2018 of recruiting 50 academic champions. In this program, a full-time faculty member is the main point of contact for CPA Exam and licensure issues and questions.

We suggest that, to successfully implement such a program, schools should offer the faculty member adequate credit and recognition for assuming the role. Ideally, faculty would actively seek the position as opposed to simply agreeing to do it as part of their normal service obligation. Incentives that schools may offer for attracting academic champions include money to pay for attendance at conferences and other networking events, reduction in teaching load, and official recognition and publicity for serving in this vital position. We acknowledge the resource constraints many schools face in providing such incentives. However, we suggest that the potentially improved CPA Exam sit and pass rates generated by the academic champion program can bring substantial benefits.

VARYING MEASURES OF SUCCESS

Though we acknowledge the complexity of the issue, we are optimistic that improvement in CPA Exam sit and pass rates is possible. Ideally, student success could easily be replicated at other schools through the mere adoption of these procedures. However, the dramatic differences among business schools in their missions, level of resources, and student characteristics make this an unrealistic proposition. In much the same way that college athletics often use divisions to group schools with similar profiles, we suggest that differences in sit and pass rates among schools are to be expected, even when the efforts to improve overall sit and pass rates succeed.

Naturally, we hope to continue discussing our study and the contents of this report with fellow accounting educators as part of a sustained initiative to improve sit and pass rates on the exam. However, we suggest that accounting educators cannot go it alone. We believe the audience for our study also includes those outside the accounting profession, such as school administrators, accreditors, and state legislators, who help determine the allocation of educational resources and funding and who may not be familiar with the issues facing the accounting profession.

Alternatively, accounting profession stakeholders such as firms, state societies and organizations, and licensing boards may be well-aware of the issues facing the profession but may be less familiar with the challenges accounting educators face in the current era of scrutiny and reduced resources for higher education. We hope our report can add to the collective dialogue among the various stakeholders in a broad effort toward the shared goal of protection of the public through improved CPA Exam sit and pass rates.


About the authors

Gregory Gaynor (ggaynor@ubalt.edu) is an assistant professor of accounting at the Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore. Sidney Askew (saskew@bmcc.cuny.edu) is a professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, senior editor, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-4077.


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