How to motivate students and professionals to take the CPA exam

Looking to better understand the attitudes and behaviors of potential CPA exam candidates across the entire decision pathway, the AICPA commissioned a study by an independent research firm. Key findings presented last week at the AICPA governing Council meeting demonstrated that environmental influences in the workplace are the most critical factors for accounting majors and accounting professionals in determining whether they become CPAs.

The research findings are based on the results of interviews; statistically representative online surveys of accounting majors, recent graduates, and exam takers; and secondary research to provide a clear understanding of the pipeline to the CPA profession. Qualitative research showed that both accounting students and recent accounting graduates consider the CPA to be a valuable credential and also expect it to remain valuable in the future.

“Through this research, we reaffirmed that the perceived value of the CPA credential is high, and most of those who graduate with an accounting degree expect to become a CPA,” said Chris Bumcrot, a partner with Applied Research & Consulting, the research firm that conducted the study. “The critical element in the pathway to CPA is the prospective candidate’s environment. Encouragement and incentives within the workplace are significant drivers, and even stronger is an employer requirement to have a CPA.”

Although the Uniform CPA Examination and the path to licensure are deemed to be challenging, by both students and young professionals, 78% of accounting majors reported they want to pursue a CPA, and 70% of CPA-bound graduates who indicated they want to pursue a CPA have sat for the exam.

The research showed that, while the perception exists that the CPA licensure process is intensive, environmental factors—not attitudes or opinions about the process—were the primary challenges for prospective CPAs on the path to licensure. Key research findings include:

  • Two-thirds (67%) of accounting majors plan to become CPAs when they graduate from college. They are motivated, in order of importance, by college recruiters, specialized majors, “college CPA culture,” college professors, and their community college experience.
  • The on-campus presence of firms and organizations that are recruiting accounting graduates is important, both during and after college. (College recruiting is classified as a workplace factor because it reveals the effects of encouragement by potential employers.)
  • Workplace environment and culture are the dominant factors in determining whether an accounting graduate sits for the CPA exam. Encouragement and incentives—notably, requirements to have the CPA credential—are strong drivers.
  • Prospective CPA candidates shared specific factors that would enhance their likelihood to pursue a CPA, including time off from work and employer-paid preparatory courses.
  • While the study was not designed to compare accounting majors to students in other fields, the research findings strongly suggest that family influences (such as having a family member who is a CPA) and high school environmental factors (including availability of high school accounting courses) are strong predictors of whether a student becomes an accounting major in college.

This research is intended to shed light on how the profession can address the challenge of a shrinking pipeline of future CPAs. The conclusion that environmental factors play a pivotal role in convincing students and professionals to sit for the CPA exam may indicate a path to a solution: more encouragement and motivation among prospective CPAs as they advance through the process. The research shows that all stakeholders in the profession—and, chiefly, universities, firms, and employers—may be able to examine their respective cultures and processes to develop an environment that fosters success on the path to CPA licensure.

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