The accounting pipeline needs repair. After many years of robust enrollment in undergraduate and graduate accounting programs, the flow of new students has slowed. In the 2019–2020 academic year, the number of students graduating with an accounting degree fell by 2.8%, and that number slipped by 8.4% at the master's level, according to the 2021 AICPA Trends report.
The University of Arkansas and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV) responded to this challenge by finding approaches to attract more talented students to accounting programs and encourage them to pursue CPA licensure.
Mapping out the road to success
A few months after undertaking an initiative to improve CPA Exam completion rates in the fall of 2022, the University Arkansas already reported some successes: According to department Chair Gary Peters, 24 of 27 master's students passed the Exam's Auditing and Attestation section and signed up to test in other sections.
As part of the initiative, the school has taken efforts to increase students' awareness of the path to CPA licensure. In some careers, such as medicine, the path to becoming a licensed professional is clear. But students are often confused about "what it takes to become a CPA," or even what being a CPA entails, said Barry Bryan, CPA, Nolan E. Williams Teaching Professor of Accounting at the University of Arkansas.
For example, students who major in business may think accounting is a narrowly defined job. To dispel those notions, faculty who teach accounting principles classes required of all business majors include adjunct instructors from firms and industry who often talk about what a career in accounting looks like.
"Once they realize that the CPA designation is a tool they can use to pursue whatever it is they love, they don't feel pigeonholed," Bryan said.
The classes include a required, one-session practice lab that often covers assigned homework problems. It is led by a senior accounting major or master's student who serves as a role model for prospective accounting majors. Student instructors who have taken the lab themselves said it was very important in their decision to major.
"We are optimistic that it will be a booster shot in attracting students to major," Peters said.
Getting to the CPA Exam
To facilitate the pathway to the CPA Exam, University of Arkansas students entering the master's program in accounting receive a timeline that provides registration dates for Exam review courses and for each Exam section; links for obtaining required eligibility letters; and Exam score release dates.
Also, faculty members emphasize taking the Exam before graduation. In his graduate audit class, Bryan focuses on preparing students for entry-level positions in audit, as well as covering topics related to preparing for and passing the Exam. Peters highlights the licensing process in his graduate ethics class.
"We make it something of a one-two punch," Bryan said.
Arkansas attracts students from numerous states, and "many mistakenly believe they have to wait to take the Exam in the state where they will be working," Bryan said, so the school's ethics and professionalism course provides clarification.
Peters also invites guests from the Arkansas State Board of Public Accountancy, the AICPA, and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy to answer student questions. "This relieves the worries and misspent energy in applying for the CPA Exam and gets them focused on simply preparing for and passing it," he said.
UNLV has seen success in reversing declining enrollment. After dipping in 2018 and 2019, UNLV's accounting enrollments increased 5% over the past three years. Demographic and economic factors likely played a role.
"As a minority-serving institution with a very large population of first-generation students, we likely benefit from the long-standing appeal of accounting as a stable, high-demand, and financially rewarding career path," said Jason Smith, CPA, Ph.D., accounting department chair at UNLV.
The school uses various strategies to promote accounting as a career. It maintains a focus on a rigorous curriculum; sponsors student organizations such as Beta Alpha Psi and the Association of Latino Professionals for America; and provides experience-based learning opportunities, such as participation in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, case competitions, and paid internships. Students are pointed to programs at large firms that offer scholarships for graduate accounting education to students from historically underrepresented groups. The school also invites diverse CPAs to speak at student events and share their career experiences and achievements.
The school has also made efforts to attract more students with its "Rising Stars" event. In the past, high-performing students in pre-business, introductory accounting courses have been invited to a special event where faculty, select accounting students, and members of the professional community provide an evening of information and inspiration about career paths and the benefits of majoring in accounting. This year, the Nevada Society of CPAs is co-hosting this event, and all introductory accounting students are invited.
"Our goal is to give students more information — from people in the major and in the profession — about the benefits of an accounting education and the many rewarding career paths that follow," Smith said.
He encourages universities to build or strengthen relationships with community colleges and high schools, as well, to broaden their talent pool. Accounting has "a very attractive value proposition that we need to be better at marketing," Smith said.
Focus on the value
The lower numbers of new accounting students may be a selling point for the major, suggested the University of Arkansas's Peters. "In economic terms, today's accounting majors have an opportunity to be a scarce good in high demand," he said, adding that other disciplines besides accounting develop analytical skills, but accounting degrees are valuable in that they teach students how to interpret information and link it to business strategies.
"Accounting professionals are still viewed as trusted business advisers," Peters said. "That puts them in powerful seats for years to come."
Faculty can request free resources for promoting the accounting profession to students at thiswaytocpa.com.
— Anita Dennis is a New Jersey-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.