Surgent CPA Review recently hosted its first-ever virtual roundtable, titled “Is the CPA License Losing Its Luster?” The online event was moderated by Surgent Exam Review Co-founder and Chief Knowledge Officer, Liz Kolar, CPA, CGMA, and featured six distinguished panelists – all at different stages in their respective careers – with experience spanning a variety of organizations and positions. During a nearly two-hour discussion that also included audience Q&A, panelists reflected on the overall theme of the event, which focused on whether the real or perceived value of the CPA license has diminished. They also provided thoughtful opinions on an expanse of related topics surrounding recent shifts in the CPA licensure landscape, the CPA Exam, and thoughts on the future of the profession.


Panelists included Dan Black, Global Recruiting Leader at Ernst & Young; Susan Crosson, CPA, Director of the Center for Advancing Accounting Education at the American Accounting Association (AAA); Rick David, CPA, Chairman of UHY International and Chief Operating Officer of UHY Advisors; Chuck Kovach, National Director of Learning in CohnReznick’s Talent Management and Learning Center of Excellence; Steven Maex, CPA, CISA, Ph.D. Student and Presidential Fellow in Accounting at Temple University; and Mark Mayberry, CPA/CITP, CISA, CIDA, Strategic Initiatives Director, Assurance Office of Tomorrow with the Global Assurance Department of BDO.


Liz Kolar, a full-time accounting professor for more than 30 years, set the tone for the panel by citing her observations about the industry in her introductory remarks:

“I’ve seen a couple of major shifts in CPA candidates. The first one started about a decade ago when I noticed that students’ study habits started to change. Now, a second major shift seems to be happening. Even though our schools are graduating more accounting majors than ever before, we are seeing year-over-year declines in the number of students sitting for the exam.”


She then opened the discussion, inviting panelists to share their opinions on why, despite the consistently growing number of accounting majors over the last decade, has the number of candidates sitting for the CPA Exam been steadily declining? Much of the conversation focused on a fundamental shift in attitudes among accounting students. In the not-so-distant past, obtaining your CPA license was not only an expectation but considered a rite of passage. That simply does not seem to be the case anymore. Reasons cited varied. Mark Mayberry suggested that the introduction of the 150-hour requirement may be contributing to more accounting majors choosing alternative paths since, thanks to the extra hours they’re forced to fill, this requirement may result in students taking courses outside of traditional accounting coursework, which lead them down alternative paths. Another thought came from Steven Maex, who holds both CPA and CISA designations. He suggested that perhaps the CPA Exam is too narrow in scope compared to the type of work accountants perform today. He mulled over the idea of a base credential similar to today’s CPA license, along with more specialized credentials and exams for areas like data analytics and public company auditing. Chuck Kovach noted a change in the way young professionals approach their careers that may no longer align well with the career path most firms have traditionally provided. He said that he and his colleagues see a growing gap “between the expectations of our younger people coming out of school and the traditional value proposition of accounting firms.” On the whole, recent graduates are becoming less willing to work extremely long hours for a number of years based on the promise of a future partner position. In addition, it seems clear that the range of alternative career options available to accounting graduates is broader now than ever (and only growing) and, thanks to the proliferation of easily accessible information, these alternative paths are also more understood than in years past, potentially diverting accounting grads from the CPA track that was previously almost a given.  


Kolar asked the panelists if they believe the historic low national pass rates for the CPA Exam are also impacting potential candidates’ interest in pursuing the credential (about 50% of first-time CPA Exam test-takers are likely to fail and this percentage has remained about the same for almost a decade). Some of the panelists believe these semi-bleak figures may discourage students from going through the process in the first place, while other panelists felt that the pass rate was appropriate, given the amount of knowledge required to perform as a CPA. Despite some declining interest in the CPA Exam among accounting graduates, all of the panelists reinforced that most firms still place a high degree of importance on passing the CPA Exam and recommend doing so as soon as possible following graduation. Rick David’s advice to accounting graduates:


“You’ve got your degree … get the test passed. No one can ever take that away from you, no matter where you go with your career. Department of Labor studies say you’ll have seven different careers for today’s college graduate. Not seven jobs, but seven different careers. I think the CPA will help you establish yourself in whatever career you choose to be in.”


Some panelists wondered whether the CPA Exam should change to better reflect some of the newer skills required by practicing CPAs, such as data analytics, though many felt that the exam still serves its purpose well by signaling a level of competence that can apply in virtually any role.


Though opinions on the exam content varied, nearly all panelists agreed that students’ learning styles and motivations have changed. Some reflected on significant changes within recent years when it comes to motivations and expectations of most new associates.


Kovach explained that today’s associates want to learn right away, continually, and in a more personalized fashion. He described how CohnReznick has learned through a number of generational studies that:


“Our younger people … want learning methods that are what we call high-engagement (learning from each other, peer coaching, quality mentor relationships, involvement in solving firm problems). …We wonder what opportunities there might be to really think creatively about the methods that are used in the exam. Maybe someday they are much more engaging and participative than what they are today.”


Panelists also noticed a change in the motivations for what attracts new talent to organizations; many young professionals are looking for more enriching on-site and off-site learning opportunities. More associates also want to connect their positions to values and purpose beyond their job. Dan Black remarked, “They are looking for things that will help them learn and develop from day one and almost at a constant clip … that’s an expectation that we’re seeing much more consistently in the last five years….as such, it’s incumbent upon employers to make changes, to re-educate people who have been at the firm a long time on what those motivations are and to act accordingly.”


One such change that firms are beginning to make is related to recruiting strategies, including seeking talent from other fields and majors beyond traditional accounting paths. This shift is likely related to the decline in the candidate pool coming out of traditional accounting programs, but it also reflects the changes in the types of work Public Accounting firms now engage in, which often require different skill sets.


Given the changes in learning styles, motivations, and comfort with technology, panelists agreed that students would be better prepared to pass the CPA Exam if professors better equipped students with information they’re likely to see on the CPA Exam. With learning styles varying from student to student, it would also be incredibly useful for professors and CPA Review providers to help students create study routines that support their individual learning preferences.


Many CPA Review course providers offer a variety of video-based, audio-based, and hard-copy materials to accommodate an array of learning styles, and the relatively recent incorporation of adaptive learning technology into CPA Review software has also made a significant impact. Kolar noted, “One of the major advances I’ve seen in academia is the use of adaptive learning technologies. It has helped students learn more effectively and efficiently.” Maex described how he successfully passed the CPA Exam by practicing multiple choice questions (MCQs), then using his MCQ performance to focus his studies on his own areas of weakness. In essence, he created a very manual version of the adaptive learning algorithm that the Surgent CPA Review course has today. Kolar also described how she has seen improved engagement and retention from students by shifting from long-form lectures to shorter, more topic-focused segments in the CPA Review materials she provides in her accounting courses.


Advances in technology have not only impacted the CPA Exam. They have also significantly changed the CPA career in terms of the tasks associates perform and how they’re completed. For example, many of the tasks typically assigned to second-year associates are now mostly automated. As a result, associates need to be able to think critically, solve complex problems, analyze data visualizations, and creatively interpret data. Black was excited about what this means for new CPAs, describing how:


“This makes the profession more attractive. Now at a very early stage of your career, you’ll have the opportunity to bring more critical reasoning, critical learning, and be able to provide input…We are asking our new hires at a more rapid pace to bring their intelligence and analytics to bear on that in a way we never could do with new hires in the past. That’s is very exciting. You can skip past a lot of the grind that made the earlier part of a CPA’s career may be less appealing and get right into higher-level thinking and analytics. It also means you’ll be able to work more with people at a much earlier juncture in your career.”


These points, though they pose challenges to how and what professors traditionally test and teach, can also draw more and different students into the profession if they are fully educated on these newer opportunities. In turn, the more traditional accounting students must be willing to adapt and continue to learn beyond academia to survive and excel in today’s firm landscape. It’s important for professors to encourage students to become lifelong learners even before they graduate from college because, as Susan Crosson notes, “The tools and techniques we use today may not be the ones we use in five years, so students need to be agile learners.”


By the end of the discussion, it was clear that panelists were in consensus about one thing: the CPA license is still incredibly beneficial to pursue. Each of the panelists affirmed that, knowing what they know now about both the profession and the CPA Exam, they would absolutely still choose the same path. Black confidently stated, “I would do it all over again.” Crosson shared his sentiment and mentioned, “Being a first generation college student and, at the time, a minority in the profession, the CPA opened doors for me.” Rich David agreed and noted, “I think all of us entered with certain expectations…for me, I’ve gone far beyond anything I could’ve imagined … I help my clients achieve their long-term goals and visions in their businesses. It’s exciting to be able to be creative and be a valued advisor to a multitude of clients. And to really grow and help others. I couldn’t have done it without being a CPA.”


Did you miss our Virtual Roundtable? Check out our recording of the event here. Visit our website and sign up for our blog to stay informed on future events!


Carolyn Rivera is Surgent’s Social Media Associate, overseeing the growth of the company’s social media presence for all brands, as well as creating content for an upcoming informational and community forum website. She is a master’s student of media studies and production at Temple University.