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Do colleges prepare future CPAs? Three key insights

Shutterstock_1368244235Whether a professor has taught thousands of students throughout their career or is new to the classroom, they aim to give students a strong foundation in the relevant competencies and skills for their major and future career. As professions evolve, the curriculum to develop young minds must keep pace. The CPA profession and accounting programs are no different.

I have been in accounting academia for many years, most recently as an associate professor of accounting at Sam Houston State University. To keep my classes relevant, I have consistently modified the curriculum in response to changes in the professional environment. As an academic, it is vital to prepare students to successfully enter the marketplace.

As the AICPA’s new Academic in Residence, I work with our team to support academic colleagues, reinforcing this priority by helping programs maintain robust accounting curriculums that address the evolving needs of professional practice. To do this, it is important to understand the state of accounting education.

As the frontline for the profession, accounting educators teach the knowledge and skills future employees need. This week, our team published a gap analysis report detailing a survey of over 300 accounting program chairs across the country. We sought their feedback about how technology has influenced today’s programs and how other critical skills have been incorporated, especially as the AICPA-NASBA CPA Evolution initiative advances.

The research confirmed that much more technology continues to shape the work of all CPAs, year after year. Employers expect graduates to enter the workforce already familiar with various technologies and able to examine data critically. They should know the concepts and processes essential to their CPA role.

A recent Wall Street Journal story confirmed that public accounting firms need to upskill their new hires because of the fast-evolving impact of technology and data analytics. Some firms have taken steps to develop partnerships with universities to address the potential lag between college learning and the requirements of professional life.

All this real-world evidence raises important questions: How well can schools adjust and keep up with this ongoing change? How do programs, large and small, align with the direction of the profession? When looking at the gap analysis data, key points came to mind.

 

The majority of schools don’t teach important emerging topics

While survey data shows over 60% of accounting programs teach topics such as data analytics and IT audit, fewer than half teach emerging topics such as IT governance and cybersecurity, among others. Firms report that these topics are increasingly important to the profession. Pending the results of the 2021 practice analysis, the 2024 CPA Exam may cover these topics in more depth.

These topics are often taught as only a part of one or two class sessions rather than a dedicated course or unit of study. For example, system and organization controls (SOC) engagements are a rapidly growing practice area for CPA firms. But, among those surveyed, only 32% of accounting programs with over 100 undergraduate accounting majors cover the topic in their curriculum. At smaller schools, the percentages are less. Some future CPAs may not be learning what they need to compete in the job market as firm services become more technology-focused.

Smaller schools have less coverage of emerging technology

Within programs that have 50 or fewer accounting majors, they are not as well-positioned to cover much of the technology-focused material the profession demands. Only 15% of these institutions incorporate digital acumen into their curricula. Just over 30% are teaching cyber-related and predictive analytics topics.

The answer is clear — smaller schools must enhance their offerings or consider other options that will give their students greater exposure to these topics. Due to the demands of the profession, as well as the CPA Exam requirements, faculty at schools of all sizes must assess their capabilities to teach these technologies and commit to evolving so they can more effectively deliver the education students need.

Accounting information systems (AIS) have become catch-alls

When it comes to topics such as predictive analytics and SOC or skills such as digital acumen, our survey shows that the schools that touch on these areas have varying depths of coverage. Programs aren’t necessarily offering stand-alone courses in these essential areas and, instead, often include them in their accounting information systems classes. 

The AIS course is an opportunity to teach students about accounting systems that support financial reporting — vital knowledge for CPA candidates. But AIS courses often are designed as a catch-all, with emerging tech topics added to ensure some program coverage. While many of these topics have a link to AIS (e.g., cyber), by including subject matter such as data analytics, the course may limit the proper coverage of all the topics. The result could be that graduates are not fully prepared.

Where do we go from here?

I don’t want to alarm my friends in academia into believing that they need 12 new courses to address their gaps. This is not the purpose of the gap analysis, and there is not a one-size-fits-all approach, given the diversity of accounting programs. We aim to serve as a partner with resources for educators as they adapt their programs to what works best for them as they meet the needs of the profession.

We’re here to help. I encourage educators to visit the AICPA Faculty homepage and use its resources and guidance to evolve their programs to meet tomorrow’s educational challenges for future CPAs:

  • Through our Academic Resource Hub, we share a variety of materials to support universities and their accounting education curriculum. This free, online clearinghouse offers over 200 resources, including case studies, assignments, readings and webcasts that address topics such as data analytics, IT governance, cybersecurity and more. We continue to develop new tools for educators to enhance their programs. We’re working with experts from education and the profession to develop a model AIS course.
  • Our newly launched “Faculty Hourwebcast series provides CPA Evolution status updates and features subject matter experts who lead discussions on topics designed to enhance curriculum or classroom teaching techniques. 
  • This summer, we’ll unveil a model curriculum to guide schools in addressing the upper-level accounting course work CPA candidates need to pursue licensure under the new CPA Evolution model.

I encourage educators to read our gap analysis report and see how their accounting programs compare to others across the country. As a licensed CPA and educator, I see that we’re at a moment of tremendous change. I’m confident in academia’s ability to rise to the challenge of educating future 21st century CPAs.  

 

Jan Taylor Morris, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., Academic in Residence, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants

 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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