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Growing the CPA Pipeline Today for the Accounting Professionals of Tomorrow

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As college graduates prepare to begin their careers, accounting firms, academia and industry associations remain focused on ways to expand and diversify the CPA pipeline through strategic and innovative efforts.

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Graduation season is here — and across the country, thousands of students are swapping their college IDs for a company-issued laptop and the opportunity to make their mark in the business world. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the employment prospects for college graduates remain strong, especially for individuals with degrees in accounting, finance and business analytics. 

There’s no question — the demand for accounting and finance skills remains high. Here at Ernst & Young LLP (EY US), we’ll welcome more than 2,500 accounting interns this summer. However, we’re also observing a troubling trend: a steady decline, yearly, in the number of students earning accounting degrees, accompanied by a significant decrease in the number who sit for the CPA exam. Since 2015, according to the AICPA, the number of students completing a bachelor’s degree in accounting has dropped 7%, and according to the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy, the number of people taking the CPA exam fell by almost 50% between 1990 and 2021.

Why are fewer students preparing for careers in accounting?

When I was studying at Lehigh University, my professors told me that “accounting is the language of business.” While this remains true today, short-term challenges can make it difficult for students to focus on the long-term value. For some students, challenges may include:

  • Affordability — The 150 credit hours of education required for CPA licensure, which traditionally necessitates a fifth year of study, increases the cost of education compared with other areas of study.
  • Competitiveness — A CPA can offer long-term financial rewards. However, starting salaries for accountants are not keeping pace with other fields, according to some stakeholders.
  • Visibility — Finally, there is a lack of awareness of the accounting profession among high school and college students and many misconceptions about the opportunities the career path can offer.

Working together to expand the CPA pipeline

Given the importance of the CPA profession to financial markets, various stakeholders are taking steps to get more accounting graduates in the pipeline. Many of these efforts are being led by accounting firms and other employers, universities and organizations, such as FEI and the Center for Audit Quality (CAQ). The goal is to reverse the current downward trend by:

  1. Bringing real-life examples to the classroom. According to recent CAQ data, students want more real-world experiences as a key part of their course curriculum — in part, to help them discover what they want to do. Through our EY Academic Resource Center, we develop and provide free curriculum resources and other educational support that enable faculty and professionals to address leading-edge issues impacting the accounting profession.
  2. Expanding access and affordability. The opportunity cost of a fifth year to complete CPA requirements includes additional tuition expenses and foregone income — this has been cited by some as a barrier to pursuing a CPA license. To address this, EY US launched the EY Career Path Accelerator in 2021. The goal is to provide driven individuals a more affordable and accessible alternative to meeting the 150 hours of education requirement for CPA licensure without the need for a fifth year of education. This enables candidates to get into the workforce after four years of college and be academically eligible for licensure. Since its inception, more than 500 current and former EY interns have enrolled in the program. More than 50% of learners are racially and ethnically diverse, and approximately 65% have received more than $600,000 of needs-based funding through the Ernst & Young Foundation.
  3. Prioritizing outreach to diverse communities. The post-millennial generation is set to be the most racially and ethnically diverse population the US has ever seen. However, the rate of Black and Hispanic/Latino accountants has remained stagnant for many years. The CAQ’s Accounting+ initiative is a nationwide campaign supported by EY US and other accounting firms devoted to expanding the pipeline of Black and Hispanic/Latino accountants and equipping students with useful resources for career success. Professional networks, such as the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), Ascend and the Association of Latino Professionals For America (ALPFA), also play a critical role in educational outreach.
  4. Enhancing opportunities for early-career professionals. Early-career professionals are looking for more challenging work and want to have an impact earlier in their careers. And across industries, younger populations prioritize growth and personal development when considering places to work. Programs such as the EY Digital Ambassador Program provide early-career auditors with advanced learning of data analytics tools, allowing for deeper insights into our clients’ businesses and exposure to emerging EY technologies. Additionally, the EY Women in Audit program provides students with an opportunity to hear from EY female audit leaders about their career journeys and how technology and innovation are enhancing the work we do for our clients and key stakeholders.
  5. Creating new career pathways. Another key finding from CAQ’s research with high school and college students centered around their desire to have a variety of career pathways available to help shape their careers according to their interests. At EY US, we’re offering career paths to students who may not be ready to pursue a four-year accounting degree. Through our San Antonio-based EY Service Delivery Center, we’ve hired several hundred business support associates with a two-year degree to execute routine tasks to support our audit teams.

Collectively we can reshape the future of the accounting profession

We have big challenges before us as a profession — economic uncertainty, regulatory shifts and technology innovation to name a few. With these challenges come great opportunities for early-career professionals to leverage their analytical and professional skills from day one, to contribute to diverse teams and to do work that matters to the economy and capital markets.

A concerted effort from accounting firms, businesses, academia and associations to help students see and realize the value in pursuing a career in accounting is critical as we continue to innovate and enhance our profession. Learn how we’re helping hundreds of future auditors pursue their career in accounting through our EY Career Path Accelerator.

Becky Burke is the Americas Assurance Talent Leader for Ernst & Young LLP.

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views  of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.