It isn’t that I don’t enjoy the Tennessee CPA Journal. In fact, I love it. It is one of the many perks to which I am entitled as a member of the Tennessee Society of CPAs (TSCPA). I actually enjoy the Tennessee CPA Journal more than the Journal of Accountancy (the monthly periodical from the AICPA). Not only are the articles relevant to my practice, but I almost always see someone I know in there.


But the cover of the January/February edition of the Tennessee CPA Journal caught my eye and made me turn immediately to the article (which I guess is what the authors want a reader to do). The cover stated the name of the article: “Getting them There: Removing Barriers to the CPA License.” (you can read the article at http://tinyurl.com/h6r2wej). My initial reaction was negative, which isn’t fair to the authors (I should at least read the article before judging their intentions). Dr. Freeman and Dr. Steadman, who are professors of accountancy at East Tennessee State University, actually wrote an excellent article that should be read by everyone who is concerned about the future of our profession.


My fear was that Dr. Freeman and Dr. Steadman were going to give in to the siren song of those who want to make the CPA exam easier merely for the sake of bringing more people in to the profession. I don’t want to sound like an old man yelling at kids to “get off my lawn,” but some of us who had to take the pre-computerized exam have claimed (rightly or wrongly) that “kids taking the exam today have it WAY easier than we did.”


For those of you who are too young to remember (or who just want to forget), the CPA exam used to be a 2 day ordeal where one had to take all four parts during those two days. In other words, we didn’t have the luxury of studying really hard for the FARE section and only focusing on that. Rather, one had to study for all parts of the exam simultaneously and then hope to pass at least 2 parts (without getting below 70% on the parts one failed). If you didn’t get at least “conditional” passing (75% on two parts, and 70% - 74% on the parts you failed), you had to take all four parts of the exam over again. It was brutal. I worked with one lady who passed 3 parts of the test, but scored a 68% on the fourth part. We made sure to keep sharp objects away from her for a while…


It was hard, but a lot of us passed and were better off for the experience (at least, that is what we tell ourselves). Today, exam-takers still have to take four sections of the exam, but instead of taking all 4 parts at once, one can concentrate on one part at a time. It is debatable whether the exam overall is easier or harder (an interesting new school vs. old school debate can be read at http://tinyurl.com/d55lv74), and ultimately, passing the CPA exam does not make one a solid CPA. I’ve known fantastic accountants who haven’t passed the exam who I would trust much more than those who earned top scores on the test.


Even so, the exam needs to stay incredibly tough, and any efforts to make the profession more attractive should not involve watering down the test. The public holds CPAs to a high standard, in part because of the rigorous exam requirements. Thankfully, Dr. Freeman and Dr. Steadman never once advocated making the exam easier, which I appreciate. Instead, they explored reasons why otherwise intelligent, qualified accounting grads do not sit for the exam and how to increase the number of people who sit for the exam. For starters, accounting educators should stress the importance of the CPA exam, not only at the college level, but at high school and younger. I’ve been a liaison at a local high school for 13 years in presenting the wonders of the accounting profession to seniors, and I can tell you it has been a rewarding experience not only for the students, but for me as well. The article suggested that “volunteering with programs such as the Boys and Girls Club to present financial literacy information and education could help to expose students at younger ages to the field.”


The other option noted in the article to increase CPA exam participation is one that is the most lacking: assistance from workplaces/employers. While firms claim to encourage their people to become CPAs, my experience has been that few companies are willing to do this, and for good reason: Employees cost money, and companies need to squeeze every cent out of said employees. Paying them for time off to study doesn’t help the company’s bottom line, especially when the very real possibility exists that the person could leave. As the authors pointed out, “study time off should be paid because it is an investment not only in the future of the employee, but also the firm. This should build loyalty from employees toward their employer…” I hope this becomes a thing and hope that accounting firms (The Big 4, most notably) take the lead on this.


Dr. Freeman and Dr. Steadman wrote a great article that I would encourage everyone who cares about this profession to read, especially since it does NOT call for dumbing down the CPA exam.