Last October’s column was about the need for change in the way accounting is taught in high school and college (“The Accounting Curriculum Needs a Complete Overhaul,” http://bit.ly/346LRXe). It suggested that CPAs need to pressure local colleges and universities to update their curricula and better prepare students to take and pass the CPA exam while in college. The biggest challenge I see at my firm is recent graduates who are not properly prepared for the technical work done at a CPA firm and are struggling to pass the CPA exam. Something has to change.
I took my own advice and set up a meeting with the dean of the business school of the local college, Winthrop University, to talk about these concerns. BNA has had a great relationship with Winthrop over the years; we’ve always thought it important to have a strong bond with the local college so that we have access to their best students. More than half of our team members have come from Winthrop; like most universities, however, its curriculum is outdated and impractical for most modern CPA firms. We are getting smart, willing young people who want to work, but we still have to train them in how to do accounting and tax in the 21st century.
In a perfect world, Winthrop—and all universities—would teach a more modern approach to accounting, integrating technology into teaching and incorporating passing the CPA exam into the curriculum. That way, graduating students would have already passed the CPA exam and would be ready to start immediately and devote all their energy to their new jobs. Some schools, such as Clemson University, are already doing this (http://bit.ly/2Hioa5j).
The meeting with the dean went very well. He said that it was going to be difficult to change the curriculum overnight (his exact quote was, “academics moves slowly”), but suggested that the firm provide a scholarship for students to help take the exam, as taking the necessary review course and paying for the exam are quite expensive. I thought about this, and took the idea one step further by setting up a “BNA Scholar” program for one to two students per year. The program will combine an internship and a scholarship, with the ultimate goal of enabling the students to pass the CPA exam before they graduate from college and receive a full-time job offer from the firm.
To qualify as a BNA scholar, students must want to have an internship and want to become CPAs. During the fall semester, the firm will interview students who are interested; the students selected will receive an internship for the following semester, during tax season. The students will be paid like normal interns; after the internship, if both the firm and the students want to continue, they will receive additional scholarships in the amount of $10,000 per student per year to help pay for CPA exam fees, CPA exam review courses, and college as a whole. In return, the students must agree to pass the CPA exam before graduating and to work for BNA for three years postgraduation.
As far as I know, we are the only CPA firm in the country offering a program like this; however, our goal is to get other local CPA firms to commit to doing the same thing, so that all CPA-track accounting students at Winthrop can have a firm sponsor. This will ultimately attract better CPA talent to Winthrop, the Rock Hill, S.C. area, and our firm.
During the program’s first semester, in the fall of 2019, I went to the Winthrop campus and interviewed approximately 75 students who were interested in the taking the CPA exam. Of those students, approximately 15 applied for the scholarship. We ended up interviewing six of them and employing three students for the 2020 tax season. (We added one because they were all so good, we couldn’t pass on any of them.) They have been working since January and have been doing a fantastic job so far. Our ultimate goal is to make them all BNA Scholars, should they decide they want that.
I really hope that this idea spreads around the country and the profession, because it’s ultimately up to CPA firms to train and mentor the next generation of CPAs. We can’t rely on universities, the AICPA, or state societies to do this, because they move too slowly. If anything is going to change in accounting education, it’s going to have to come from practitioners. I will report back on how this program goes over time, and I hope to hear from other firms that are trying to launch similar programs.