Over the past year and a half, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has affected all sectors of the global economy and society. The impact has perhaps been most acute in the educational sector, which quickly had to adapt to remote learning and testing. The following article answers 20 questions about how students, universities, and employers have addressed the challenges presented by COVID-19.
1. What Is New York’s Perspective on Pass/Fail Grading?
The acceptance of the pass/fail grading option in light of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was widely discussed, beginning with the Spring 2020 semester. The New York State Education Department (NYSED) guidelines provided the acceptance of a pass/fail option for undergraduate or graduate level courses for the Summer 2020, Fall 2020, and Spring 2021 semesters. In many cases, students were able to receive a grade for the semester and then determine if they preferred to utilize the pass/fail option or retain the grade assigned. Because many universities adopted a pass/fail option for the Spring 2020, Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters, it is imperative to consider the implications that this has had on accounting majors. Accounting licensing authorities determine which grading systems will be accepted to establish eligibility for candidates to sit for the state licensing exams. For example, the New York State Board for Public Accountancy has accepted pass/fail grades from regionally accredited colleges and universities.
2. Has COVID-19 Impacted CPA Exam Pass Rates?
It is natural that CPA exam pass rates would be of concern during the pandemic. In the second and third quarters of 2020, however, the success rate for the CPA exam surpassed previous years. Interestingly, the results may indicate that candidates have had more time available to prepare on account of the national shutdown. The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) supported extending the testing windows for individuals sitting for the CPA exam to replace continuous testing, due to the closing of testing centers. This was a major change, as candidates were required to reschedule their exams without being restricted by the testing window. As a result, fewer candidates were able to sit for the exam. Potentially, there may be an impact on the 2021 CPA exam, as candidates preparing for this exam would have done so directly in the midst of the pandemic.
3. How Has the CPA Exam Been Administered During the Pandemic?
Social distancing and related building density guidelines had made it impracticable to administer licensing exams on-site in group settings. The test administrator, Prometric, had been unable to open its centers for exam administration in areas in which local authorities required nonessential businesses and services to close. The inability for candidates in many areas to take the CPA exam will inevitably impact the number of CPA licenses granted in 2020–2021. On a related note, the New York Bar Exam was administered remotely for the late-2020, February 2021, and July 2021 exams.
4. Is There an Extension of Time for CPA Candidates to Earn Exam Credit?
The Board of Regents of New York State had promulgated an emergency regulation that allowed the New York State Education Department (NYSED) to accept passing CPA exam scores that are outside the 18-month exam requirement if the examinations could not be completed in the required period. In response to the closure of testing centers, the New York State Board for Public Accountancy recommended to NYSED that those New York jurisdiction CPA candidates whose exam credit expired from April 1, 2020 through March 31, 2021 be granted an extension until June 30, 2021 for those applicable exam sections that candidates still need to take. This extension was granted automatically and did not require any action on the part of candidates.
5. Which Factors Could Impact Future CPA Exams?
There are several factors that have potentially impacted CPA exams in 2021. First, there is widespread concern about the number of applicants who will sit for the CPA exam. With the changes that have emphasized testing in data analytics and business process areas along with the decrease in college enrollment, this has ultimately impacted when students sat for the exam. In addition, due to the difficulties many individuals had faced with work-life balance due to COVID-19 in the past and current year, individuals may not have had the time to dedicate in preparing to take the exam. Students also may have been unable to complete their 150 educational credits, which could impact eligibility due to potential lack of funding and other implications of the pandemic. Also, those who are already scheduled to take the 2021 exam may have had to alter their studying as a result of changes in their everyday lives while adjusting to new learning styles resulting from challenges they had not dealt with prior to the pandemic.
6. How Are CPA Licensing Authorities Adapting Continuing Professional Education?
State boards of accountancy were tasked with adapting to the pandemic and allowing CPAs to meet CPE requirements. Some states, such as New York, had restricted continuing professional education requirements to a certain percentage of self-study options. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, states extended CPE deadlines, conditional renewals, and waiver options. New York State has allowed for licensees to complete 100% of continuing education requirements via self-study. These requirements include self-study options that are offered to licensees from an approved provider. This includes licensees whose registrations that are due to renew between March 1, 2020, and January 1, 2022.
7. How Has the AACSB Responded?
The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the leading business accreditation body worldwide, established an incident response team to guide its operations throughout the world. The AACSB developed a plan in response to COVID-19 to provide universities with the necessary resources to adapt to the pandemic environment. The AACSB offered online seminars and conferences to enhance learning as well as guidance to business schools to maintain academic standards during the pandemic.
8. How Has COVID-19 Impacted Accreditation Standards?
The AACSB’s guidance has been imperative during this time, as they ensure that business and accounting programs maintain the highest level of academic quality. During the pandemic, the AACSB has continued to maintain the quality of programs by providing methods of addressing the crisis. Business schools must submit information on the pandemic and implications this has had on the college, including the following guidelines that are required for improvement reviews during 2020–2021:
- Describe the impact of COVID-19 on the school to date (e.g., enrollment, finances, faculty and staff hiring, instructional delivery, assurance of learning);
- Describe actions taken by the school to address current challenges related to COVID-19;
- Explain how the school is supporting students and faculty;
- Describe whether COVID-19 has impacted the school’s ability to align with accreditation standards (AACSB FAQ, 2020, https://www.aacsb.edu/accreditation/resources/frequently-asked-questions).
This results in business and accounting programs maintaining high-quality standards for students in order to prepare them because of the pandemic.
9. How Has the Landscape of Accounting Education Been Changing?
Hybrid course delivery has become more common. As with online courses that a student can view at any time, the faculty teaching hybrid courses can post video lectures that students can watch more than once. Furthermore, in both hybrid and online courses, faculty can easily incorporate interesting Internet content from experts. Unlike online courses, hybrid courses still preserve the opportunities for in-person faculty-student and student-student interactions as a live presentation for those students enrolled at given weekly class times. In the authors’ view, hybrid courses offer the best of both the face-to-face and virtual learning environments.
Because well-designed hybrid courses can give students the best of both online and in-person learning modalities, students should perform better. Now that faculty have become more comfortable and effective at teaching in hybrid and online formats, there will be less demand for—and frankly less value in—teaching as many traditional face-to-face classes that existed before the pandemic. With improved learning outcomes and enhanced faculty effectiveness, hybrid course delivery could eventually become the new norm.
10. How Have Colleges Been Administering Tests?
Testing during the pandemic was altered due to the change in the learning environment. Colleges administered virtual testing through different approaches, which has ultimately required a learning reassessment. Various processes have been implemented to ensure the quality of exams, including the use of software to prevent cheating during virtual exams. However, many institutions have adopted teaching styles which indicate, in the authors’ opinion, that the traditional exam format may become somewhat outdated. This includes open book exams in which students are tasked with proving they are able solve problems rather than memorize material. This approach changes the college’s evaluation by facilitating problem solving and researching rather than memorization.
11. How Can Educators Leverage Technology as Part of Course Curricula?
Proctoring software has significantly reduced the number of individuals needed to administer exams. The academic online platform Blackboard offers its own proctoring system. Respondus Software allows faculty to administer exams electronically with features that enhance testing security such as random question ordering and electronic proctoring. Textbook publishers are also offering support to faculty who have been teaching remotely.
12. How Have Colleges Maintained Academic Integrity during COVID-19?
Higher education institutions have invested in anti-fraud software to support the integrity of exams that take place on students’ computers. Many institutions selected software applications, such as LockDown Browser by Respondus, that integrate with their existing systems. LockDown Browser, for example, deters cheating by recording a student’s activities via the computer’s audio and webcam during the exam administration. The program also prevents students from accessing other applications or browsers, printing, copying, and pasting. Students cannot exit the LockDown Browser until the student submits the exam for grading. The program then identifies suspicious behavior and compiles it in a report. Many institutions also utilize SafeAssign, a plagiarism detection software.
An institution’s honor code has also come into play. Some schools (or individual faculty at their discretion) have remote exams open book in order to reduce the temptation to cheat on quizzes or exams. However, if cheating or other suspicious activity is detected, then students can be held accountable for any violations of the honor code.
13. Which Strategies Have Colleges Adopted to Maintain Student Engagement?
Student engagement is a top priority of colleges. In response to the pandemic and the transition to virtual learning, colleges faced the difficult task of maintaining student engagement from a distance. Although many students are familiar with technology from growing up in the digital age, the transition to online learning has not been an easy one. Frustration among students with a lack of human interaction due to virtual learning is a major concern with online courses and not the hybrid ones. In addition, the skills necessary to conduct business engagements must be nurtured in the educational environment to prepare students for the marketplace. With faculty learning to adapt their lessons to the online environment, student engagement must be set as a priority for students to graduate with the skills necessary to be successful in a global business environment. This includes colleges facilitating communication and collaboration in the virtual classroom.
14. Which Changes Have Occurred in Campus Recruitment, Retention, and Job Placement?
The COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult for higher education institutions to conduct recruitment through traditional methods. In order to comply with social distancing guidelines, much of student recruitment had been conducted virtually. Virtual recruitment events do not provide students with the opportunity to visit and evaluate an institution’s physical campus, which may delay students’ decisions. Students who have been unable to visit college campuses and make informed decisions regarding their education may treat 2020–2021 as gap years.
15. How Can Colleges Continue to Foster Experiential Learning?
It is essential that colleges continue to incorporate experiential learning in the virtual learning curriculum. Considering the online platform that many colleges and accounting employers have been relying upon, it is important for colleges to adapt their teaching style to meet the needs of accounting employers. This has typically meant internship experiences, but there were concerns about the loss of these programs because of the pandemic. Major accounting firms such as KPMG, Deloitte, BDO, and PricewaterhouseCoopers adapted by offering internships in an online format and working remotely to provide students with a competitive educational experience. The goal of these programs was for students to be well equipped when entering the workforce and conducting business remotely and globally.
16. How Has the Hiring Landscape Changed?
At the outset of the pandemic, many accounting firms were unsure about what their hiring needs would be due to the uncertain state of the economy and overall business landscape. As remote work became more prevalent, however, business across the country realized their need to continue hiring for accounting positions. In August 2020, the unemployment rate for accounting and finance positions was 5.7%, while the national unemployment rate was 8.4% across all employment sectors. Accounting firms also shifted their recruiting activities to include a greater virtual presence. Also this past August, online accounting and finance firms increased their online job postings by 10%. In addition to job postings, firms were interviewing, hiring, and onboarding new staff virtually. Virtual programs mimic the format and experience that had been presented to new employees, making these programs crucial to the success of new hires. Video chats have been used to welcome, onboard, and train new employees the way a human resources representative would normally do in person.
17. What Are the Post-Pandemic Implications for the Accounting Field?
Since COVID-19 pandemic has impacted work-life balance, educational experiences, and society, it will inevitably transform the accounting field. There are concerns about licensure issues, the number of accounting graduates, and collegiate enrollment. Many employers who have traditionally reimbursed tuition had to suspend this benefit due to the pandemic. This has negatively impacted the number of students enrolled and the number of accounting graduates in future years. Students at the graduate level, many of whom are studying to earn additional credits to meet CPA educational requirements, have also been most affected.
18. How Has the Pandemic Affected Universities’ Revenue Streams?
Many residential universities in the United States rely on nonacademic services (e.g., athletics, student housing, dining services) that have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. These nonacademic services often account for the overwhelming majority of universities’ operating revenues year-to-year. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), for example, canceled its 2020 basketball tournament and its other spring 2020 championships. As a result, the NCAA in 2020 was forced to reduce the amount of revenue that it distributes to its member schools by $375 million. Furthermore, low fan attendance and fundraising difficulties during the recession harmed university budgets to the point of challenging the feasibility for athletic departments to absorb the budgetary shortfalls on their own. In light of the importance of athletic programs to students, university branding, donors, and alumni, some institutions subsidized their athletic departments with contributions from their academic budget.
Universities often build new residence and dining halls in order to attract students interested in living on campus. These new facilities are usually financed through debt with the universities in turn making payments using residence and dining fees paid by students. These new facilities generally require high occupancy rates to meet these obligations; however, students had been reluctant to live on campus in light of the health risks associated with the pandemic, causing a reduction in residence and dining fees. This reduction in revenue combined with construction debt has had a cascading effect on budgets in departments throughout universities.
19. What Effect Will Reduced Departmental Budgets Have on Education?
Universities facing budget reductions have faced cutting academic conference traveling and publishing fees for faculty along with a reduction in college activities, use of facilities, and course offerings. This has altered the student experience and may ultimately delay students’ ability to graduate. Further, a reduction in course offerings has resulted in fewer accounting adjunct professors (noting many are CPA practitioners).
20. What Are Sources of Information on the Accounting Education Issues?
The following resources provide additional information about accounting education issues during the pandemic:
- Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business COVID-19 Response (https://www.aacsb.edu/covid-19)
- National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (http://www.nasba.org)
- New York State Education Department COVID-19 response (http://www.op.nysed.gov/COVID-19.html#)
- New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants COVID-19 response (https://www.nysscpa.org/covid19)
- Uniform CPA Examination: Blueprints—effective for exams after July 1, 2021 (https://bit.ly/34ib3fv).