According to the AICPA’s 2023 Trends Report and identified in more recent articles in The CPA Journal, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Bloomberg, bachelor’s degree completions in accounting have declined annually since the 2015/16 academic year (AICPA, 2023 Trends Reporthttps://www.nysscpa.org/2023-trends). The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded has fallen 17% over that time, from 56,715 degrees in 2015/16 to 47,067 in the most recent academic reporting year, 2021/22. Over that same period, master’s degrees in accounting have declined 21.2% (from 23,139 down to 18,238). More recently, hard data on the reasons for such declines has been found by the Center for Audit Quality (CAQ, “Increasing Diversity in the Accounting Profession Pipeline,” July 2023, https://tinyurl.com/j4v4unwb). Among the top reasons keeping students away from majoring in accounting are the following: lack of passion for the topic, the 150-hour requirement for CPA licensure, and low starting salaries for entry-level accounting professionals. Fewer accounting students leads to fewer CPA exam candidates (which have also fallen annually since 2016, according to the AICPA Trends Report) which leads to fewer CPAs. Fewer CPAs leads to fewer auditors and tax accountants.

Addressing the Decline

Fortunately, the CAQ study provides a roadmap for addressing the declines by increasing passion and interest, eliminating the 150-hour barrier, and increasing salaries to match other business fields. Although the CAQ study is one of the first studies to directly tie the 150-hour barrier to the enrollment crisis in accounting programs, many other voices in the profession have been calling for the removal of the 150-hour rule for quite some time. Two recent articles in The CPA Journal (“An Update on the Future of Accounting Education: A Pessimistic Outlook Calls for Major Changes, Dawkins and Dugan 2022; “The Future of Accounting Education: In-Demand Skills, Workplace Readiness, the 150-Hour Requirement, MAcc Programs, and the CPA Exam,” Dawkins, Dugan, Mezzio, Trapnell, 2020) have called for its removal. This stance has been echoed by Guylaine Saint Juste, NABA CEO; Daniel Hood, Accounting Today editor-in-chief; the Minnesota State Society of CPAs; Liz Kolar, EVP of Surgent Accounting and Financial Education; and many other influential leaders and organizations in the profession.

The 150-hour requirement is a considerable barrier for students wanting to become a CPA or considering accounting as a major, even if it is not the dominant barrier. Recent surveys by the CAQ and Illinois CPA Society have identified starting salaries, work environment (e.g., hours), and quality of work performed as leading barriers. The requirement of an additional 30 credits over a standard bachelor’s degree, adds, even at an in-state public university, an average of $27,940 in costs (College Board 2022 Trends in College Pricing), frequently funded through more student loans. This is in addition to the opportunity cost of $59,000 (Robert Half 2023 Salary Guide) that accounting students must bear to forego a salary for an additional year while their fellow students with other business degrees can begin working full-time; this cost further grows if the credits are earned in a graduate program. The challenges created by the 150-hour rule are most heavily borne by minority students. Saint Juste wrote in a recent Fortune article that this cost further worsens the racial inequities in the profession, as Black students have lower wealth, higher student debt balances, and are more likely to have a full-time job or family caretaking responsibilities (“Why the CPA Qualification’s 150-Hour College Credit Rule Is Outdated–and Inequitable,” Jul. 14, 2023, https://tinyurl.com/3br69z4x). These factors only increase the opportunity costs of the extra 30 credits—keeping many Black students out of the profession all together.

The AICPA and NASBA have responded to the challenges created by the 150-hour rule by jointly partnering with Tulane University to offer an additional 30 “credits” to CPA aspirants via an initiative called the Experience, Learn, and Earn (ELE) program. The ELE program (see Exhibit 1), set for a January 2024 launch, will attract sponsoring firms who have staff that have earned a standard undergraduate accounting degree with 120 hours but not the additional 30 hours required for licensure (see https://tinyurl.com/5fun2ns9). The courses are online, self-study, non-degree earning, and to be completed while working at the firm as an associate. Notedly, the courses will also not qualify for the core accounting credits necessary for licensure and will only serve to bridge the gap between an undergraduate accounting education and the extra 30 credit hours needed to become a CPA. If the initiative was aimed at growing the pipeline, targeting candidates who obtained 120 hours in another field of study would have been a key group worthy of such an initiative. It would present a way to get nontraditional CPA candidates the requisite accounting credits to become CPA eligible. Instead, the initiative will explicitly scope out these candidates and compete directly with colleges and universities for traditional candidates.

Exhibit 1

Summary of the AICPA/NASBA–Tulane ELE (Experience, Learn, and Earn) Program

▪ Credits: Up to 30 credits are available. Credits will not count towards a degree (i.e., no graduate degree can be earned) and will not count towards the minimum accounting credits requirement to sit for the CPA exam. Essentially, ELE is for students with a bachelor's in accounting or another bachelor's degree with the core accounting classes taken at a college/university. ▪ Cost: Approximately $5,000 for the full 30 credits. ▪ Modality: Credits are earned online and asynchronously through the NASBA and AICPA partnership with Tulane University via their school of professional advancement (other partner schools may be added in the future). ▪ Applicant Job Status: Students enrolled in the program will be working full-time at a sponsor public accounting firm. Interns do not appear eligible. Employees at nonsponsoring firms or in private industry do not appear eligible. Source: https://tinyurl.com/5fun2ns9

The ELE initiative will likely come at a cost cheaper than a master’s degree and competitive with, if not cheaper than, undergraduate tuition costs at a public institution. The AICPA and NASBA currently estimate that 30 credits will cost students $5,000. Anything that lowers costs for students in a time of tuition increases that have grown at multiple times the rate of inflation and student debt balances that have continued to balloon should be applauded. But this is treating the symptoms of the worsening tuition and debt cycle, not the underlying cause.

Despite offering an additional pathway to reach 150 hours, the author believes this pilot program initiative is an unwanted solution that will harm universities and students alike and worsen the declines in higher education accounting programs. Instead of directly addressing a root cause of declining enrollments—the 150-hour barrier—the AICPA/NASBA pilot offers merely another way to achieve the additional 30 credits required for licensure. If the sponsoring organizations were committed to addressing the root cause of the pipeline decline, they would support alternative pathways to licensure that don’t require an 30 additional credits. In short, the ELE program gives students a cheaper, but still costly, avenue to achieve the additional 30 credits they need to become a licensed CPA. Unfortunately, it affords no long-term benefits of a degree, requires candidates to work at a sponsoring firm, worsens work-life balance by having the credits earned during full-time employment, and keeps the 150-hour rule in place, all while still posing a financial barrier rather removing one.

Historically, students seeking 150 credit hours would benefit from a double major (giving them double career opportunities) or a master’s in accounting that deepened their knowledge and further built their resume. Within the past year, these opportunities have expanded to include a pilot program with Saint Peter’s University in New Jersey, supported by AICPA/NASBA, where students can earn their additional 30 credit hours strictly via internship credits—essentially, students pay to work instead of just getting paid while they work. Now, the AICPA/NASBA program goes a step further by offering candidates who already have 120 credit hours the opportunity to join their pilot program with Tulane University to achieve the last 30 credits while they work. The difference is that no new major is obtained and no new degree is earned: It is merely 30 credits to satisfy the 150-hour requirement. And it still costs students money.

Undoubtedly, this will continue to put downward pressure on master’s degree completions. The 150-hour rule leads to less collegiate accounting undergraduate students and therefore less undergraduate accounting degrees—that is clear in the AICPA’s 2023 Trends Survey, coupled with the 2023 CAQ Survey. Now, collegiate accounting programs will get squeezed at the master’s level too. The result will be even fewer accounting students at all levels.

Still Seeking a Win-Win

The AICPA/NASBA have created a zero-sum game. The ELE’s gains are higher education’s losses. There was a way all of the profession’s stakeholders could have won. The AICPA/NASBA could have supported a Minnesota-type proposal that allowed multiple pathways to licensure to include 150 hours, 120 hours, and an increased experience requirement (two years or three years, up from the standard single-year requirement), or some combination of the two. For example, rather than promoting 30 internship “credits” that forces a student to pay out of pocket to work, why not allow one full year of actual full-time employment to count towards licen-sure without the need for credits? Are students who already completed a BBA likely to be better CPAs because they had to pay for supervised internship credits or ELE credits, as opposed to doing similar work while employed at a firm, supervised by a CPA? At first glance, the answer appears to be no. At least if alternative pathways were offered, it is possible the issues identified by the CAQ would be improved and colleges and universities would at least see an increase in undergraduate enrollments and the pipeline could rebound from the downward trajectory it has been on since 2015/16. The ELE initiative will keep the depressed undergraduate enrollment status quo while harming master’s enrollments. In the author’s view, this is a solution to a different problem.

The 150-hour requirement remains, but colleges and universities are even worse off than they were before the ELE initiative was announced; they now have a direct competitor for former degree-seeking students in the form of the AICPA/NASBA. Accounting programs will see further declines in their master’s enrollments. Students will continue to bear the costs of additional credits without a degree to show for it. Firms will continue to struggle to attract staff as fewer students will fill the pipeline. But cynics will argue that the AICPA/NASBA will have found a new potential membership stream.

Colleges and universities will lose revenue as a result. This looks to be a zero-sum game where the sponsoring organizations that set the rules for licensure and compliance are the winners. Their continued support for the 150-hour requirement seems much more conflicted in this light. Instead of being partners in the profession and working to grow the pipeline, the AICPA and NASBA have decided to compete head-on with colleges and universities for a shrinking pool of undergraduate degree holders.

It didn’t have to be this way. We all could have won. We could have grown the pipeline by offering a pathway for non-traditional candidates to get their core accounting credits and lowered the barrier for traditional accounting students and increased undergraduate enrollments in accounting. Now, only the AICPA and NASBA will win. Colleges, students, and firms will lose. All the while, the pipeline will continue to decline.

John “Jack” Castonguay, PhD, CPA (Va.), is an assistant professor of accounting at Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y., and vice president of strategic content development at KnowFully Learning Group.