The CPA of Tomorrow

Written on Nov 21, 2016

By Laura Hay, CPA, CAE

In 2016, an accomplished CPA likely finds that the competencies needed today differ from what they first envisioned as a student majoring in accounting. It’s a powerful shift in perception, recognizing the CPA’s role as the most trusted strategic advisors to business. That expectation gap in the requirements for the credential is one that the profession has worked hard to address in attracting and educating tomorrow’s CPAs.

The Uniform CPA Examination, one of the most respected and rigorous requirements to enter a profession, debuts an exciting new version in April 2017. The evolution of the exam provides a great opportunity to celebrate the value of CPA services that is being recognized and reinforced through this pathway to the profession.

Why now?
“The profession demanded it,” responds Michael Decker, AICPA's vice president-examinations. “More technology being leveraged at the entry level has raised the bar for skills needed by newly licensed CPAs. Application and analysis skills, interpretation, and working on more complex projects are now requirements to be the entry-level candidate employers want to hire.”

Decker leads the team of professionals who understand the science of building a professional examination to test for competencies that lead to this profession’s highest value of preserving the public trust.

“A key component of a professional licensure exam is to remain current and relevant,” Decker said. Each year, the blueprint and the outline of the CPA exam are reviewed, and updates are made in an iterative fashion as they occur for new professional standards.

The 2017 revision was informed by a comprehensive practice analysis, conducted between 2013-2016 with employers, regulators, educators and other stakeholders regarding the required knowledge and skills for the entry-level CPA.

“Comments received on the exposure draft of Uniform CPA Examination revisions were largely in favor of change,” noted Decker. Higher order skills, advanced communications, ethics, professional skepticism and data analysis were all skills identified as in-demand for newly-licensed CPAs. “Not just the facts, but interpretation of what they mean.”

How do you test for that?
Higher order skills of application, analysis and evaluation of problems by exercising judgment are to be tested in the 2017 exam, along with remembering and understanding. In addition to possessing professional and technical knowledge, CPAs will be expected to exercise critical thinking, problem solving and professional skepticism. The exam makes greater use of task-based simulations, including document review simulations, in which candidates reference examples of business documents and edit the text, to better simulate the type of tasks newly-licensed CPAs are asked to perform.

Total exam testing time will increase from 14 to 16 hours to provide for the increased use of simulations, with four hours for each section. The sections of the exam remain unchanged: Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) and Regulation (REG).

Is it harder?
“I’m not sure the CPA examination will be more difficult, if you measure difficulty by pass rates,” he said. “But the changes may result in passing a different population of candidates.” Candidates who are better at analyzing and applying knowledge, rather than just recall and understand will likely succeed.

So, how does a candidate prepare for this?
New content Blueprints replace the current Content Specification Outlines and Skill Specification Outlines to provide greater detail on what may be covered in the exam and link to sample tasks. “Review course providers are ready to instruct candidates about the format changes in the exam and have already prepared sample questions and tasks,” said Decker.

Can higher order skills be taught? Decker noted that the practice analysis highlighted that colleges and universities are already teaching to these requirements through the use of flipped classrooms, case studies and introducing real business documents such as annual reports and financial statements into the classroom.

“We’re preparing candidates by having our team of experts vet our entire question bank to ensure that we’re providing students with the means to practice these more complex Task-Based Simulations (TBSs,)” says Roger Philipp, CPA, CGMA, CEO of Roger CPA Review. “We also give them guidance within our textbooks and lecture on how to approach these problems. New course materials will be available in December, and students can choose which course materials they want to study based on when they plan to take each part of the exam, with access to both sets of materials.”

Philipp also recommends earlier exposure to the exam’s structure and content during the completion of an undergraduate accounting degree, and emphasizes the importance of employer support. “Forming a network of support, opportunity, and incentives will be crucial to help CPA Exam candidates pass the exam successfully and in a timely manner.”

What can we expect next?
Previously, major revisions in the Uniform CPA Examination occurred approximately every seven years. Due to technology and skills advancements, major updates are expected to occur more frequently, in two- to three- year windows.

What do these changes say about the profession?

• The public interest is protected when qualified individuals become CPAs.

• The work that CPAs provide has become increasingly complex, due to the pace of change in technology and regulation.
•Higher-order skills are not just in demand, but are a requirement to meet the CPA’s role in protecting the public interest.
•Ensuring that the CPA exam remains relevant prepares CPAs to meet that standard of trust.

“Having higher level CPAs who are trained to think more critically, analyze data from an evaluative standpoint, and have elevated knowledge of concepts to apply to job responsibilities, this next generation of CPAs will be critical to firms’ growth and efficiency of services, helping businesses to thrive,” said Philipp. “Because CPAs are trusted advisors at the forefront of financial integrity, we all play an important role in ensuring that the designation remains well-respected and prestigious. While we may not see the benefits immediately, it’s still exciting to know that a few years from now, we’ll be able to say that we were in the vanguard of these changes.”

Laura Hay, CPA, CAE, is executive vice president of The Ohio Society of CPAs and staff liaison to the Accounting & Auditing Committee. She can be reached at or 614.321.2241.

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