Educators Strive to Make Classes and the CPA Exam More Relevant

By Kathleen Hoffelder, NJCPA Content Editor – December 2, 2019
Educators Strive to Make Classes and the CPA Exam More Relevant

Accounting professionals, adjunct professors and full-time teachers —at both the high school and college levels — discussed the need for coursework and the CPA Exam to be more relevant to aspiring CPAs at the NJCPA Accounting Educators Workshop on Nov 8.

Topics centered on the best courses to take to meet the 150-hour requirement and what classes are more suitable for different career paths. Specializing in certain areas of study, such as technology, has proven to be useful. Similarly, using the credits to work towards obtaining a master’s degree, such as in tax, helps to get a leg up on the competition when starting a job. Some students, however, merely seek out the easiest way to obtain the credits. But clearly some courses are looked on more highly than others.

Educators noted that it is wise to take an extra data mining or computer science course as part of that requirement. They reminded the audience about the importance of recommending classes to students that can help them in the long term and not just fulfill the hours.  

That is particularly the case when factoring in the digital transformation that is occurring in the accounting profession today, noted Ralph Albert Thomas, CPA (DC), CGMA, CEO and executive director of the NJCPA. He said many academics ask the question, “will there be jobs for my students coming out?” Answering decidedly “yes,” he commented that those jobs may be different than what previous generations viewed as traditional jobs in accounting, which is why it’s important to have discussions about curriculum. Accounting executives, recruiters and others routinely discuss what impact digital transformation will have on the CPA profession and the CPA brand, he said.  

What’s Changing

Exam changes are keeping up with changes in the profession. Increased use of audit data analytics and incorporating a digital mindset is happening at all size accounting firms, said Richard Gallagher, CPA, senior director of examinations at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). After the AICPA brought in people from all sectors of the accounting industry to discuss changing the Exam in relation to data and analytics, he said they “had the bones for half a dozen small case studies coming out of that.” Exam changes related to this should be made sooner than some other changes, he added.

Robotic process automation (RPA) is another new development in accounting. According to Gallagher, students taking the Exam should have an “awareness” of what it is and how clients build RPA into their business processes. The same goes for cybersecurity and its importance to business operations. Test takers, will also need to have an understanding about machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), he noted. In the future, vendors, for example, may have to sign off that a program does what it is intended to do.

Blockchain, though, is much more “elusive,” he said, noting that clients will continue to build blockchains somewhere into their systems. The question, he noted, is “what do the newly licensed (CPAs) need to know about this?”

What’s Staying

Despite what changes may be on the horizon, the Exam will continue to focus on students’ basic understanding of where accounting fits in. “You need to be able to understand the business and this concept of systems. People need to understand how business processes work from the start to the finish. A sales order comes in, how does it get processed? Where does automation fit in?” asked Gallagher.  

“Do you understand the transactions? How they report? This stuff may be automated but if you don’t know the basics, you will be lost,” he said, noting that as much as automation is changing things, the basics are still key.  

Having a working knowledge of Excel, for example, is “absolutely essential,” according to Gallagher. “The challenge is how do you integrate using Excel throughout your courses… data analytics is good but being able to integrate it throughout coursework is the real thing.” He noted that students often take an Excel course early in their accounting curriculum and then don’t see it again until they are studying for the CPA Exam.

Software such as Tableau, for example, is not ever necessary on the Exam, he added. As he puts it, “there are just so many different tools. We’re trying to be tool agnostic. The one tool we have on the Exam is Excel.”

Despite the challenges of taking the CPA Exam, Tom Pedersen, CPA, a principal at WilkinGuttenplan and vice chair of the NJCPA Student Programs & Scholarship Committee, added that it’s important for academics as well as accounting professionals to keep students interested in the accounting profession so they want to continue down the path to becoming a CPA.

Kathleen  Hoffelder

Kathleen Hoffelder

Kathleen Hoffelder is the Senior Content Editor at the New Jersey Society of CPAs. She can be reached at

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