by Kimberly Scott, CAE
Identifying barriers can be a challenge. We are well conditioned to maintain the status quo if we personally do not see things as broken or cumbersome. We also tend to insert our own experiences, opinions, and biases in everything we do. It takes conscious thought and practice to notice a potential barrier and dissect it. It can be even more difficult to bring others along with you.
Barriers tend to be built into processes or systems, which leads us to assume they are unchangeable. Often, we do not even notice them at all. Other times, barriers are so obvious that they seem to pop right out and scream at us.
Consider the challenge of how to get more students into the pipeline to become CPAs. To solve this puzzle, we need to understand there are many barriers. Not everyone may be facing the same barriers, and certain barriers may feel unsurmountable to some candidates, yet nonexistent to others. There is no simple solution to removing these barriers, but the path to becoming a CPA would be significantly more accessible if the many changes, small and large, could be addressed. Here are a couple barrier-related items you may have heard or read about recently.
To follow up on an issue that I mentioned in the Winter 2023 issue of The Washington CPA, there is a lot of discussion right now in the profession about the 150-hours of education required to become a CPA. (Also, see related articles in the Spring issue of The Washington CPA on pages 8 and 20.) Many feel this requirement needs to be reviewed and changed, or at least, alternative paths should be created. It has been identified as a potential barrier to many. However, it seems that everyone discussing this also appreciates substantial equivalency and the mobility it allows in the profession. Due to the complexity of this, many alternatives and many arguments are arising. Expect to hear more about this soon.
18-month Exam Window
Another topic that has been identified as a barrier to some candidates is the requirement to pass all CPA exam sections within an 18-month window. If you were licensed prior to 2004, you had two opportunities per year to sit for the exam and had to take all four parts until you passed at least two. After that, you had 36 months to complete the final parts of the exam. After 2004, when the computerized exam was instituted, you could sit for one part at a time during four windows a year. Once you passed your first section, you had 18 months to finish the other three parts. As time progressed, the exam window was open almost year-round instead of quarterly. For a long time, we all thought of this as a win, as there were so many more opportunities to sit.
What we blatantly missed was that this change did not create more time in anyone’s life. Meaning, candidates still had to study, work, and schedule taking the exam. The burden of this short window was exposed during the pandemic. Most firms and organizations will state that they have staffing shortages, more work than before, and that deadlines run into each other with no break. When the pandemic hit, individuals were working, possibly getting ill or taking care of ill family members, or may have not been able to go to school as well. Priorities changed almost overnight.
During the last few years, it appears that about 1,000 exam candidates nationwide abandoned the exam process after passing three or four parts of the exam. Another 1,200 plus left after passing at least two parts. We can assume that many of these candidates timed out and decided not to reapply for time, which would have required them to pay for another exam section and to take more time to study and leave work.
Our board asked: Why is there a time limit? What does having a time limit do? Does it create a better CPA? If so, how? Does it protect the public? We also learned many other professions that require candidates to meet exam, education, and experience requirements have since dropped their time limits. This has led us to try to expand the time limit for taking the exam in our state. Expanding the window for candidates to complete the exam does not lower any standard, but doing so may be enough to remove a barrier for some amazing future CPAs to join the profession.
When I ask current CPAs about this challenge, some say they were able to meet the requirements and pass the exam, and even if doing so is tough, others can complete the process, too, if they are committed. Perhaps, but why?
As Sara Bailey mentions in her article on page 8, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) released an exposure draft of the Uniform Accountancy Act Rule 5-7 in mid-February with a due date to respond by April 17. The draft proposes expanding the window to 24 months. When I asked why the window would be only 24 months, NASBA did not provide data to support this choice. I was told that a time limit allows NASBA the opportunity to monitor and push candidates to complete the exam process.
Every state has the authority to set the exam window. It technically and legally has no relevance to substantial equivalency. Granted, there are states that may push back should a candidate, who hasn’t completed the exam within their specific window apply for a license in their state. The Washington State Board of Accountancy will discuss the window during its meeting on April 28. If you or your staff have been encumbered by this barrier, or you are passionate about helping eliminate this barrier, you may be interested in attending.
[Editor's Note: See NASBA Amends CPA Exam Model Window to 30 Months (April 24, 2023) for the latest developments on this issue.]
There are other barriers and when we identify them, we all need to work together to create real change. If you hear someone talk about an issue, pause, ask a few questions to uncover why the barrier exists. If you think it may be an issue worth discussing, let me know.
This article appears in the spring 2023 issue of the Washington CPA magazine. Read this article and others here.