I am writing to you in response to your question “Is it too difficult to become a CPA?” »
The answer is yes, yes, many times yes. I am in the process of getting my CPA license. I passed the last part of the CPA exam last May. I passed all four sections on my first try, with three marks above 90. Although I have over a year of experience in public accountancy, I will not be able to obtain my license until next year in due to Oregon’s licensing process.
When I started studying for the CPA exam, I had over 10 years of private accounting experience in a variety of settings, including software, education, and manufacturing, but had never worked in public accounting. However, at every step of this CPA journey, I struggled with the thought, “I’m not cut out to be a CPA, this profession is not for me, they don’t want me.” There were so many hurdles, including financial, logistical and unnecessarily bureaucratic. Even now, I’m not 100% sure I’ll get a license, because almost every step of the way there was a “gotcha” moment that set me back. While I understand the need for a high bar for CPAs, many of the hurdles we’re supposed to jump through are unnecessarily complicated and seem downright petty, like a fraternity hazing process. Several times over the past year, I’ve thought to myself, “It really doesn’t seem like they (the AICPA, the state accounting boards) want people to become CPAs. I have heard this feeling repeated over and over by other people going through the same process.
The only reason I challenged myself to become a CPA is because I don’t have an accounting degree and I’ve come to the conclusion that a CPA designation would be the best way for me to open doors in my career. I graduated with a BA in Liberal Arts in 2001 and eventually found out that I’m really good at accounting and love it. If I had a bachelor’s degree in accounting or an advanced degree in business or accounting, I probably wouldn’t care. I am not alone in these feelings. Along the way, I’ve met many talented, hardworking, and knowledgeable accounting professionals who see no point in going through the grueling process of getting certified. Some already have good, well-paying jobs and have no interest in working in public accounting, which is almost de facto required due to the experience requirement. Some are recent college graduates, have trouble adjusting to full-time work, and are just too tired to prepare for the exam while working 50-60 hours in public accounting. Some are people (mainly women) with family and care obligations who don’t have time to prepare for four four-hour tests. One of the most experienced and talented tax preparers at a firm I worked for did not have her CPA. The reason is that she has a child with special needs and she cannot work full time, take care of her child and prepare for the exam. The many demands of the process simply exclude many otherwise talented and qualified people from the profession, especially those from low-income backgrounds and underserved communities.
I think one of the problems with the licensing process as it stands now is that there is no one to advocate for applicants. People setting requirements at different levels don’t have to go through the entire process themselves and therefore don’t know how the many requirements and fees add up to discourage potential applicants. All of the different steps sound reasonable on paper, but collectively they’re a much more onerous process than expected. Part of this problem is the varying requirements of all the different state boards. It’s not uncommon for an applicant to start the process in one state and end up working and getting a license in another, so you’ll think you’re done, only to have another requirement thrown at you.
For example, I took my required accounting courses in California and tailored my course choices to that state’s requirements for taking the exam. But then I moved to Washington, I wasn’t qualified to take the exam in Washington, so I sat in California. Now I still live in Washington, but I work remotely for an Oregon company, so I’m looking to get licensed in Oregon. I think I’ve met Oregon’s educational requirements (but I won’t know until I submit my application, as the requirements are vague), but now I have to write a 10+ essay pages giving detailed examples showing that I have all the skills required to obtain the license to practice and have each of the examples approved by the supervisor at the time. With over 10 years of accounting experience, I have examples, but the thought of tracking down the supervisors I worked for years ago is daunting to say the least. The easiest way is to just wait for examples from my current employer in Oregon, which may take a while. When I worked for a DC company and was looking to obtain a DC license, I contemplated having to take several additional business courses, which would entail even more time and expense. Also, it takes an unreasonable amount of time to wade through the innards of state councils’ often poorly designed websites, trying to find their specific requirements and processes. The language is often vague and unnecessary, so follow-up calls are often necessary, usually more than once while you try to find the one person who can answer your specific question. With a highly mobile workforce, greater standardization would be extremely helpful.
The whole process is so frustrating that the other day I was tempted to apply for an assistant controller position in the private sector that didn’t require a CPA for which I was highly qualified. It paid as much (if not more) than what I earn now, and I could be done with all this nonsense bureaucracy. But I realize that at this point I’m so close that it would be really silly to walk away. However, the fact that someone is strongly tempted to walk away so close to the end should tell you how frustrating and difficult this process is.
Since I started the process to take the exams, I have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars pursuing this goal. And that doesn’t even include the time and expense needed to meet educational requirements. It’s a very expensive process, both in terms of time and money, and many people simply don’t have the resources to devote to it. Or people start the process and life gets in their way – sickness, family obligations, work commitments, etc., especially when you can make a lot of money without the credentials. I took a substantial pay cut last year to work in public accountancy to meet the experience requirement – significant enough to qualify for the earned income tax credit! I worked harder and longer than I had in a long, long time and had to withdraw money from my savings just to make ends meet. I really, really hope this degree is worth all the sacrifices I’ve made. But it’s an exhausting and bureaucratic nightmare of a process. Almost every mother I know, myself included, would rather give birth again, maybe even more than once.
Some ways to make the process more bearable would be to standardize the process and requirements across states, encourage employers (and help small employers) to provide paid time off to study and take exams, and find a way to help candidates financially with the cost of exam preparation fees and materials. Another idea would be to eliminate or modify the requirement that all four sections must be adopted within 18 months. I know candidates who passed one or two sections and then had to take a break due to health or family issues beyond their control. When they realized they would have to start over, they just decided it wasn’t worth it.