2024 CPA Exam Evolution : Interview with Michael Decker, AICPA’s VP of CPA Examinations

2024 CPA Exam Evolution Interview

UWorld Roger CPA Review is updating its review materials in preparation for the 2024 CPA Exam Evolution (Exam), and in the process also looking into the heart of the changes – why is the CPA Exam changing? How will this benefit the profession? What do the candidates really need to know?

According to Michael Decker, Vice President CPA Examination and Pipeline at the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), the CPA Exam is changing because the profession is changing. To remain relevant and useful, the Exam must assess knowledge and skills, including problem-solving and considering the impact of technology on how staff work. At the same time, the Exam must focus on what is critical knowledge and skills, removing less significant items. (CPA joke: the Exam should focus only on “material” material.) It is important for today’s CPA to understand business and accounting and to remain the trusted advisor. Becoming a CPA is not a destination; it is a journey of growing, learning, and adapting with the profession, and the updated Exam is the entry-point for candidates on that journey.

UWorld: Will you please tell us about your role at AICPA?

Michael Decker: I was brought on in December 2008 to bring the psychometricians, the technologists, and the content folks together into a cohesive team. AICPA had one Exam, one mission, and one vision – to make the best Exam that we could make, to provide the Boards of Accountancy the assurance they require that candidates passing the Exam have the knowledge and skills to protect the public, relevant to the profession and at the same time, making the Exam clear, fair, and user-friendly to candidates. We all had to succeed for the Exam to succeed. I think the CPA is a spectacular profession; we never have a problem getting volunteers or support. I love the fact that when you are a CPA, you are in the club. It does not matter what school you went to or if you work for the Big 4 or a smaller or medium-sized firm, you are in. There is an immediate mutual respect.

UWorld: How would you describe the 2024 Exam changes and what are they intended to do?

MD: The number one shift is added flexibility for the candidate. The Core plus Discipline model allows candidates to prove competency in the Core areas, the foundational knowledge every CPA needs to know, and provides candidates flexibility to show competency in one of the Disciplines. We realize that CPAs do different things in the profession. The Core will change as standards change but having the Disciplines allows for future flexibility long term.

UWorld: How will the new CPA Exam benefit the candidates?

MD: We have always struggled with taking content out of the Exam, but we cannot just keep adding and adding content. We are looking at the Core content for topics to make sure it is the critical, foundational content candidates need to know to work in today’s profession. The Disciplines give us flexibility to move some content from the Core which may be more complex, less recurring in nature and not critical for everyone to know. This should reduce some of the content pressure on the Exam and allow students to demonstrate knowledge in the Discipline of their choice.

UWorld: Who is the ideal CPA candidate?

MD: We have completed a lot of research on this. You do not necessarily have to be an accounting major. A strong core education in accounting, finance, and business combined with technology, data analytics, controls, information systems and / or security would provide a solid foundation for becoming a CPA. If you are going to graduate in accounting or finance and you want a career in business, you should get the CPA. Accounting continues to be the language of business and the CPA demonstrates that you have a strong foundation in understanding business. Additionally, students realize that if they pursue their CPA, they will be able to get a job. There is a war for talent. The CPA distinguishes students in their career and job search. Their first job could be with a Big Four firm, but it does not have to be: It could be with any firm, business, or not-for-profit entity. It might be their destination job, but more likely, it will be the start of an exciting career as they navigate multiple opportunities facilitated by their CPA and related job experience.

UWorld: Many people feel that obtaining a CPA license is no longer necessary to be successful. How does the evolution of the CPA Exam address this?

MD: I think that today’s generation thinks differently about what they want, how they view themselves, and where there is potential for a return. Many need to repay student loans, and they are focused on the near term. Having a CPA license is much like having a college education – no one can ever take it away from you. You have proven yourself, you are licensed, and you are regulated. You hold that license as a badge of honor and responsibility. The profession provides opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment, doing work that is critical and purposeful to society. The CPA Evolution provides candidates the flexibility to choose a discipline that is more conducive to their internship or interests, which should better link to their near-term view. 

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UWorld: Is the value of a CPA license changing? Has it already changed?

MD: I think the CPA license has become more valuable, but the challenge is that some think it is not necessary. Students finishing school have a solid education in accounting, finance, business, systems, data, and technology. They can do consulting, they can work in accounting, they can go work anywhere and think they do not need a CPA because they are not going to work as an auditor. But the value is there and will provide a long-term return. Studies have shown that a CPA license is incrementally worth a million dollars or more over a lifetime. In the near term, candidates obtaining their CPA will have outstanding personal growth experiences in learning about multiple businesses and increasing their business acumen as they become trusted advisors to business owners. There are opportunities for CPAs to become owners of smaller firms and partners at larger firms. Alternatively, CPAs could leave public accounting for opportunities in business and industry. The CPA will distinguish them and fast-track their new career.

UWorld: If a candidate does not want to work in public accounting, why should they consider becoming a CPA?

MD: If you want to go on to be a controller or CFO or move up the management side of a business, you need to understand how businesses operate. CPAs understand information systems, business processes, financial statements and metrics, and what makes a business work (or not). To anyone you work with – customers, consultants, tax advisors, and business partners – seeing your CPA license, they will know that you are a knowledgeable and challenging professional. The benefit is still there.

Even now, there are so many options for a CPA – international, smaller or medium-sized firms, Big Four, the partner route. There are so many smaller firms that are struggling with succession planning. Baby boomers are retiring with well-established practices and there is no one to take over their businesses. If you want to be an entrepreneur or want to own your own business, go be a CPA. Connect with someone who has a practice and in a few years, you could be the owner. The CPA is not a destination, but it is more of a journey. It opens the door. A lot of CPAs are now in technology, developing tools and conducting business analysis, or forensics, or cyber, or financial planning. You can do whatever you want, it does not even have to be accounting. The fact that you have that license proves your knowledge to the world. As a CPA, you have passed a rigorous Exam, you have a strong education, you follow an ethical code of conduct, and you take CPE every year. Who would not want to hire you? That is why I think it is such a great profession.

UWorld: What advice do you have for candidates who are uncomfortable testing early in 2024 and potentially feeling like “guinea pigs” for the new Core and Discipline model?

MD: I think the fear comes from not knowing what will be on the Exam or feeling inadequately prepared. I understand that and think it is human nature to trust what I think I know versus what I am not sure I know. If a candidate is working in a certain area, maybe as an intern or as an accountant, they could use that expertise to select a Discipline instead of taking the current BEC section. I do not think they need to fear the new Disciplines. Instead of listening to the fear, they should rely on their brain. What do they know? Where are they strongest? And that is the path they take. Candidates should appreciate that one of our objectives with the Exam is to make sure it is fair to candidates. We focus on what entry-level CPAs are working on to design the Exam.

Recently, we are seeing slightly increasing pass rates. There are fewer candidates in the pipeline, but they are stronger and more committed. There is also a perspective that some of the more intense content in the Core sections will be shifted into the Disciplines, so the performance on the Core could increase.

UWorld: What do you see for the future of the CPA profession as a whole?

MD: Firms are in a war for talent. Everyone is in a war for talent. They are trying to get anyone who wants to work and is willing to commit some time to grow. Both CPAs and non-CPAs are affected, so how does the CPA flourish if it is a component of the overall war for talent? Corporations will continue to need audited financial statements, individuals and companies will continue to need bank loans to grow a business, and organizations will continue to need someone to figure out the tax implications. You are always going to need somebody to help you, and the CPA will always be that person. The CPA is not going away, it continues to evolve. How flexible and adaptive can we be? Can we shift fast enough? It is exciting and valuable, and I hope we can adapt fast enough to be responsive to the profession and to businesses. The 2024 CPA Evolution aligned Exam is a start.

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