Could work for credit programs fix the accounting pipeline?

An innovation collaboration between St. Peter’s University and PwC aims to deepen the talent pool.
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· 7 min read

The numbers are not great—a cruel irony since the numbers in question apply to accountants.

Accounting enrollments have dropped 16.9% between the 2012–2013 and 2021–2022 school years, according to a recent report from the Journal of Accountancy. The report also found that the amount of students who completed a bachelor’s degree in accounting dropped 7.8% last year compared to the previous school year.

“The pipeline is broken,” Kimberly Reeve, dean of the Guarini School of Business at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, New Jersey, told CFO Brew. “There is a crisis in the accounting industry where there are not enough accountants coming up through the ranks to take over for all the accounting practices that exist.”

St. Peter’s University is trying to change that. Alongside PwC, the university launched an innovative “work for credit” program, allowing students to earn the 30 additional credits needed to become CPA eligible through paid, full-time experience at PwC.

Often, those 30 extra hours are the final straw for would-be CPAs: In effect, CPAs need to attend college for five years. Some enroll in master’s programs to complete the requirements; others, of course, choose simply to not pursue the profession.

“Right now, there’s a lot of awareness that this is a challenge,” Rod Adams, talent acquisition and onboarding leader at PwC, told CFO Brew. But that’s a shame, he said, given how dynamic the field is becoming.

There’s “lots of job security, lots of career growth, available to those who decide to go down this path. It opens up a lot of doors to a lot of different things,” he added.

Joining forces. As cracks in the accounting pipeline became more and more evident in recent years, Lori Ann Buza, chair of the accountancy and business law department at St. Peter’s University, said faculty started putting everybody’s heads together to see how they could better prepare students “to not only sit for the CPA [exam], but to actually become a CPA.”

They talked about the importance of out-of-classroom learning. “As professionals, whether we’re lawyers or accountants or doctors, we learn on the job,” Buza told CFO Brew. “We felt that, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing to create courses via work experience, and have certain skills and objectives that would be met at work?’”

Along the way, the school “combined forces with PwC,” and hopped on many, many Zoom calls to throw out ideas, she added. It quickly became evident how mutually beneficial (and deeply necessary, given dips in enrollment) a work for credit program could be.

“From an entry-level recruiting perspective, recent grads are a big target for us,” Adams said, and as the firm noted dips in accounting enrollment, it caught PwC’s attention. Like St. Peter’s, the firm saw the value in creating “alternative ways to get to the hours required for the CPA exam,” he said, while also fostering on-the-job learning. “We both had similar objectives in mind,” he said of the collaboration.

And luckily, timing was on their side. In May 2022, the New Jersey State Board of Accountancy voted to approve an alternative path to licensure, allowing students to work for credit for their final credit hours.

“That was the key thing that needed to happen for the collaboration…to happen at all,” Adams noted.

How it works. With that go-ahead, they were ready to actually launch a pilot program the same year. To qualify, students need to meet certain coursework and GPA requirements, Buza explained. St. Peter’s informs PwC which students are eligible, “and then it’s up to PwC to make a selection as to who they may want to interview,” she said.

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The final decision is in PwC’s hands because these students will ultimately work for them. “They’re being hired by PwC as full-time associates, and concurrent with their first year of work, they’re earning credit,” Brigid D’Souza, assistant professor of accounting and business law at St. Peter’s University, told CFO Brew. There’s no difference between program participants and other first year associates, she continued, except “they happen to have also earned credit from St. Peter’s.”

As they got started, Adams noted that it was largely a matter of bucketing key skills: What do first-year tax professionals learn? How does that translate to specific, measurable skills? And on the flip side, how can those skills be quantified with credit hours? There’s a verification process between the university and the firm to confirm these skills have been met, but, crucially, “there is no classwork,” he explained.

St. Peter’s role from that point on is validating that the work experience is leading to “significant, objective outcomes,” D’Souza explained. “We’re saying, ‘Yes, this is real learning that’s happening on the job.’”

“In any situation where there’s work for credit, you always want to be sure that there’s advisement and guidance [given] to the students, and that they’re actually getting a variety of assignments and a variety of exposure,” Buza noted.

“Everybody has the same goal here,” she added—it’s “for the students to learn and grow to be the best possible associates and CPAs that they can be.”

The future of accounting. Though the program only launched in 2022, Buza notes that “many, many people” have already reached out to her about implementing similar programs at their schools. “It’s slowed down a little bit now, but I probably get an email a week,” she said.

Internally, though, St. Peter’s staff still acknowledges there’s room to better promote the program to their own students.

“As the program has evolved, I’ve noticed the need for continually improving the language and the messaging to students so that they understand the program,” D’Souza said. Sometimes, current seniors will ask her: “How much time do I have to be in a classroom? Will there be any tests?” “It’s like, ‘Oh, wow, we still have to explain it,’ because it’s hard for them to wrap their heads around,” she continued. “And I think that’s because it’s such a good program.”

“I still think to a large extent it is one of our best-kept secrets,” Reeve said, noting that with more outreach and publicity it could “be potentially used for a recruiting strategy to get more accounting majors.”

And to really improve the accounting pipeline, they’ll have to start making accounting accessible to much younger students, Reeve and D’Souza explained. “I did this exercise in my class yesterday. ‘Think back to when you were seven. What did you want to be when you were seven years old?’” Reeve said. Shocker: No one said they wanted to be an accountant.

But D’Souza notes they’re now building relationships with local high schools “to get professionals who care in front of these students explaining the story of accounting.”

“Accounting is not putting on your green shade and sitting in a cubicle. It’s actually a really dynamic career,” she explains to students. “You can be an FBI agent. You can work for the SEC or the IRS. You can [investigate] white-collar crime. You can also work in a public accounting firm. You can travel globally.”

“There’s a lot of connections that are possible between college and high school,” she continued. “That’s what a lot of the industry is focused on.”

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CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.