Enrollments in Undergraduate Accounting Programs Remain Strong: AICPA Trends Report

Combined Undergraduate and Graduate Enrollments Maintain Record Level

August 30, 2017

New York (Aug. 30, 2017) –Enrollments in undergraduate and graduate accounting programs for the 2015-2016 school year totaled more than 250,000, maintaining the record high level from 2014-2015. This was driven primarily by an all-time high in undergraduate enrollments. On the demand side, accounting firm hiring of new graduates was down from the historic level seen in 2014.  That’s according to the 2017 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and Demand for Public Accounting Recruits report, released today by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA).

“The high number of undergraduate enrollments in accounting programs bodes well for the goal of continuing a strong pipeline of talent entering the profession,” said Yvonne Hinson, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., AICPA Academic-in-Residence, Senior Director, Academic & Student Engagement. “The AICPA remains incredibly focused on attracting bright, motivated accounting students into the profession. We use the results from the Trends report and other internal research to shape our programs and initiatives to ensure that the next generation of CPAs know that joining the accounting profession is a great career choice with substantial flexibility and opportunities.”

While undergraduate enrollments were at an all-time high, the report found projected master’s enrollments in accounting returning to pre-2014 levels. The last several Trends reports found a sharp rise in the number of master’s enrollments and graduates. The CPA profession has significantly lower rates of unemployment than the broader economy - particularly during economic downturns – which may have been a factor in attracting both traditional students and those changing careers to earn their master’s in accounting.

“In my experience as an educator, economic turmoil is a strong motivator for people to seek out the stability that a career in accounting provides,” added Hinson. “The uncertain job market in the years immediately after the recession may have driven a high number of career changers to return to school for a master’s in accounting. At the same time, we saw many students pursing their master’s directly after they earned their undergraduate degree to bolster their academic credentials, raising the overall numbers during that period.”

The number of undergraduate degrees awarded in the 2015-2016 academic year (57,119) remained strong, totaling the second highest on record and representing a five percent increase from 2013-2014. While master’s degrees awarded (22,405) saw a decline from the historic level seen in 2013-2014, they were also the second highest on record. Combined, there was an overall projected decrease of 2,258 accounting degrees awarded in 2015-2016.

After reaching historic highs over the previous four years, projected public accounting firm hiring slowed in the 2016 calendar year, with 8,363 less new accounting graduates hired than the year prior. The report found that 59 percent of all firms that hired one or more accounting graduate in 2016 planned to hire the same number of graduates or more in 2017. In addition, there continue to be many opportunities for accounting graduates in business and industry.

The 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Handbook, found that employment of accountants and auditors was expected to grow at an 11 percent rate from 2014-2024 – which is faster than average and represents an additional 142,000 jobs. According to the BLS Handbook, solid demand for accountants may lead to good prospects for entry-level positions, with strong competition for jobs at the most prestigious accounting firms and businesses. The handbook also notes that the job prospects are particularly bright for accountants and auditors who have earned their CPA license.

“While technology and data analytics are reshaping the global economy, CPAs remain uniquely positioned to take advantage of these trends,” said Barry Melancon, CPA, CGMA, AICPA President and CEO. “We’ve been focused on educating our members about the current and future opportunities that will become available to them as accounting firms increasingly shift to providing broader assurance services. And we’re also proactively addressing the shift in the profession through the new version of the CPA Exam, which places greater emphasis on higher order skills such as analytic ability and problem solving.”

There was a 13 percent increase in the number of new candidates for the Uniform CPA Examination from 2015 to 2016. The increase was driven by the launch of the new exam in 2017, as well as concerted efforts by the AICPA, state CPA societies and accounting firms to encourage individuals to take the CPA Exam.

The AICPA has a multitude of programs designed to increase the pipeline of talented accounting students entering the profession and earning their CPA license. Increasingly these programs are targeting students at the high school level. In addition to the long-running Start Here, Go Places program (which provides resources for high school educators and students), the Institute recently announced the acquisition of the Accounting Pilot and Bridge Project (APBP). The APBP is a program that trains high school teachers to teach a higher level accounting course. Research shows that taking the course increases the probability that students will major in accounting in college. Under the AICPA’s stewardship, the program is being enhanced and will reach more teachers and ultimately more students.

In addition, AICPA’s ThisWayToCPA website educates college students about the opportunities a career in accounting affords and provides them with resources and guidance as they enter the profession. The AICPA also offers many scholarship opportunities  for accounting students throughout their academic careers.

The 2017 Trends report includes a section that provides details about how to interpret the data. As the statistical models for this year’s report were developed and implemented by a different research firm than previous reports, the projections are comparable to previous models, but they are not identical.

View the full Trends report.