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"I know enough about the students we hire from SEC schools and other large colleges that also have good accounting programs to say that Auburn’s pass rates are the envy of those competitors." — Glenn Mitchell, Managing Partner for the Atlanta office of EY
Graduates of the Harbert College of Business Master of Accountancy (MAcc) program consistently rank among the nation’s best when it comes to passing all four sections of the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICIPA).
The Harbert College of Business interviewed Andee Hodo, Director of Accounting Graduate and Online Programs at Harbert to find out what accounts for this extraordinary level of performance. We also reached out to a current MAcc student ambassador as well as a long-time employer of Harbert MAcc graduates for their takes on what sets Harbert’s MAcc program apart.
HCOB: Let’s begin by having you walk us through what’s entailed in the CPA exam itself – where it fits into the educational and practical aspects of becoming a Certified Public Accountant?
Andee: Sure. Each state board of accountancy sets the educational requirements for their state. Every state currently requires 150 overall semester hours to earn a CPA License. That number exceeds the traditional requirement for an undergraduate degree in accounting, and those hours are typically fulfilled through a post-graduate degree or by taking additional courses.
Andee Hodo, Director of Accounting Graduate and Online Programs
HCOB: Sitting for the CPA exam while working seems quite demanding, especially given the workload new accounting graduates face in their first full-time professional engagement.
Andee: It is. And it is that challenge we at Harbert have worked hard to overcome with the MAcc degree program. We recognized the difficulties young accounting professionals face in the first few years of their careers in getting acclimated to professional life while also preparing for the big step up to becoming a licensed CPA. Those difficulties include a tremendous amount of time at night and over weekends studying for each of the four sections of the exam. Most Auburn MAcc graduates begin their career with these course requirements and CPA Exam behind them so they can fully devote their attention to their new position.
Our one-year graduate program curriculum is designed to enable students to sit for all four parts of the CPA Exam before graduating from the MAcc. Since incorporating the CPA exam into the curriculum 15 years ago, students in the Auburn MAcc program have experienced an average pass rate of 86 percent across all four parts of the exam, far exceeding the national average of 48 percent during this same time period.
Even more impressive is the recent news that Harbert MAcc grads ranked #9 in the country for alumni of large programs who passed all four-parts of the exam within the required 18-month window. This is a huge accomplishment, and it really speaks to the preparedness of our students when they sit for the exam.
HCOB: How is incorporating the CPA exam into the curriculum different from other graduate accounting degrees offered by other colleges?
Andee: The Auburn MAcc program is 12 months long, beginning in the summer. Students take 12 hours in the summer, 12 hours in the fall and then only six hours in the spring, when they also sit for all four sections of the exam, back-to-back. Our students take the first section in early February, the second in March, the third in early April and the last one in late April. They study for each section and then take the associated exam right away, while the knowledge they’ve gained is still fresh, and then move on to studying for the next exam. No other college we’re aware of enables students that level of focus.
HCOB: Why did Harbert choose to structure the MAcc program this way, and what can you say about how it’s turned out over the past 15 years?
Andee: First, we have to note that roughly 99 percent of our MAcc students are going into public accounting rather than going into industry or business. They will need a CPA to get promoted. Since our students already have the CPA Exam out of the way before they begin working, they are not working up to 75 hours a week during this time of year – busy season for accounting professionals – while also trying to cram in coursework and study time for the exams. It’s brutal.
HCOB: So “brutal,” I suspect, that it results in a relatively low level of success in terms of passing all four sections of the exam, right?
Andee: Exactly. As I mentioned, you have to pass all four sections within an 18-month period, a very daunting challenge for those working full-time. In addition, many accounting firms offer substantial bonuses for having passed the exam before they start work, so there’s a quantifiable monetary incentive for our MAcc students to pass all four sections of the exam before they begin working.
HCOB: What else distinguished Harbert’s MAcc program from those at other large business schools?
Andee: One big difference is the size of our cohorts – we admit a much smaller number of students into the MAcc program each year than other colleges. This enables us to provide a much higher level of hands-on instruction and support for each student. It also makes for a much stronger fellow student support structure – a closer, much tighter comradery that really has a big effect on their mutual success.
HCOB: How is this “comradery” built into the MAcc program?
Andee: It begins with the summer and fall sessions, where we create team-building activities that include volunteering, community service work and other more socially oriented activities led by our student ambassadors. In pre-pandemic years, we’ve also included an international field trip that brought our students even closer together. While we weren’t able to travel this past year, we made up for it with virtual events and socially distanced in-person activities according to health protocols.
HCOB spoke with one such ambassador, Makenzie Warnick, to ask her how the MAcc program is working out for her so far. The first question we asked was why she chose Harbert’s MAcc program.
Makenzie: I want to be an auditor, which means you have to have your CPA license. I knew that I would have to do more than just the traditional four years if I wanted to progress in my career as an auditor.
HCOB: So, how’s that working out for you so far?
Makenzie Warnick, Martin Fellow Graduate Assistant
Makenzie: It’s been great. I have only one class this semester, while some of our other students are in no more than two classes. That lighter course load leaves us a lot more time to study for each section of the exam. I’d say I’m spending between 50 to 60 hours each week studying for the exams. I can't imagine working a full-time job and coming home and then trying to study for these exams at night.
HCOB: As an ambassador, can you tell us about the cohort – how the size of the group makes a difference in preparing for the exams?
Makenzie: Each cohort is about 60 people – small enough that you can really get to know the other people in the class. We are all studying the same things, so if anybody has questions or just wants to study together for a particular day, go over a certain concept, we're all available, and we're all close enough to campus that we can still study together.
HCOB also spoke with Glenn Mitchell, Atlanta Office Managing Partner for Ernst & Young LLP, a big four accounting firm that has hired dozens of Harbert MAcc graduates over the years. The question we asked Glenn was, why Harbert MAcc grads? What sets them apart?
Glenn: To begin with, they come in ready to perform, ready to step up and do well. That’s one reason we love the CPA exam-focused approach. We think that differentiates Auburn’s MAcc graduates from graduates from other colleges. The fact of the matter is, when you come into professional services, it's a demanding profession. It’s complicated, and you’re stepping into a fast-paced world on day one. They're obviously academically prepared, and having the CPA under their belt is a tremendous advantage for both us and them. We reward people for coming in with the exam already completed – we give a $5,000 bonus to new hires who have already passed the exam when they start.
Glenn Mitchell serves as Managing Partner for the Atlanta office of EY.
HCOB: As you may know, Auburn MAcc pass rates are among the nation’s best – does that figure into your hiring decisions?
Glenn: Absolutely. Auburn's CPA pass rates are off the charts going back even to when I was there, but that performance has only gotten more and more robust over the years. That’s a real differentiator. We believe that Auburn’s high CPA exam pass rate is a strong indicator of likely success at our firm. I know enough about the students we hire from SEC schools and other large colleges that also have good accounting programs to say that Auburn’s pass rates are the envy of those competitors.
HCOB: What else should a student considering enrolling in Auburn’s MAcc program know before applying to the MAcc or another school’s graduate accounting program?
Glenn: I’d have to point to the quality and dedication of the faculty. I’ve spent a lot of time on campus meeting with faculty and students – in the classroom and at recruiting events – and I’d have to say that Auburn’s accounting professors all do a really good job. They give down-to-earth, practical advice steeped in sound academic theory. You know they're working hard to prepare their students to be ready to go on their first day in the professional world.
HCOB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Glenn: We couldn’t be happier with our relationship with Harbert. For all the reasons I just laid out, EY plans to continue hiring as many people as we can out of Auburn’s MAcc program.