Jean-Luc Bourdon

Why Add a Fifth Part to Your CPA Exam?

How specialized functions can complement your broader knowledge-base as a CPA.

March 7, 2011
by Jean-Luc Bourdon, CPA, PFS

Specializations have become particularly relevant especially because the knowledge required of an entry-level CPA has grown exponentially. Indeed, over decades, the CPA exam’s content grew to address growing financial complexity and roles for CPAs (see CPAs … It’s Complicated). As a result, a group of CPAs has already taken a fifth AICPA exam to add a specialty credential to their CPA certificate. The trend is not new, but it is growing fast and is far reaching.

Taking the Fifth

The four parts of the uniform CPA exam have affectionately been known by their acronyms:

  • FAR for Financial Accounting and Reporting
  • REG for Regulation
  • AUD for Auditing and Attestation
  • BEC for Business Environment and Concepts.

Nowadays, these four parts encompass the knowledge equivalent to a master's degree in accountancy. Paradoxically, the need for an expansive CPA exam (soon to include the International Financial Reporting Standards) increases the need for further specialization. This evolution calls for further education, examination and accreditation.

Therefore, professionals and consumers alike are getting familiar with advanced credentials unique to CPAs:

This year, for the first time, AICPA will have an individual exam set for each credential. Each exam could be thought of as a fifth optional exam to add an area of emphasis to the CPA education. The newest addition is the CITP exam which becomes available this summer. Because of the AICPA’s record of providing testing that the public can trust in assessing high-professional standards and competency, specialized CPAs stand out from the maze of proliferating credentials.

Rocky Road

In light of the development of specializations in the medical and legal fields, a similar path for CPAs seems logical and unavoidable. Yet, in their History of the Development of the AICPA’s Specialty Designation Program, the authors point to a recent past when CPA specialties were often considered unnecessary, misleading and divisive. In fact, until 1981, CPAs were not allowed to claim a specialty.

Since then, the development of professional specialization has been tumultuous and the programs were periodically called into question. Through the determination and commitment of CPAs passionate about their area of practice, current programs have survived and become successful. As a result, the PFS — the earliest AICPA credential — will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. The accomplishments and resources of the specialty programs pioneers are available to all CPAs to benefit from and contribute to.

The long and rocky road to embrace and develop our own credentials led some licensees to pursue certifications from other professional groups. Yet, today’s robust AICPA credentials integrate our CPA education, standards and public recognition to make them the obvious choice for the greatest personal and collective advancement.

Specialization exams and their education material make it possible for accounting firms and their staff to pursue specialty areas following the guidance of accomplished peers and AICPA sanctioned professional standards. A specialized community supports each credential by providing the guidance to start, develop and promote an area of expertise.

With or without a specialized credential, all CPAs can get the benefits and support of groups focused on a particular expertise. These communities of peers emerged out of a shared passion for an area of practice and a conviction that CPAs are best equipped with the foundation and standards to exceptionally serve it. Currently, the AICPA’s specialized communities include:

To best serve clients, CPAs will increasingly refer to (and work with) other specialized CPAs. For example, medical specialties call for physicians to refer among themselves to match specialty and patient need. Similarly, CPAs will enhance their value by collaborating with specialized practitioners who share a common education, professional standards and code of ethics.

For instance, a CPA in tax practice should find it natural to refer acute financial planning needs to a CPA, PFS and work together on creating an integrated financial plan. Once you locate a CPA, PFS and join forces, you can promote the integration of tax, financial planning and other specialized areas into your practice with the Trusted Financial and Tax Planning From Your Local CPA booklet.
Future and emerging CPAs who aspire to specialized professional horizons now find developed paths within the profession. Traditionally, accountancy students prepared to explore its general possibilities. Today, some may prepare early to reach their ambition of becoming specialized CPAs, such as CPA, PFS, CPA, ABV, etc. For those, the 150-hour requirement could offer an opportunity to take additional college courses and prepare for a fifth exam.

That opportunity isn’t widespread yet, but academic programs are beginning to integrate the profession’s advanced possibilities with encouraging results. A recent Financial Planning magazine article reported that Utah State University set up its financial planning program as an undergraduate minor, as well as a specialization in the master’s of accounting program. The article quoted the program’s director as saying: “People who hire our students get someone with a degree in accounting, finance or economics, plus financial planning training. And they say they like it that way because the people they hire have additional skills on which they can build.”

Similarly to what the medical field has been experiencing, the broad knowledge-base required for our profession is expanding. As foremost financial experts, CPAs help America make sense of an increasingly multifaceted financial world. Such complexity requires the ability to integrate its various elements, but prevents anyone from mastering them all. Therefore, a growing common knowledge and further specializations will continue to shape our careers. To capture specialized opportunities, mature CPAs, aspiring CPAs and accounting educators will continuously broaden their field of vision while sharpening their point of focus.

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Jean-Luc Bourdon, CPA, PFS is a wealth manager with WalpoleFinancial Advisors, LLC (WFA) in Goleta, CA. Bourdon currently serves on the AICPA’s PFS credential committee. He is past chair and member of a PFP Networking Group. Bourdon volunteers as a financial literacy advocate. His opinions and comments expressed within this column are his own and may not reflect those of WFA or the AICPA. This information is being provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute investment or tax advice.

* The AICPA’s Personal Financial Planning Section is the premier provider of information, tools, advocacy and guidance for CPAs who specialize in providing estate, tax, retirement, risk management and investment planning advice to individuals and closely held entities. All members of the AICPA are eligible to join the PFP section. The PFP Practice Center provides information on various business models available to CPA financial planners. The Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) credential is exclusively available to CPAs who want to demonstrate their expertise in this subject matter and is characterized by a comprehensive approach planning that includes all disciplines and their tax implications. Visit www.aicpa.org/PFP to learn more.