Sitting for the Uniform CPA Exam: Questions and Answers

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By William Quilliam, Ph.D., CPA, CIA and Lynn Clements, Ph.D., CPA, CFE, CMA, CFM, Cr.FA

Are you planning to take the CPA exam?  There is good news for you! A recent change in Florida’s law reduced the number of credit hours you must earn prior to sitting as a Florida candidate for the Uniform CPA Exam from 150 to 120 semester hours.  You may have some questions about how this change affects you.  Following are some answers from two longtime Florida accounting educators.  We realize that your professors, potential employers and other CPAs may be reading this article over your shoulder.  We give them a knowing wink!

After the 2008 legislative session, the governor signed a bill that changes the education requirements to sit for the Uniform CPA Exam. The old requirements had been in place since 1983. The new requirement allows exam applicants to begin sitting for the exam after completing 120 semester hours of college/university coursework, with a concentration in accounting and business courses as prescribed by the Florida Board of Accountancy (BOA). However, licensure still will require 150 hours; thus, the so-called "fifth year" requirement remains in place. In addition to allowing students to begin sitting at 120 hours, the bill signed into law will require one year of work experience prior to licensure for those licensed after Jan. 1, 2009.

A summary of the changes to Florida Statutes, Section 473.306, can be found in the May/June 2008 issue of Florida CPA Today (pages 6-7). The BOA will be holding workshops in order to set specific rules to administer the law. These rules will set forth the required coursework to be included in the 120 hours. The BOA has a short timeframe, as the change in educational requirements took effect on July 1, 2008. We will have a follow-up article after the BOA's workshops to explain the changes in rules and how they affect you.

Why was the law changed?

One major reason for the change in the law is that Florida has been losing CPA exam candidates, and the revenue associated with taking the exam, to other states that allow exam candidates to sit at 120 hours.  Furthermore, once these individuals sat as exam candidates in other states, many of them decided to establish licensure in those states. Florida now seeks to stem this tide, as the state’s demand for CPAs exceeds the supply. Let us briefly track the history of Florida’s fifth year to see why this outflow happened.

Since 1983, Florida has required the fifth year to be completed before taking the CPA exam and was the first state to implement the requirement. Immediately following the fifth year requirement, Florida saw a huge drop in the number of new CPA exam candidates taking the exam in the state.  In 1983, 3,294 first-time candidates took the exam in Florida.  In 1984, there were only 54 first-time candidates.  The number of first-time candidates eventually climbed but has remained well below 1,000 per year.  Many candidates began taking the exam after 1983 in non-fifth-year states.  Until it implemented its fifth year in 1998, Georgia received far more candidates from Florida than any other state. Once candidates completed the fifth year, they could then apply to become licensed in Florida.  It was expensive to travel to another state, pay the examination fee and later pay Florida to transfer the exam credit. 

Once the computer-based testing (CBT) version of the exam was instituted in 2004, candidates no longer had to travel to a non-fifth year state to take the exam.  Instead, it was possible to physically take the exam in a Florida testing center under the jurisdiction of another state.  This saved traveling expenses, but candidates still had to pay the examination fee to the non-fifth-year state and the credit transfer fee to Florida. Thanks to the law change, CPA candidates will no longer have to consider sitting for the CPA exam as a non-Florida candidate.

The other change in the law, which requires one year of work experience, makes Florida CPAs’ requirements conform to the Uniform Accountancy Act (UAA). The UAA is promulgated by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA), and it is the model law for public accountancy.  Most states, including Florida, are making changes in their laws to conform to the UAA.  The goal is to allow for greater CPA mobility from state to state, as states that adopt the UAA will have no material differences in their laws.  This will be a vast improvement over the patchwork of state laws that has been in place in the past. 

Questions and Answers

Q:  What is the difference between taking the CPA exam and licensure?  A:  These two concepts are often confused.  Taking the exam is the first step.  Under the new law, you will be qualified to take the exam after completing 120 hours.  In order to be licensed, and thus, to be called a CPA, you must pass all four sections of the CPA exam, complete an additional 30 hours of coursework and have one year of work experience under the supervision of a CPA.  The last step is to make a separate application to the BOA for licensure and pass the BOA’s laws and rules exam.

Q: How many accounting and business hours will be required in the 120 hours needed to take the exam?  A: The answer depends upon the rules promulgated by the BOA. However, it is likely that you may not have to complete all 36 accounting hours and 39 hours of business core classes prior to taking the exam.

Q:  Is it possible to successfully pass a section of the CPA exam without all the relevant coursework if I complete a CPA review program?  A: Yes, but it is not wise.  It would be better to wait until completing the relevant coursework before taking each section.  This will make it much easier to pass.  Remember that a CPA review program is only a review. It not designed to be the place to first learn large amounts of material that should have been covered in coursework.

Q:  Should I take sections of the exam while still in school?  A:  Certainly!  This is one reason why the law was changed.  However, preparing for the CPA exam takes time, and taking the exam is exhausting.  Plan your workload realistically. 

Q:  Must I complete my baccalaureate degree prior to taking the exam?  A:  No.  You may take the exam prior to completing your degree.  However, you must complete your baccalaureate degree prior to licensure.  In fact, if you are on financial aid, you may benefit from delaying your degree completion so that you remain eligible for aid.  Check with your financial aid advisor.

Q:  How long do I have to complete all sections of the exam?  A:  Florida law requires an 18-month “rolling window” in which to complete all sections of the exam once you pass a section of the exam.  You will lose credit for any section that you passed more than 18 months before.  Carefully plan for this window, and try to take all sections of the exam within a reasonable amount of time.  We recommend taking all sections within one year, allowing yourself time to retake any section(s) that you did not pass on the first try, and avoiding the loss of credit for sections you successfully passed.

Q:  Assume I pass all four sections of the exam but have not yet completed all my 150 hours.  I’m tired of school!  Could I take a break from school?  A: Yes. However, why would you want to delay your licensure? Obtaining the CPA license is a major professional accomplishment that will increase your marketability and enable you to earn more money!  Don’t put it off, no matter how tired you are of school.  You don’t want to be one of the students who “just took a break from school” but never returned.  Complete your 150 hours while school is a normal part of your life, and before life catches up with you.  You will be glad you did!

Q:  Should I complete my one year of work experience prior to taking the exam?  Maybe the experience will help me pass.  A:  While you may complete your experience prior to taking the exam, we do not recommend delaying your coursework to do so.  The CPA exam is based on the material you have studied in your coursework.  It is unlikely that actual work experience will help you to pass more quickly or with a higher score.

Q:  I have completed the required hours of accounting and general business subjects.  I still need some additional hours.  May I take any courses that I would like?  A:  Yes, as long as those hours are from an accredited college or university, not a vocational program, and do not duplicate courses you have already earned. 

Concluding Advice

Make sure the extra coursework is personally beneficial.  You may want to take more than the required number of accounting courses to increase your accounting knowledge and even to prepare for other professional certification exams (CFE, CIA, CMA, CFE, CISA, Series 6 & 7, etc.).  Also, consider coursework that will help you to explore an area of interest for a future career in finance, information systems or economics by earning a minor, which will make you more marketable and open new career doors.  Finally, consider coursework in areas that truly interest you, such as the arts, literature and communications, which help to round out your education.  Employers desire well-rounded employees who can communicate and who understand the world around them.

The new law is designed to enable each student some additional flexibility in obtaining the CPA license.  It is our wish that each student plans wisely, studies well and becomes part of a dynamic and enjoyable profession we love.

William Quilliam, Ph.D., CPA, CIA, is a professor of accounting at the University of South Florida at Sarasota-Manatee. He is past president of the FICPA’s Gulf Coast Chapter and an at-large member of the Board of Governors. Lynn H. Clements, Ph.D., CPA, CFE, CMA, CFM, Cr.FA, is a professor of accounting at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. She is past president of the FICPA’s Polk County Chapter.