‘The hollow 20’: accountants need extra credit

By Andrew Sheeler
Sun Star Reporter

Michael Davis gives a lecture during his Intermediate Accounting class in Brooks 103. Photo by Sarah Richards/The Sun Star

Students seeking a 4-year degree at UAF generally know the score. Get 120 credits, get your degree, and get on with your life. But if you want to be a CPA, you’ll have to stick around a little longer. Students in the UAF School of Management’s accounting program must earn 20 additional credits beyond the 130 required for their degree before they can take the test to become a Certified Public Accountant. That’s 150 credits total, at least one more semester, maybe two.

Dr. Charlie Sparks, associate professor of accounting, likes it that way. “I want you to think of us as the Marines of UAF,” Sparks said, calling the program tough but very rewarding. The School of Management’s web site points out that nearly 100 percent of graduates of its accounting program are placed in jobs upon graduating, and according to Sparks, the jobs can pay very well, with the potential for earning six figures after just a few years.

But it isn’t easy. Before a student can become a CPA, he or she must first pass a very difficult test, which Sparks said has a roughly 20 percent passing rate. The test isn’t cheap either. Valaire Sanford, an accounting major and president of the campus accounting club, Great Alaskan Accounting People (GAAP), called the test a “high stake exam” and said that the cost of taking it runs around five thousand dollars.

Students must also spend a number of years getting work experience, in either the public or private sector, before they can qualify for the certification. It’s possible to earn that experience in as little as a year, but for most it’s more a matter of two or three years working for a practicing CPA.

Then there is the matter of the extra 20 credits. Sparks said that most states require a master’s degree before one can become a CPA. He called Alaska’s minimum standard “lax” by comparison. “The law they passed in Alaska is really pretty weak,” Sparks said. In fact, students technically don’t even need an accounting degree to be a CPA, just a minimum of 24 credit hours in accounting-related courses.

Sanford calls the 20 extra credits “the hollow 20” because they can be filled by virtually any kind of course credits. One could take a variety of courses unrelated to accounting to get the extra credits, be it theater, culinary arts or computer science but Rauchelle King, a senior double-majoring in accounting and Japanese, doesn’t recommend it. “I would recommend for people who want to be a CPA to take those credits in either business classes or a second major,” King said. Both Sanford and Sparks said that students should choose courses appropriate to their emphasis and to their interests.

The extra 20 credits come as a surprise for many students. King says, “I didn’t find out until last year, when I was a junior.” Sanford said she didn’t learn about the requirement until roughly a year or so into the program. In spite of her surprise, she took the news in stride. She said that it just meant she’d be spending that much more time in school, that it wasn’t really a deterrent.

Professor Sparks said the program is meant to be tough. He said that the program has some very tough courses early on, designed to weed out the people who are unsuited for the demands of the accounting profession. The junior year, Sparks said, is the biggest deterrent of all, since the exacting demands of the classes and the rigorous GPA requirements prove to be a challenge for all but the most dedicated students.

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