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COAP: The Next Generation

Joanne S. Barry

When the NYSSCPA launched the Career Opportunities in the Accounting Profession (COAP) program 25 years ago, it was with the hope that it would introduce minority high-school students to the CPA profession, a profession where minorities had historically been underrepresented. The program has been hugely successful in connecting high-school juniors to minority CPAs, who give these students the first glimpse of a future that, before the program, they most likely hadn't known was possible.

Overall, the presence of minority groups in the profession has seen heartening growth—of the approximately 450,000 CPAs in the United States, 12% are Asian/Pacific Islanders and 8% are Hispanic, and the proportions have been rising every year, according to a 2009 National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) white paper. By contrast, black CPAs represent a disquieting 3% of the profession, and only 1% of managers or partners in major firms. This is a disappointment and a failure of the model that the profession has in place.

The dialogue needs to be happening at every level of an organization, not just in diversity committees and mandatory workshops and not just in large or medium-sized firms.

While we celebrate COAP's 25-year milestone, major stakeholders in the diversity initiative (which includes firms and companies of all sizes, educators, and professional associations) should take a hard look at where we are now compared to where we intended to be when the Seattle, Washington, chapter of NABA launched the prototype COAP program. After 25 years, the profession should be able to point to a greater accomplishment. Absent that, it is time to deconstruct the diversity dilemma and devise better solutions to increase the number of black CPAs. During the past 25 years, there has been greater discourse between firms, universities, and professional associations on this issue, so why has progress been so slow?

More Open Dialogue

Recruitment and retention of black CPAs is an understudied area, but there is some research to build on. In 2007, NABA teamed up with the Howard University School of Business to launch CPA Bound, an advocacy initiative to address the barriers to certification and to educate their respective constituents on the importance of obtaining the CPA credential. This partnership convened annual CPA exam summits that culminated in a three-part white paper, “Insights into Increasing the Number of African American CPAs.” Part three reported on the results of two related research studies—one on the barriers black accountants face in passing the CPA exam, the other on the promotion and retention of black accountants in public accounting.

These studies reveal some truths that may not be widely recognized within the culture of public accounting firms, and they offer a framework for opening the dialogue that every managing partner and professional association leader should be having within their own organizations. Interestingly, a challenge one of the principal investigators found in conducting retention research was the “reluctance of the major firms' management to discuss the issues of diversity and professional advancement.” The dialogue needs to be happening at every level of an organization, not just in diversity committees and mandatory workshops and not just in large or medium-sized firms—the assumptions about diversity within the firm structure need to be reexamined.

The Profession's Role

With increasing numbers of minorities working hard to pass the exam, improve their skills, and establish performance records within their firms, is it the firms that are stumbling in providing the appropriate feedback, evaluations, mentoring, and development of this new pool of talent? Is the primary barrier for black accountants a lack of real commitment on the profession's part? Or is the commitment there, but the process needs to change? As a profession, it is our obligation to galvanize our members to make the changes that will drive more successful diversity initiatives. Without that commitment, our talented young people will seek their futures in more inclusive professions. What a loss that would be.

Joanne S. Barry. Publisher. The CPA Journal, Executive Director, NYSSCPA, jbarry@nysscpa.org.

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