Given these exciting trends, we thought it was time to update the August 2014 Strategic Finance article “Preparing Students for the CMA Exam: What Schools Are Best?” That article reported CMA pass rates primarily for the calendar year 2013 to determine which schools best prepare their students for the exam. It also discussed which countries and schools generate the most interest in the exam. We have replicated the analysis for calendar year 2015 to see how things have changed.
There’s a market need for accounting graduates and professionals to pursue proper training and certification to deliver value to organizations. Yet there’s a widely acknowledged talent gap in the profession that begins with undergraduate accounting education. The curriculum at many U.S. colleges and universities doesn’t align with on-the-job needs. The talent gap widens as CFOs and their teams are asked to perform in increasingly strategic roles.
Developed and updated periodically by the ICMA, the CMA exam reflects what accounting and financial professionals need to know in business today. Established in 1972, the CMA has become a global designation that attests to the certification holder’s management accounting knowledge and skills. The CMA requires passing a rigorous, multipart exam covering external financial reporting decisions; cost and performance management; internal controls; planning, budgeting, and forecasting; decision analysis; corporate finance; financial statement analysis; risk management; investment decisions; and professional ethics. A good global measure of accounting competencies, the CMA exam is broad in scope and tests concepts as well as tools that aren’t tied to a particular jurisdiction or financial reporting framework.
In this article, using data from the ICMA, we analyze CMA exam participation and pass rates for different categories of schools and countries.
Figure 1 represents the percentage of individuals sitting for the CMA exam by region during the 2015 calendar year. (Both the English and Chinese versions of the exam are included in this article’s data.) Almost half the candidates sitting for the exam were in the Asia/Pacific region. The next highest was the Middle East/Africa region with 29%.
In 2015, the global CMA pass rate was 49%. Figure 2 shows pass rates by region. We calculated pass rates for each part as the total number of candidates passing that part of the exam during the 12 months of our study divided by the total number of times candidates sat for that part during the same time period. The overall pass rate is the weighted average of the pass rates on each part of the exam. Europe had the highest overall pass rate at 68%, followed by the Americas with 62%.
At least some of the variation in pass rates by region is due to the challenge that confronts nonnative English speakers when they sit for an exam written in English. For example, the overall pass rate in China for the English version is 56%, but the pass rate in China for the Chinese version increases to 63%, which is equal to the pass rate of the English version in the United States. The figure also shows that the pass rate for Part 2 (Financial Decision Making) is higher than for Part 1 (Financial Reporting, Planning, Performance, and Control). One potential reason could be a stronger pool of candidates who take the second exam as weaker candidates fail to move on. On the other hand, candidates can take either part first, so another possible explanation could be the somewhat broader scope of Part 1.
Figure 3 identifies the top eight countries by the number of individuals sitting for the exam. It also shows the significance that the CMA designation has achieved outside the United States, particularly in China and the Middle East. With the majority of candidates sitting for the exam outside the U.S., the CMA has clearly become a global credential.
PASS RATES BY UNIVERSITY
There’s considerable variation in pass rates by university. Table 1, which shows schools with the highest pass rates by region, includes those with at least eight individuals sitting for the exam during the 12 months ending December 31, 2015. School affiliation came from ICMA records and, in the case of candidates with advanced degrees, might reflect either the candidate’s undergraduate or graduate affiliation.
All of the schools on the Americas list are different from those on the 2013 list, and four of them had 100% pass rates in 2015. Keep in mind, however, that the number of takers is so different that we can’t say those schools with 8-12 candidates and 100% pass rates are doing better than those schools with 20 or more students achieving 80%-90% pass rates. For example, Brigham Young had 53 candidates and achieved a very impressive overall pass rate of 86%.
In the other regions, the schools on the Asia/Pacific list are also different from last time, and two schools had 100% pass rates on Part 1 and overall pass rates above 90%. Europe has four repeaters, including Middle East Technical University in Turkey with a 100% pass rate. Four of the seven schools on the Middle East/Africa list are the same, including American University of Beirut, which had a 92% pass rate. This is a sizable increase over the previous study, when the highest pass rate in the Middle East/Africa region was 64%.
Because many candidates sit for the exam multiple times and pass it on the second or third try, the pass rates in Table 1 are based on the number of total sittings for each exam part for each university rather than on the number of candidates. During 2015, candidates sat for an average of 1.11 times for Part 1 and 1.14 times for Part 2.
Table 2 shows the schools with the highest pass rates for first-time test takers. Passing the exam on the first try is perhaps the strongest measure of a candidate’s management accounting competencies obtained from education and work experience. (For this table, we only considered schools with at least eight first-time test takers during the study’s time period.) Schools from four different countries appear in Table 2, again reflecting the CMA’s global nature. Ohio State University, University of Delaware, and University of South Florida had 100% pass rates in 2015. The only school appearing on both the 2013 list and this year’s list of highest pass rates is Tongji University of China, which increased from 75% to 94%.
IMA’s Higher Education Endorsement Program is tasked with recognizing business curricula that meet the quality educational standards required to enable students to prepare for the CMA designation. To earn an IMA endorsement, higher education programs must (1) cover a substantial portion of the material on the CMA exam, (2) have adequate faculty resources, (3) be accredited by a recognized accreditation organization, and (4) have a faculty member designated as an IMA Campus Advocate. Table 3 reports pass rates for U.S. programs that have received IMA’s endorsement. The average pass rate for all endorsed programs in the U.S. is 73%. The average pass rate for nonendorsed programs in the U.S. is 62%.
DATA FOR U.S. SCHOOLS
Table 4 lists the U.S. schools with the largest number of candidates sitting for the exam during 2015. These numbers include candidates sitting for one or both parts of the exam. Brigham Young University had the highest number of CMA candidates in 2015, up from fifth place in 2013. University of Phoenix was second. University of Texas at Dallas rose from ninth place to third place in this year’s report. Most of the schools on the list are large state schools with well-known accounting programs.
Table 5 gives overall pass rates based on the number of sittings for various groupings of schools. The results show why the schools should take pride in the accomplishments of their students. Again we considered schools with at least eight individuals sitting for the exam, except in two groupings with fewer exam takers. Of the schools listed on the 2017 U.S. News & World Report Top 20 Business Schools, University of Michigan had the most candidates at 12 and achieved an impressive overall pass rate of 81%. Universities in the Big Ten and Pac 12 had the most candidates and achieved impressive pass rates.
SKILLS FOR CAREERS, NOT JUST FIRST JOBS
With public accounting firms increasing their recruitment of students in recent years, the accounting curriculum at many schools has leaned toward a focus on the first job after graduation at the expense of lifelong careers in a global economy. This tendency has led to skills gaps identified by businesses looking for accountants to help add value to their organizations. CMA pass rates are a useful metric for schools to show evidence to accounting and business accrediting bodies that they have a more balanced curriculum that helps students prepare for the skill sets increasingly expected of accountants in business. Because of the topics covered on the CMA exam, as well as the testing process, those who pass the exam and earn the CMA certification are better prepared for many different types of employers.
Remember several caveats. The results in the tables are generally for schools with higher pass rates and are much better than the overall pass rates. You may not be able to draw a general conclusion from pass rates for a particular school based on a relatively small number of candidates, and pass rates for the period we examine might not be generalizable to other time periods. Many candidates graduated years before they sat for the exam. Despite these caveats, we believe the data identifies certain schools that make their students aware of the CMA exam and provide them with the skills to perform well. We congratulate these schools on a job well done and hope to see them and other schools in future updates of this report. Data for schools not mentioned in this report is available upon request.