PwC’s Leah Houde on How To Reimagine Ways to Higher Education Despite Rising Costs and Barriers to Entry

Originally published on LinkedIn. Leah Houde is PwC’s Chief Learning Officer. PwC is a DiversityInc Hall of Fame company.


The economic and societal gap in our nation is growing. The pandemic has only exacerbated this divide, disproportionately ravaging Black, Latinx and underserved communities. Barriers to education continue to drive wedges between those who have access to opportunity and those who do not. The nationwide student debt has ballooned to $1.5 trillion, a figure that has surpassed credit card debt and shows no signs of slowing down.

Within the accounting industry, the fifth year of college credits required to become a CPA adds yet another barrier to an already challenging situation. It’s no wonder that racially and ethnically diverse groups have been traditionally underrepresented within the profession. But imagine if new graduates could work, get paid, all while obtaining their fifth year of school debt-free? This could open new possibilities for how we attract and retain more diverse talent and is something we set out to achieve.

Graduation. Rear view of the student with university graduates crowded or Graduation cap in the graduation ceremony.

As part of our commitment to investing $125M to prepare 25,000 Black and Latinx students for in-demand careers, this summer, we will welcome Black and Latinx bachelor’s degree graduates to the firm through a new pilot program —  ‘While You Work’. In collaboration with Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, our teams designed an immersive experience that deeply integrates learning and working across tax and audit capabilities, data analytics, business acumen and leadership skills. The year-long fellowship uniquely combines PwC client work with Northeastern course work, with the end goal of earning an MS in Management from Northeastern University with the 150 credit hours to be eligible for CPA licensure, and a full-time job offer with PwC, without any additional school debt or putting off entry to the workforce, a barrier that has long inhibited diversity in the field.

With this pilot, we’re embracing our responsibility to help drive change, recruit talent in new ways and ultimately continue building a more diverse and inclusive workforce. Here’s what we discovered along the way:

  1. Lean in. We recognize that these societal challenges are complex and multifaceted but we have the responsibility and the power to help move the needle. Instead of shying away, organizations have a responsibility to lean into the opportunity to address societal barriers to education and equip talent with the skills and credentials to be even more competitive in today’s job market, thereby helping to grow the pipeline of diverse talent.
  2. Test. Then test again. Start small, test to see what’s working and what’s not, then pivot. Innovation and scalability are critical to learning and development strategies but it’s also important to be nimble enough to do it differently if needed. A pilot program allows you to test, try, and adjust for success before launching more broadly.
  3. Don’t go it alone. It takes collective resources, minds and relationships to make real societal change. We could not have reached each milestone and now, preparing for the onboarding of our inaugural fellowship class, without the collaboration and innovation of an accredited academic institution and our cross-functional teams to innovatively address this educational challenge. We have a collective responsibility to remove systemic barriers and can be much more effective when we come together versus trying to drive progress on our own. In this case, diverse teams yielded diverse thinking and poised for winning outcomes.

We’re on a journey and while we have more to learn, we know we’re at a pivotal moment that requires continued bold action and a steadfast commitment to continue moving toward equity and greater inclusion. Our ‘While You Work’ program was designed with a three-pronged ‘win-win-win’ approach that brings diverse thinking into the firm, helps individuals address personal college debt issues, and aims to upskill our newest employees in the critical areas our clients are telling us they want to see.

As more and more organizations revisit their recruiting processes to foster a more diverse workforce, it’s important to lean in and find strategies that not only address barriers to entry, but that is also good for business. The pursuit of diversity is not only the right thing to do, but an inclusive workforce generates better business outcomes and better solutions that ultimately lead to the broader economic development of our society. Creatively collaborating with universities can have the potential to be one of the new frontiers in business and higher education, and we’re just at the beginning of reimagining what’s possible.

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