By George Violette and John Sanders
In 2003, PricewaterhouseCoopers published a paper titled Educating for the Public Trust, in which the company outlined its position on accounting education. The paper suggested reforms in the delivery of formal accounting education that are needed to attract and develop “a consistent flow of quality talent” to the profession. It stressed the need for professionals and faculty to work together “to ensure that students understand both the benefits of majoring in accounting and the challenging reality of actually practicing in the profession.”
PricewaterhouseCoopers believes that “faculty should ensure that their students make critical choices with sufficient, reliable information … and create and maintain connections with students who have not yet chosen a major.” Students need help understanding the roles and responsibilities of a practicing accountant and what it means to be a member of the profession. They suggest the need for students to meet frequently with members of the profession, especially those at the senior level, from the beginning of their accounting education experience. Because the first accounting course shapes how prospective majors perceive the profession, it must properly portray the practice of accounting so that students understand the importance of it.
Accounting faculty at the University of Southern Maine also recognized many of the same issues identified by PricewaterhouseCoopers and added a course to the curriculum to try to improve student understanding of the accounting profession. A new freshman-level course, “Introduction to the Accounting Profession,” was designed to inform both declared and potential majors of the diversity of exciting career opportunities available (see the Exhibit).
Overview of the Course
The course, given for one credit, pass/fail, met once a week for about an hour and a half in early evening over seven weeks. No textbook was used, but several handouts were distributed. Students were required to become members of either the AICPA or the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), though the instructors encouraged membership in both.
In Week 1, the instructor presented an overview of the profession and career opportunities available, along with an overview of the course. In Weeks 2 through 7, a series of panels covered assorted topics, including: accounting career opportunities in public, industry, government, and not-for-profit organizations; the value of membership in professional organizations; discussion of certifications available and how to obtain them; the benefits of internships; and educational opportunities available to learn accounting. The second time the course was offered, the panels were expanded to include representatives from the finance sector, to help support students interested in learning about related career opportunities in finance.
Prior to each class, the students were given background information on the panelists for the coming week. After a brief introduction to the topic, a panel of three to five individuals was introduced. Each panelist presented in turn, with the instructor acting as moderator. Students were encouraged to interrupt with questions, and did so frequently. Generally, each panelist had about 15 to 20 minutes to present materials and answer questions. Informational handouts were usually distributed to supplement the presentations. At the end of the course, all students were required to submit a final “reflection” paper, which summarized their understanding and learning of the topics presented, including an evaluation of the course.
Each week the panelists discussed career opportunities in their area and were asked to share their unique experience and the story of how each came to be in the profession, and what they were currently doing. It followed the PricewaterhouseCoopers paper’s suggestion of exposing students to senior members of the profession. Panels contained a diverse mix of individuals, and frequently used USM alumni.
The first panel consisted of four senior partners from large and small area firms. The panelists discussed careers and opportunities in public accounting, and compared the differences and opportunities between small and large firms.
The second and third panels discussed careers and opportunities outside public accounting and included: a controller from a local closely held company; the chief accountant at a small corporation; the head of internal audit from a large publicly traded bank; an FBI agent; a senior accountant for a local not-for-profit organization; experienced small business counselors; and the deputy auditor of the State of Maine. The panelists discussed accounting opportunities available in industry, government, and not-for-profits and compared these opportunities to public accounting experiences, from which many had come.
The fourth panel discussed certifications and specializations available in the profession (e.g., CPA, CMA, CIA, ABV, PFS, CFA) and the importance of being involved with national and local professional associations (e.g., the AICPA, the IMA, the Maine Society of CPAs). This panel included professionals such as the chairman of the Maine Board of Accountancy, the executive director of the Maine Society of CPAs (MSCPA), past presidents of the MSCPA, a current Maine representative to AICPA Council, and a past president of a Maine IMA chapter.
The fifth panel, which focused on the value of internship experiences, featured a mix of current and former students that had internship experiences in public, private, or not-for-profit accounting in organizations of assorted sizes, along with a public accounting firm’s recruiting liaison. In the final panel, all the full-time faculty of the department told their own stories and promoted the value of majoring or minoring in accounting. Details of the 150-hour rule and graduate education opportunities were also presented.
There were 36 students that completed the course the first time it was offered and 88 students the second time. In the first offering, 94% of students indicated that they enjoyed the course and felt the classes were informative and worth attending, with 97% indicating that the stated course objectives were met. In the second offering, the numbers were similarly strong, with 90% of the students enjoying the course and 97% indicating that the classes were informative, worth attending, and met stated objectives.
All students were required to complete a paper that summarized their understanding of the topics presented as well as their general comments on the course. The questions students were asked to consider in the paper were open-ended and allowed them to further explore their reactions to the topics. Many students indicated that the course had significantly changed their perception of accountants’ work. Several were amazed at the breadth of opportunities in accounting. Students liked hearing from panelists with a diversity of experience, and were surprised about the variety of career paths and certifications available. They learned what it meant to be a member of a profession and the value of involvement in the profession.
For many, the course helped reinforce their choice of accounting as a career; for others, it caused them to seriously consider accounting as a career option. For a few students, the course helped them to determine that accounting was not for them. Many expressed that “all majors” should have a course like this, and that they were glad it was offered.
Based on the success of this course, accounting programs that want students to connect with professionals and understand the opportunities available in the accounting profession could benefit from offering a course like this. Many schools do not offer their first accounting course until the sophomore year. By offering this course in the freshman year, students that expect to major in accounting can confirm that desire and meet professionals and faculty.
Although it is too early to tell, this early exposure to the profession will hopefully result in additional majors and minors, as well as improve retention. Discussing this course with university and college academic counselors would help promote it as a means for undecided students to explore an interest or aptitude for business or accounting. Part of the reason for the increase in students in the second offering was a result of the work with academic counselors. The first two offerings of this course have been a success for students, professionals, and faculty. It reinforced the choice of an accounting major for many students, and encouraged others to look at a possible major or minor in accounting.
The accounting profession needs a consistent flow of quality talent to ensure the continued success of the profession. Early communication about the roles and responsibilities of accountants makes it possible for students to understand the profession more fully and make an informed decision about becoming an accountant, thereby attracting to the profession interested quality students. Such a course enables professionals and educators alike to market the discipline and excite students about the breadth of career opportunities available in the accounting profession.
George Violette, CPA, PhD, is a professor of accounting at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, Maine, and past president of the Maine Society of CPAs.
John Sanders, CPA, is an associate professor of accounting at the University of Southern Maine.