In 1969, the AICPA formed the Minority Initiatives Committee, whose mission was to encourage, provide educational opportunities for, and promote the hiring of high-potential minority accounting students. By 1979, they reported an increase in the number of minority CPAs in the profession from 150 to 1,000. While an impressive increase at the time, the number of minority CPAs in the pipeline and profession still only represented 4.3% of the total. Almost four decades later, the 2015 AICPA “Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits Report” put the percentage of African American students graduating with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in accounting at just 5%. Not only is this a negligible increase over the 1979 numbers, it actually represents a relative decrease of 1%, since the percentage of African Americans in the U.S. population has increased from 12.9 to 13.6% (according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics). Furthermore, only 3% of new hires by CPA firms were African Americans, suggesting that many African American accounting graduates are starting their careers in areas other than public accounting.
Why is the profession still struggling to attract African American students to major in accounting, and how can we improve existing efforts? This article presents the results of a survey that attempts to answer this very question.
Survey of Undergraduate Students
The authors administered a survey to approximately 50 undergraduate African American students; one-third were accounting majors and the other two-thirds majored in some other business discipline. All but two of the students were age 24 or younger, and 60% were female. The goal was to try to understand why the accounting majors chose accounting as their preferred discipline, whether the other students seriously considered accounting, and if so, why they did not choose it as their major.
The Exhibit presents the questions asked in the survey. These open-ended questions attempted to determine why these students did or did not choose accounting as a major and when they made that decision. The survey also attempted to understand the importance of college introductory accounting classes and, where applicable, high school accounting classes in the decision to become an accounting major. Another goal was to discover whether the students knew family members or friends of family that were CPAs or accountants and, if so, whether this knowledge increased the likelihood that the students would choose to be an accounting major. Finally, the survey sought to identify the accounting majors’ specific career interests and expectations, plans for the CPA exam, and concerns about entering into the profession.
Why and When of Choosing the Major
The two most frequently identified reasons for choosing accounting as a major were an enjoyment of working with numbers and success in/enjoyment of the introductory accounting course. Some respondents also mentioned family members who provided guidance and examples of working in the profession. More than one-third of accounting majors surveyed decided on the major before starting college; the majority of the remaining two-thirds decided to major in accounting after an enjoyable and positive experience in their introductory course.
About one-third of the students who did not choose accounting as major indicated that they nevertheless seriously considered it. The majority of these did not pursue the major because they believed that accounting was too hard and too time consuming to learn. Of the two-thirds who did not seriously consider the accounting major, most indicated that they did not find the subject enjoyable or interesting, with several others indicating that accounting was too difficult or that they did not like numbers and math.
The First Accounting Course and High School Accounting
Only 6% of accounting majors had an unfavorable opinion of their first college accounting course, as compared to 26% of nonmajors. The most commonly stated reasons for the unfavorable opinion was that the course was “too hard” or “not interesting” or that they “didn’t like how the professor taught the course.” For those that expressed a favorable opinion, the most salient comment was about having a “good professor” in the course. Furthermore, 18% of majors listed their college introductory accounting professor as having had a significant influence on their decision to major in accounting.
Most high schools do not offer an accounting course; only three accounting majors and four nonmajors took accounting in high school. Four other accounting majors attended a high school that offered accounting, but did not take the course in high school even though they still ended up in the major. Thus, while the numbers are very small in this sample, it does not seem that taking accounting in high school increased the likelihood of a student becoming an accounting major, at least for this group of students.
Knowing CPAs or Accountants
Among accounting majors, 53% expressed that they personally knew at least one CPA (excluding faculty). In fact, more than one-third of accounting majors had a family member who was an accountant, including two who were CPAs. For nonmajors, only 11% knew family or friends who were accountants or CPAs. This divide between accounting majors and nonmajors seems to indicate the importance of having one or more role models as a factor in choosing the accounting major.
Accounting Career Concerns
Many accounting majors (47%) expressed that they did not foresee any barriers to a career in accounting. Most majors (71%) indicated that they planned to take the CPA exam, though many said that they were “scared” to take it because it was “too hard.”
The accounting majors indicated it was most important for employers to provide training and learning opportunities along with growth potential. Interestingly, more majors were interested in nonpublic accounting and internal auditing than the traditional public accounting opportunities of assurance and tax. This result corresponds with the AICPA Trends report mentioned above, which indicates that a significant portion of African American accounting graduates may have pursued alternate employment to public accounting. This trend may be related to the 150-hour requirement, but if so, no respondent specifically indicated such.
A great experience in an introductory accounting course can go a long way in attracting students to the accounting major.
At least two key inferences can be drawn from this small survey: the importance of delivering the first introductory college accounting course so that it interests and attracts students to the major, and the importance of potential majors knowing an accountant or a CPA who can serve as an example or mentor.
Many students do not choose a major until after they arrive on campus. A great experience in an introductory accounting course can go a long way in attracting students to the accounting major. If the profession wants more underrepresented students as accounting majors, there is a need to encourage schools to make sure their best teachers are delivering the introductory courses. In addition, firms should check with local high schools to see if accounting is offered as a course. If it is, they should offer to partner with these high schools in providing guest speakers and appropriate mentors, taking care to include African Americans and other diverse individuals, as African American students are more likely to consider accounting as a viable opportunity when they see others like themselves in the profession.
For high-achieving, underrepresented high school students, there are more than 20 National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) Chapters providing Accounting Career Awareness Programs across the United States. The objective of these week-long summer programs is to increase the understanding of accounting and business opportunities among these students. Many programs are held at area universities and in partnership with local accounting firms. It is important to make high schools that may not be in close proximity to these programs aware of their existence, especially those offering accounting courses.
The NYSSCPA and its Foundation for Accounting Education sponsor the Career Opportunities in the Accounting Profession (COAP) program on 11 college campuses across New York. This program was specifically developed to expose promising minority high school juniors to business and accounting career opportunities. The COAP program gives students an opportunity to interact with successful minority role models and learn how CPAs influence the world of business.
The authors also recommend that CPA firms partner with faculty to provide guest speakers in select introductory accounting classes, with firms carefully choosing employee speakers who can most easily relate to the students. Again, since the goal is to increase African American and diverse accounting majors, it is important for firms to send African American and diverse individuals who can serve as role models. Interacting with role models in these introductory courses gives students—who are often still undecided about their majors—an opportunity to meet both young and experienced CPAs to learn more about the exciting career possibilities in accounting.
The inclusion of guest speakers should continue as students take upper level and more specialized courses in their major, with more experienced professionals in these areas being introduced to students as appropriate. Working with student accounting associations and clubs provides an excellent opportunity to meet with students who are now declared majors in accounting. Local professional NABA chapters or state CPA associations can also help to identify professional members with specialized expertise.
For universities with student NABA chapters, an active and effective faculty advisor who both encourages student membership and works in coordination with the local professional chapter provides students with opportunities for interaction with the profession and for mentoring. NABA also provides scholarships and holds regional student conferences where students can learn professionalism and networking skills, and apply and interview for internships.
It is vital for firms and companies to partner with schools, especially those schools with substantial diverse populations, to offer internship opportunities and mentoring to students, which can help them better understand career opportunities and help minimize their CPA exam fears. This can be done in part through guest speakers and faculty interactions. In particular, interacting with young accountants who have recently successfully studied and passed the exam should provide students with opportunities to gain tips and strategies and reduce their exam anxiety.
Finally, to increase the hiring rate of African American public accounting professionals beyond 3% of accounting graduates, the authors believe that early exposure to the profession, for these students and their parents, will increase the likelihood that these students consider majoring in accounting. Potential majors should be exposed to increased contact with diverse professionals, both newly minted CPAs and more seasoned accountants. The guidance and support they receive—from both faculty in their introductory and upper-level college courses and members of the profession—is particularly important if these students are to effectively navigate their programs and successfully pass the CPA exam.