In recent years, declining enrollment in accounting programs has made attracting more high-achieving students into the major and then into the professional pipeline a matter of critical importance. To that end, the authors have developed a project to bring practitioners into the classroom where students can get to know them, understand their skills and experiences, and be inspired by all that an accounting career offers. The authors’ experience has indicated that these encounters with practitioners leave a lasting impression on students and can lead more young people into the accounting major and profession.
In a 2019 report on accounting enrollment and hiring trends, the AICPA highlighted the role of collaboration between practitioners and educators in enhancing accounting education and attracting students into the accounting profession. The AICPA academic-in-residence at the time, Yvonne Hinson, stressed a need “to deepen the connection between practice and academia to better incorporate the skills of the future into current curricula and bring more CPAs into the classroom” (2019 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and Demand for Public Accounting Recruits, https://bit.ly/3E5OE4s). In this article, the authors describe a project used in introductory financial accounting courses at Xavier University to promote collaboration between the practice and academic communities. The purpose of the project is to address the challenges of attracting students to careers in accounting. The results indicate that positive benefits accrue to students, practitioners, and the profession when practitioners and educators collaborate.
Challenges Regarding Supply and Demand Trends
The 2019 AICPA trends report showed a 4% decrease in enrollment in accounting bachelor’s degree programs from the 2015/16 academic year to the 2017/18 academic year. After many years of increasing enrollments in accounting bachelor’s programs, 2017/18 was the first academic year for a decrease in enrollments since 2000/01 (AICPA 2019). Although the overall recent supply trend merits concern, some schools report even more substantial declines. For example, one university’s accounting program experienced a 34% drop in enrollment in its intermediate accounting courses between the 2015/16 and 2018/19 academic years (Alexander L. Gabbin, “Warning Signs about the Future Supply of Accounting Graduates,” The CPA Journal, September 2019, pp. 10–11, http://bit.ly/2pT8Vud).
Despite the troubling statistics regarding decreasing enrollments, the demand for accounting graduates appears to be relatively stable or increasing at a majority of U.S. CPA firms. Exhibit 1 indicates that 58% of firms that hired new accounting graduates in 2018/19 expect the same or higher level of hiring of new accounting graduates in future years (AICPA 2019).
In addition, the 2019 AICPA trends report brings to light recent increases in the hiring of nonaccounting graduates. (See the sidebar, Increased Hiring of Nonaccounting Graduates.) Many CPA firms and other business organizations that hire accountants, however, continue to recognize the importance of attracting accounting talent, and emphasize this as a key strategy for emerging stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic (Robert Half 2021 Accounting and Finance Salary Guide, https://www.roberthalf.com/salary-guide). These trends raise a key question: How can the profession maintain a robust pipeline of talent by continuing to attract, inspire, and prepare the next generation of CPAs?
Challenges Faced by Educators
Accounting educators are at the forefront of students’ perceptions of the profession, and therefore play a key role in populating the pipeline of future CPAs. Even at the introductory level, accounting courses are essential for stimulating students’ interest in accounting. Yet educators must overcome numerous challenges to attract high-achieving students to the profession, such as the following:
- The profession’s reputation for low starting pay and long hours (Dana Hermanson, Heather Hermanson, and Susan Hermanson, “Where is Public Company Auditing Headed?” The CPA Journal, February 2020, pp. 54–59, https://bit.ly/3BnHY2e),
- The increased opportunity costs to becoming a CPA caused by the 150-hour rule and CPA exam requirement (Keith A. Russell, C.J. Kulesza, W. Steve Albrecht, and Robert J. Sack, “Charting the Course Through a Perilous Future.” Management Accounting Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 1, 2000, pp. 4–11. https://bit.ly/3LoPZsC; Mark C. Dawkins, Michael Dugan, Steven Mezzio, and Jerry E. Trapnell, “The Future of Accounting Education.” The CPA Journal, September 2020, pp. 28–35, https://bit.ly/3Qz873H),
- Unfavorable assumptions that accounting careers are an extension of university coursework, dominated by debits and credits, journal entries, and the manipulation of numerical details,
- Negative stereotypes, shaped by pop culture, that depict accountants as dull and introverted, and
- News of high-profile corporate failures fueled by accounting improprieties and scandals.
Given the time constraints of a curriculum, educators also struggle to balance coverage of a broad range of important concepts and skills in their accounting courses. In addition to their responsibility for developing students’ technical accounting skills, educators are called upon to build the soft (non-technical) skills that are valued by the accounting profession, including attention to detail, oral and written communication, and teamwork. (Robert Half, 2021)
To avoid compromising the coverage of traditional technical material in introductory accounting courses, accounting educators must be efficient and creative in integrating non-technical material. This creates a challenge to improve the quality of their courses and programs by developing more significant learning experiences that incorporate soft skills.
Inspiration from Practice
Although coursework is essential for motivating students to consider career options, external factors are also especially influential during a student’s formative college years (Yvonne Hinson, “Inspiring the Next Generation: How CPAs Can Contribute on Campus,” Journal of Accountancy, vol. 224, no. 3, 2017, pp. 20–23, https://bit.ly/3xPATXF). For instance, a student’s choice of major is often motivated by inspiring professors and speakers, experiential learning opportunities, and university culture.
The authors are both CPAs who spent numerous years working in public accounting and industry prior to becoming accounting educators. They have also shared their experiences with students as guest speakers, mentors, advisors, and adjunct professors. Despite their decades of combined experience in practice and in classrooms, the authors find that nothing piques a student’s interest more than having the students engage with a current practitioner. As noted by Hinson, CPAs can make a significant difference in inspiring the next generation by volunteering to engage with students on campus (Hinson, 2017).
To address the problem of the decline in supply of accounting program enrollments and the related challenges of attracting students to the accounting profession, the authors created an educational project for their introductory financial accounting courses at Xavier University. This project requires that students work together in small teams to conduct a 20-to-30–minute, face-to-face interview with an accounting practitioner. The value of the project is the potential for students to develop a more favorable impression of the accounting profession.
Introductory Financial Accounting is a core course requirement for all business majors at Xavier University. Eight to twelve sections of the course are available each semester with enrollment of approximately 28 students per section. Introductory Financial Accounting students are generally first- and second-year business school students, many of whom are nonaccounting or undeclared majors. The requirement for all enrolled students to participate in this project ensures that all business students gain exposure to the profession and the opportunities available for careers in accounting. Although the project comprises only a small percentage of the course grade, it has a substantial favorable impact on student perceptions of accounting.
Educators have considerable flexibility to adapt this project and its assessment to meet the needs of their course. The authors are willing to share the materials they use to introduce, describe, and evaluate this project.
The Critical Role of the Practitioner
The success of the project depends on practitioners volunteering their time to be interviewed by students. The educators utilize their network of business contacts and solicit assistance from the Xavier University Accountancy Board of Executive Advisors to bring experienced accounting practitioners to campus to be interviewed by the students. These practitioners consist of both public and private accountants representing a range of CPA firms and business organizations. In most cases, the practitioners volunteer an hour or two of their time to be on campus for the interviews. The educators strive to provide a pool of interview subjects that is diverse in terms of experience, age, gender, and race. The diversity and inclusion perspective is an important consideration for attracting a diverse student body to the major and profession. (See the sidebar, The Importance of Diversity and Inclusion in the Accounting Profession, for additional reading related to this topic.)
Upon agreeing to participate, the practitioners provide a short bio that is made available to the students. In advance of the interview, the educators contact the practitioners to communicate details about the general nature and conduct of the interview and examples of questions that students will ask. The practitioners are informed that the interview will consist of several required questions plus several questions that are self-selected by the student interview teams. The objective is to provide students with as much information as possible in a short time frame regarding opportunities and complexities associated with the profession. Some questions focus on directing students toward gaining insights into the importance of ethical decision-making within accounting careers. The practitioners are alerted to this so they may consider their responses in advance. The educators acknowledge the sensitive nature of the line of interview questions, especially those related to ethical issues, and request that the practitioners be prepared to furnish examples that are appropriate to be shared with introductory-level students without divulging confidential information about their clients, employers, or co-workers.
Requirements for Students
Students are required to read all of the professional bios to gain insights into the breadth of careers in accounting and to consider their choice for an interview subject. Next, each team of students uses a Sign-up Genius link to make an appointment for a face-to-face interview.
During the interview, at least eight interview questions are required, five of which are assigned and common to all interview teams (Exhibit 2).
Required Interview Questions
Students can customize their approach to the interview by choosing a minimum of three additional interview questions. These additional questions are selected from a pool of questions created within an online discussion board where students share ideas about interesting topics for discussion. Exhibit 3 presents a sample of questions created by students.
Sample Student-Created Interview Questions
Following the interviews, students prepare a report summarizing the questions asked and the interviewee’s responses. These reports also include a personal reflection from each student describing what was discussed and learned. Many students learned about the skills required for success in accounting, including interpersonal and written communication skills, analytical thinking, time management, and quantitative and technology skills; very rarely is there a mention of debits and credits and journal entries. Regarding the ethical line of questioning, nearly all of the students reported that their interview subjects have dealt with ethical situations in the workplace. Although some of the interviews highlighted employee frauds, such as time and expense reporting violations and personal use of company supplies, others described the difficulty accountants face when they must say no to a client’s request for an inappropriate entry on a tax return or the financial statements. Several interviews also included discussions of an accountant’s responsibility to blow the whistle to report wrongdoing. Many practitioners cited the importance of their professional networks and mentors in seeking advice for handling ethical dilemmas.
Students Share Their Experiences
The last phase of the project is an in-class discussion where students share their experiences. Because most of the student teams interview different practitioners, the comparisons and related discussions are insightful. Students enjoy taking class time to reflect and compare the variations in career paths for different practitioners. Students are often pleasantly surprised by the interpersonal nature of the profession, including the broad range of experience attributed to working at various client locations, exposure to executives in the C-suite and on boards, as well as travel opportunities. They often gain insights into the aptitude for analytics that is pervasive in accounting. Through this experience, students gain respect for the profession as well as the individuals who comprise it. Students often joke that these practitioners are nothing like accountant Kevin Malone from The Office. Thus, they learn first-hand about the reality that accountants are dynamic individuals who are essential to business organizations.
Students also discuss different examples of ethical situations their practitioners encountered, which encourages further discussions related to internal controls, conservative versus aggressive accounting practices, and the importance of ethics and professional conduct in all facets of business. The students reflect on the ethical situations from the standpoint of the practitioners as well as those who would be affected by the practitioners’ decisions. These interviews and subsequent classroom exchanges provide much material for rich dialogue and often serve to debunk students’ unfavorable impressions of accounting. Through this debriefing time, students draw inferences from their interviews and become more mindful of the uniquely attractive features of the profession and its diverse career opportunities.
The format and requirements of the project have evolved over several years. Early versions of the project involved telephone interviews, and recent versions require interviews conducted using video conferencing software to accommodate the COVID-19 pandemic and online courses. Educators are free to adapt this project to meet their needs by varying the assigned interview questions, the size of the student teams, the points to award, and other project features. As an alternative to the educator coordinating the practitioner communications and interviews, the project can be adapted to permit students to choose their own interview subjects (if the students have a contact in practice). In large universities, the population of potential interview subjects is quite extensive—due to large alumni groups and large faculties with extensive professional networks—thus making this project adaptable at schools of all sizes. For larger universities, slightly larger student groups may be assigned to more easily implement and manage the project. These options afford more scheduling flexibility and open the potential group of interview subjects beyond the local geographic region.
Given its flexibility, educators can implement this project in a variety of academic settings. At the high school level, the project can be a good way to get students thinking about the appeal of accounting careers at an even earlier age. In higher education, schools of all sizes can use this project to attract students to the major. In business schools where introductory accounting courses are taught in large lecture sections, teaching assistants can manage the grading and follow-up discussions in recitation sessions or in online discussion boards. For universities where introductory accounting courses are coordinated, the course coordinator can launch the project and oversee its deployment to all course sections.
Another possible approach is to consider a version of the project in a separate upper-level course in accounting ethics. Steven Mintz recently discussed the continuing process of determining the best way to meet the goals of ethics education in “Accounting Ethics Education: A 43-Year Retrospective” (The CPA Journal, August/September 2021, https://bit.ly/3BJD3dp). In an upper-level course, the students would be more knowledgeable about the ethical guidance in the profession and could benefit greatly from an active learning application such as this project. Of course, the project goals regarding attracting students into the accounting major would not be a focus in an upper-level course, with only accounting majors.
Feedback from the Students
At the end of the semester, students provide anonymous feedback regarding the value of the assignment. Over 300 Xavier University students have participated in this project and provided feedback since the fall semester of 2018. Seven survey questions, as shown in Exhibit 4, are rated on a five-point scale (where 1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree).
Students are also asked an open-ended question regarding the most valuable aspects of the assignment. Exhibit 5 presents selected responses from students. In addition, many students have provided informal feedback that this project is the best feature of the course.
Student Survey Comments Regarding the Most Valuable Aspect of the Experience
Feedback from Practitioners
After the interview, practitioners are also asked to provide feedback, using an anonymous online survey via Survey Monkey. This survey sought feedback on the benefit of the project to students. Selected responses from practitioners are presented in Exhibit 6.
Practitioner Survey Comments Regarding the Most Valuable Aspect of the Experience
Increased Hiring of Nonaccounting Graduates
The 2019 AICPA Trends Report indicates that CPA firms are hiring nonaccounting graduates at an increasing rate (2019 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and Demand for Public Accounting Recruits, https://bit.ly/3E5OE4s). One of the primary reasons for the shift in hiring is the increasing demand for technology skills (Ken Tysiac, “Report finds shift in accounting firm hiring,” Journal of Accountancy, Aug. 13, 2019, http://bit.ly/2ONqvIh). The AICPA has introduced the CPA Evolution Project to realign the future of the professional certification in an analytics-focused world (Kathleen M. Bakarich, Jacqueline A. Burke, John Castonguay, and Ralph S. Polimeni, The CPA Journal, August/September 2021, https://bit.ly/3eXA88b).
Responses indicate that practitioners enjoy the opportunity to interact with students through this project. Furthermore, practitioners recognize the value of the interview experience to students, and enhancing students’ perceptions causes benefits to accrue to the profession.
The project has been a success from the viewpoints of students, practitioners, and educators. These groups predominantly agree that the project meets the learning objectives and recommend that it be continued in the future. Most importantly, as indicated by their written reflections, many students acknowledge that this interactive experience deepens their understanding of accounting and causes them to think more favorably about the profession. Furthermore, the interview assignment caused some students to choose to major in accounting, and others noted an increased interest in accounting as a potential major or minor. Many of these new majors noted that having a first-hand account from a current practitioner helped them better understand the advantages and diversity of a career in accounting.
Although one course project cannot resolve all of the existing challenges or develop all of the desired accounting skills, the authors have developed an approach designed to addresses many key topics and skills. Practitioners and educators are encouraged to consider additional potential collaborative projects to deal with other issues facing the accounting profession.
Making an Impression
Practitioner engagement on campus is critical to broadening students’ perspectives and attracting high-achieving students to the CPA profession. This educational project expands upon the ways that practitioners can contribute to making a substantial impact on student’s lives and future career choices (Sarah Garven, “How to Influence the Future of the Profession without Leaving the Office,” The CPA Journal, September 2018, pp. 6-7, https://bit.ly/3eSWurl). Although accounting practitioners can also engage on campus as guest speakers in classrooms and for extracurricular events, the interpersonal experience of this interview project is especially impactful in shaping student perceptions. The interviews make a lasting impression, causing many of the non-accounting majors who are enrolled in introductory-level coursework to open their minds to the possibility of a future in accounting.
This project presents a unique approach for accounting educators who strive to deliver more relevant and well-rounded content in an introductory accounting course in order to attract students to accounting. It provides an enlightening experience for students, causing them to—
- increase their awareness of career opportunities in accounting,
- dismiss the myths of the stereotypical accountant, and
- grasp the professional imperative of analytical and non-technical skills.
The exposure to practitioners at such an early stage of a business education provides students with practical insights that sharpens their focus on the skills that are important in the profession. This focus can ultimately help students develop into more attractive candidates for future career roles.
Overall, the success of this project depends upon practitioners’ willingness to share their time and expertise with students. Through a minimal time commitment, practitioners can collaborate with educators to inspire students and attract more talent to the accounting major. These efforts increase students’ understanding of—and affinity toward—accounting, which provides a tremendous benefit to the future of the profession.
The Importance of Diversity and Inclusion in the Accounting Profession
Diversity and inclusion is a critical issue for the accounting profession, yet there has been little progress in recent decades regarding representation, retention, and promotion of minorities in the profession (“Fifty Years, Little Progress for Black Accountants,” by Amanda Iacone, Bloomberg Tax, https://bit.ly/3qMGUAl). Additional discussion related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the accounting profession can be found in the following CPA Journal articles:
- “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Accounting Profession” by Joshua Rosenstock and Martin Shenkman, https://www.cpajournal.com/2021/10/29/diversity-equity-and-inclusion-in-the-accounting-profession/
- “The Diversity and Inclusion Imperative for CPA Firms” by Jodi Chavez, https://www.cpajournal.com/2021/03/01/icymi-the-diversity-and-inclusion-imperative-for-cpa-firms/
- “Fostering Diversity and Inclusion in the Accounting Workplace,” by Stephen R. Goldberg, Lara L. Kessler, and Merribeth Govern, https://www.cpajournal.com/2021/01/14/icymi-fostering-diversity-and-inclusion-in-the-accounting-workplace/
- “Advancing Diversity within the CPA Profession,” by Orumé Hays, https://www.cpajournal.com/2020/08/12/icymi-advancing-diversity-within-the-cpa-profession-2/