Enhancing Students' Accounting Education through Co-Ops with Accountants

Article excerpt

Aspiring accountants today have plenty of book knowledge and academic competence, but often graduate with little, or even no, practical experience. What can accountants do to help alleviate this concern? Some accounting programs have introduced an experience-based learning requirement to provide students with the opportunity to experience realistic business environments.

Northern Kentucky University's Department of Accountancy (NKU) has a compulsory experience-based education requirement for the Bachelor of Science in Accounting degree. This article summarizes the perceived benefits and concerns raised by NKU students, the faculty and the employers.

Co-ops are work-based, educational experiences that require the cooperation of students, academic programs, and employers to be successful. Thus some level of agreement, understanding, or congruence among these three parties--students, accountants, and academic institutions--is required.

Students use co-ops to gain valuable realworld experiences in order to gain an edge during their later job search. They can also acquire additional expertise and confidence in the specific area that they expect to target when they seek permanent employment. Though the monetary reward is sometimes ancillary, it is nonetheless, a benefit that accrues to a co-op student.

Employers generally set up co-ops for their own maximum benefit--e.g., choose projects that are manageable and rewarding for co-op students at the same time providing value-added service to the firm. Well-selected co-op students can help boost morale by bringing fresh ideas and a breath of enthusiasm into the workplace. Co-op programs help accountants lower their turnover rate as well as reduce their recruiting and training expenses--not to mention providing the opportunity to hire the best and brightest.

For academic programs, a major benefit lies in providing practical real-world experience. Academic institutions also recognize the need to establish close contacts with employers in order to stay current with the world of work that their graduates will enter. These relationships often produce useful data to help the school modify its curriculum.

Summary comments about perceived benefits gained by students are presented in Table 1. Table 2 presents summary concerns encountered in the co-op program as well as recommendations from students, academic coordinators and employment supervisors.

The benefits cited by students far outweigh the concerns (most of which can be easily remedied). No student ever suggested that the co-op should be eliminated as an academic requirement. Advantages for participating in a co-op include the opportunity to validate one's choice of accounting as an academic major (or identifying a specific niche in accounting), gaining real work experience, getting paid while earning academic credit and very importantly, learning business savvy (business processes). Employers have an opportunity to hire entry-level employees who have some experience--thus reducing training costs and most importantly turnover rates. Either way, it is a win-win situation for all parties involved and should be strongly encouraged.

TABLE 1

Perceived Benefits Gained by Students

Communication Skills

Learned to clarify and speak clearly

* Learned that self-perceptions and my individual attitudes can wear off on others

* Experienced tremendous growth in ability to communicate

* Learned the importance of communication skills

* Greatly improved listening skills

Social/Interpersonal Skills

* Formed great relationships with co-workers

* Improved self-perception of life and improved personal attitude

* Made friends for life

* Developed better people skills

Career Goals/First Job Preparedness

* Helped greatly with development of career plans

* Solidified choice of specialization - gained special interest in tax

* Helped establish career objectives

* Reassured selected area of specialization

* Realized the importance of job experience

* Dreaded entering the professional work force but the experience alleviated first-time-job anxieties

* Business atmosphere was very educational

Academic-Practitioner Connection

* Students learned most from doing the work

* Academic work at NKU has given sufficient training to job assignments adequately

* Provided an opportunity for growth and better understanding of classroom material

* Academic work related directly to personal experience and ability to handle the work

* A glimpse of the real world work environment allowed growth

* Theories learned in class like management by exception were actually real

Professionalism/Etiquette/Organizational Skills

* Found out that individual attitude wears off on others - positively or negatively

* Learned the art of being a professional business person

* Grew tremendously from a glance of the real world of work

* Realized that business etiquette and hands-on learning cannot be taught through textbooks

* Learned prioritization, organization and responsibility

Business Savvy

* Learned to use a fax machine

* The whole business atmosphere was very educational

* Learned about the corporate world and how it runs

TABLE 2

Expressed Concerns and Overall Recommendations

A. …