Academic journal article Journal of Accountancy

The Crisis in Accounting Education; the CPA's Role in Attracting the Best and the Brightest to the Profession

Academic journal article Journal of Accountancy

The Crisis in Accounting Education; the CPA's Role in Attracting the Best and the Brightest to the Profession

Article excerpt

Much has been written about a crisis in accounting education. Professors W. Steve Albrecht and Robert J. Sack sounded the most recent alarm in a 2000 monograph, Accounting Education: Charting the Course through a Perilous Future, This study found that many practicing accountants perceived the accounting education graduates get today to be outdated and in desperate need of an overhaul. If these practitioners were completing their own education over again, some said they would choose not to major in accounting. As stakeholders in the success of accounting education, CPAs must recognize their input is urgently needed. This article examines the crisis and explains how CPAs can become active partners to improve accounting education.


The global marketplace is changing. Businesses rely more and more on changing technology. The companies, services and industries that fuel economic growth also are evolving. In this new marketplace, traditional accountants are a dying breed. Technology has made preparing and disseminating financial information so inexpensive anyone with the right software can produce basic data. Yet, many accounting educators have failed to restructure accounting curriculum to equip graduates with the tools and expertise they need in today's business world. As a result, fewer and less-qualified students choose accounting careers, and the future of accounting schools as top-tier providers of business graduates is at risk.

One of the early warning signs that major changes in accounting education were needed came when major CPA firms reengineered themselves as "professional services" rather than "public accounting" firms. So convinced were they of the need for dramatic change, not even intense SEC pressure could deter them from offering the services the marketplace demanded. Unlike the academic community, CPA firms were quick to realize that new business realities demanded a broader set of competencies.

Some faculty argue that the loss of the best students to other majors is due to higher starting salaries. Employers, they say, aren't paying accounting graduates as much as those with other majors such as consulting and computer systems. While starting salary is certainly an issue, is it the only reason the best and brightest students are choosing fields other than accounting in growing numbers? Why have the starting salaries of accounting majors decreased relative to other majors? Perhaps salary differentials reflect marketplace expectations about valuable skills, knowledge and abilities. Faculty who label starting salary as the culprit should consider that the real reason may be an accounting curriculum that both employers and students no longer value.


The flight of the best students to other areas of study exposes a deeper problem: The academic community, in general, tends to resist major curriculum shifts. In many accounting programs, it isn't unusual to find decision-making models focused exclusively on enrollment trends, number of students hired by major firms, starting salaries and anecdotal testimony of alumni, campus recruiters and employers as proxies for program quality.

By contrast, the need to maintain profits and increase partners' wealth forces CPA firms to be proactive in anticipating and responding to opportunities. As public accounting firms quickly realized, reactive firms--those that respond to change only when forced--don't survive in highly competitive markets. The academic culture, however, lacks the wealth incentives and management structures necessary to anticipate opportunities or reward innovations. As one faculty member at a highly respected university described it: "The academic environment is based on tradition. It holds tightly to the time-honored independence of faculty with respect to classes and scholarship. Our evaluation and reward system is based on individual efforts and our faculty's most respected attribute is an independence of thought. …

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