Magazine article The CPA Journal

The Inclusion of Sustainability in the Accounting Curriculum

Magazine article The CPA Journal

The Inclusion of Sustainability in the Accounting Curriculum

Article excerpt

As more organizations integrate sustainability into their business strategies, the traditional role of accountants is expanding to provide sustainability reporting and assurance services. To be valuable advisors in this emerging area, CPAs need to know how to measure and report sustainability activities. In an attempt to keep ahead of the demand for sustainability reporting expertise, some universities now offer courses dedicated to accounting for sustainability. This article discusses the sustainability courses currently offered by accounting departments in U.S. universities, potential reasons for the low supply of courses, and the future of sustainability courses in accounting curricula.

Current Offerings

To better understand how widespread sustainability courses are among accounting curricula, the authors searched the course catalogs of all colleges and universities in the United States that grant undergraduate or graduate accounting degrees to determine whether the accounting department currently offers a stand-alone course in sustainability reporting at either level. Of the more than 900 universities with undergraduate or graduate accounting programs, only 17 list a course entirely devoted to sustainability. The courses and their catalog descriptions are provided in Exhibit 1.

To ascertain the importance of accounting students' learning goals related to sustainability accounting, the authors also polled instructors of sustainability accounting courses as to why they believe this topic is important for accounting students. Catherine Milburn, who teaches "Integrated Reporting for Socially Responsible Strategies" at the University of Colorado Boulder's Leeds School of Business, provided some insight:

I think it is important for all business students to learn about sustainability reporting (or any of the other wide range of names that are given to non-financial reporting) because it is the future of reporting. Today the market cap of most businesses is equally or even more highly tied to non-financial 'assets' such as brand, access to resources, stakeholder engagement/ - trust, risk management, etc. The EU requires disclosure of non-financial data from most companies and organizations, and many, if not most, of the Fortune 500 produce sustainability reports of some kind. Producing these reports requires data and inputs from all the different divisions/departments of a company. Without common standards and formats, it is important for students to be able to critically evaluate these reports.

The Lack of Sustainability Courses

Despite the growing demand for CPAs with sustainability measurement and reporting knowledge, fewer than 2% of universities offer accounting courses in these areas. Through interviews with accounting faculty and CPAs, several potential explanations for the low supply of sustainability accounting courses emerged.

First, many schools may not have the faculty, time, or financial resources available to create and teach an entire course about sustainability reporting in accounting, although faculty may still include some of these issues throughout the curriculum. For example, in response to demands from the profession, many accounting programs have added a standalone professional ethics courses in recent years, while others have integrated ethics into existing courses. Likewise, sustainability reporting is also taught in places as part of an existing accounting course.

Second, the lack of instructional resources may be a barrier to the adoption of a new topic or creating an entirely new course. Since sustainability accounting is a relatively new subject, textbooks and other course materials may not be easy to find.

Third, it is possible that U.S. employers do not yet demand that graduates have sustainability reporting knowledge. Milburn notes that while "general employers value students that are aware of current trends and can discuss coherently sustainability issues," CPA firms do not yet look for students with direct and in-depth sustainability knowledge. …

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