Upping the Count in Accounting

The tempest of controversy surrounding Enron’s collapse has had at least one positive outcome: It’s put the spotlight on accounting, a profession students often overlook in favor of other careers. Now that accounting has caught the public interest, the AICPA believes it’s the perfect time to show everyone just what the field has to offer.
Upping the Count in Accounting

No one denies that the debacle that brought down Enron may have cast a negative light on the accounting profession. Don’t be surprised, however, if you don’t hear too many business school accounting administrators complaining.

“It’s negative, but it’s attention,” says Dan Deines, a professor of accounting at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. “The public has watched as a huge company has gone under and individuals have lost millions of dollars. Now, people are realizing the importance of a high-quality audit. They’re realizing that audits, when they’re done right, can make a difference in people’s lives. Enron has added a stigma to accounting, but it has forced us out into the light.”

Now that the public is asking questions, many stakeholders in accounting education believe that this may be the best time to take advantage of students’ newfound interest in the field. “One challenge we have been trying to overcome is that students simply don’t appreciate the broadness of the profession and the impact a career in accounting can have,” states Beatrice Sanders, director of academic and career development for the American Institute for Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) in New York City. “Enron has raised awareness of the whole profession, among the public as well as young people. It’s raised awareness of the importance of CPAs to the economy and the whole capital market system.”

As two of the most outspoken advocates for proactive promotion of the accounting profession, Sanders and Deines are optimistic that interest in accounting will continue to build. By taking this opportunity to educate the public, business school accounting programs will not only attract more students to accounting programs, but also promote a more positive image for the profession as a whole.

Reversing the Trend

In the 1990s, even as demand for qualified accountants increased, student interest in the profession plummeted. From 1998 to 1999, the number of graduates in accounting decreased 20 percent in the United States, according to “The Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits—2001,” compiled and published by the AICPA. From 1999 to 2000, the number dropped six percent more. And although there was a 19 percent increase in master’s degrees awarded from 1999 to 2000, there was a 10 percent decrease in bachelor’s degrees and a 9 percent decrease in candidates taking the certified public accountant exam. Only 115,493 candidates sat for the exam in 2000, the lowest number since 1979.

The U.S. is not alone. In the last five years, countries such as Australia, China, and South Africa also have experienced a shortage of accountants, often caused not only by declining enrollments, but also by a lack of interest in the auditing process. Many students who earn accounting degrees do not become auditors, but instead pursue more glamorous careers as consultants or brokers.

In response, many accounting programs have begun to ramp up their efforts to reinforce the importance of an auditing career in today’s business environments. To underscore these efforts, the AICPA has committed five years and $5 million to a comprehensive direct marketing campaign to spark interest in accounting careers. The campaign, launched last fall, includes print ads and a student-run Web site (www.StartHereGoPlaces.com) that target high school students and young adults. One ad highlights the importance of accounting skills to running a movie studio. The ad stresses the job’s flexibility, letting students know that if they “know business and accounting skills, they can go anywhere.”

It’s All About Image

At the heart of the accountant shortage is the fact that accounting simply has the hard-to-shake reputation of “being boring,” says Deines. In his research of student enrollment and retention in U.S. accounting programs, he has found that neither high school students nor their teachers hold accounting in particularly high esteem.

In the late ’80s, for example, Deines surveyed collegebound high school students in the Kansas City area, asking them to rank ten occupations, including attorneys, police officers, teachers, social workers, journalists, and accountants, in ten categories of career satisfaction. Accounting enjoyed its highest ranking under “salary,” where students ranked it seventh. In seven of the ten categories, however, accounting came in dead last.

“I found that there still is a perception of accounting as boring, lacking personal satisfaction and challenge, among both students and teachers,” says Deines. Furthermore, business classes offered in high school, such as bookkeeping, were also viewed negatively—even socially unacceptable—by students. “I found that to be disturbing. I look at the bright, articulate, caring students who have been in my classroom and who have gone on to rewarding careers,” asserts Deines. “How can we still have this incredibly bad stereotype when our profession has so much flexibility and opportunity?”

Campaigns aimed at dispelling the prevailing stereotype are an important first step, he believes. Even more important is to make sure that educational materials about accounting get into the hands of prospective students—and teachers—as students begin to make decisions about their future careers.

“In the past, many programs have made up brochures, but nobody sent them out. That was fine in the early 1980s when numbers were still going up,” Deines says. But in 1989, the numbers started going down; even worse, he says, the perception of accounting didn’t change, and has not changed in the last 15 years. “We have not done anything to change it. The academics traditionally just washed their hands of it and said, ‘It’s not our problem.’ But it is our problem, and we have a responsibility to solve it,” he emphasizes.

In 1989, KSU and 12 other schools each received a $250,000 grant to do just that. With the help of the grant, KSU threw out its old, test-oriented accounting curriculum and transformed it into a hands-on, project-based curriculum that emphasized problem solving and teamwork. Next, the school began sponsoring community outreach programs to speak with students and teachers about accounting, which has had a tremendous effect, says Deines. KSU’s accounting department has seen its enrollment increase from 188 in 1989 to 325 in 1995, before it had to raise GPA requirements to control the number of majors at around 250.

An especially effective program is a one-day session at the school in which the college invites teams of teachers to learn more about accounting as a career. The school gives them an AICPA information package that includes a recruiting video, a poster, and lesson plans related to accounting that teachers can incorporate into the curriculum. At the session, accounting professionals and educators talk to them about the profession and what it has to offer.

“The teachers start to see accountants not as nerds, but as bright, talented people. Our ideal is that if we can bring these teachers in and change their minds, they’ll go back to the school and we’ll have long-term advocates for our profession. Every year, they’ll tell our story,” Deines says.

“Accountants have an image as boring geeks in green eye shades,” he adds. “We need to tell a better story.” In other words, it’s time to show the public that there’s much more to auditors than Enron.

For more information about the AICPA’s marketing campaign or to obtain promotional materials, contact Beatrice Sanders by phone at 212-596-6218 or by e-mail at [email protected].