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Reforming accounting education.

The AECC is trying to ensure classroom learning matches real-world needs.

Attention, CPAs: Think back on your undergraduate accounting curriculum. If you graduated in the early 1980s or before, it probably had a heavy emphasis on financial accounting, especially preparing external financial reports. Courses were taught independently of each other. Textbooks included all the existing accounting and auditing pronouncements. You followed along as your professor solved problems on the board. There was only one right answer. You or your professor rarely used any technology. You did little writing and made even fewer presentations in your accounting classes. You never worked with other students on group projects. The ultimate objective was to pass the Uniform CPA Examination.

How does your accounting education square with the professional demands you face today? To what extent did the accounting curriculum provide the professional knowledge and skills you rely on now? Probably very little. However, thanks to a working partnership between accounting educators and accountants in practice - those employed in industry and commerce, public practice and government - changes in accounting education are under way at last.

Recent developments have quickened the pace of change in accounting education:

* The practice of accounting, in all segments, has grown more complex.

* The accounting function's scope in all types of organizations, and therefore the CPA's role, have become broader.

* Standards continue to proliferate.

* Calls for greater accountability have increased.

* Technology has invaded all aspects of the CPA's professional life.



Accounting practitioners and accounting educators together are reengineering the curriculum. In 1989, the then eight largest CPA firms entered a partnership with the American Accounting Association (AAA) leadership to form the Accounting Education Change Commission (AECC). With funding from the largest firms, the commission's objectives are to (1) provide leadership in changing accounting education so it will be responsive to the needs of those entering a variety of career paths and (2) address the educational needs of the principal stakeholders in accounting education. The latter's views are represented on the 18-member commission, which includes representatives from small firms (the American Institute of CPAs), large firms (the six largest firms), commerce and industry (the Financial Executives Institute and the Institute of Management Accountants), regulators (the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy), business school deans (the American Association of Collegiate Schools of Business) and accounting educators (the AAA) as well as a university president and an expert in higher education. The AECC also includes as ex-officio members the AICPA vice-president-education and the AAA director of education.

The commission views the design of a university's curriculum, which determines the breadth and depth of a student's education and thus must be relevant to the business and accounting world, to be its product design - that is, it shapes the student's educational experience. Curriculum design must have a "customer" focus, recognizing that both students and employers are education's customers.

The AECC believes the 150-hour requirement for future CPAs provides an excellent opportunity for accounting faculties to reexamine the entire curriculum and should result in fundamental changes in the structure and delivery of accounting education from the first course to the last.

To quick-start curriculum innovation and change, at the outset the commission committed the majority of its resources to a competitive grant program. The colleges and universities receiving grants, listed in exhibit 1, page 80, represent a variety of institutions and have proposed a variety of curriculum structures. Several non-AECC grant schools are making substantive changes in their programs. Clearly, change is taking hold.


Although the changes in accounting education are taking many approaches, there is considerable common ground in the objectives of those proposing the changes. See exhibit 2, page 81, for a comparison of some aspects of the traditional undergraduate accounting curriculum with the emerging new approach. The key features of the new approach are summarized below. Fuller descriptions are included in the AECC's pronouncements listed in exhibit 3, page 82.

Technical vs. general education. Traditional accounting curriculums place a premium on technical knowledge, all too often at the expense of a broad-based, general education. Because future accountants must develop the capacity for inquiry, abstract logical thinking and critical analysis, the new curriculums should develop students' speaking and listening skills, historical consciousness, international and multi-cultural knowledge, appreciation of science and the study of values and their role in decision making, including the ability to resolve ethical dilemmas.

In addition, tomorrow's accountants must understand business and their work environment, as well as how their services are used, and have a sound knowledge of organizations. The commission believes the accounting program focus should be on preparing students to become professional accountants, not be professional accountants at the time of entry to the profession. New hires cannot be expected to have the range of knowledge and skills of their more experienced colleagues.

Examples of how some universities are broadening the focus of accounting students are found in the AECC-sponsored projects at the University of North Texas, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Kansas State University.

* At the University of North Texas experimental program, third-year students take an intensive liberal arts program - the classical learning core (CLC) - which is designed around four themes: civility, reasoning, virtue and accountability. These themes are carried over into the accounting curriculum in class assignments and on examinations.

* The University of Massachusetts at Amherst developed an intensive program for undergraduate liberal arts majors, with the objective of recruiting some of these students into graduate accounting programs and then into the profession. Other nongrant universities are developing similar programs.

* The Kansas State University beginning curriculum focuses on business operations and managerial topics. The faculty believes this approach helps students gain a better perspective on the environment of the accounting function in organizations.

Subject matter integration. In the traditional accounting curriculum, each course in tax, managerial accounting, financial accounting, systems and auditing is taught with little or no acknowledgment of the impact of the other topics. CPAs can attest to the irrationality of such an approach since business decisions cannot be made without considering all sides of the issues.

Accounting curriculum designers have begun to recognize the importance of integrating all aspects of the accounting discipline throughout the curriculum-more accurately reflecting practice. For example, Brigham Young University collapsed its separate junior and senior accounting courses into a 24 semester-hour accounting core curriculum, which integrates tax, managerial accounting, financial accounting, systems, auditing and business law around a business cycles model. Students therefore are able to see how the various aspects of accounting are interrelated.

"One right answer" syndrome. Many students study accounting because of their misperception that accounting is orderly, structured and precise and problems are solved as easily on the job as those in the classroom. This misperception is reinforced by traditional accounting curriculums that focus on assigned problems designed to arrive at only one acceptable answer. In the real world, however, many situations may have more than one defensible solution. Accountants are constantly called on to apply judgment, address ethical dilemmas and deal with "messy" or incomplete data. Problems in practice, unlike typical accounting textbook problems, often are unstructured and require making assumptions and estimates.

Accounting education must be redesigned to more clearly prepare students for the true nature of practice. One approach is to make greater use of cases drawn from practice, a common approach in MBA programs. The undergraduate accounting programs at the University of Virginia (McIntire School) and at North Carolina A & T State University are being redesigned to use case studies extensively.

Teaching rules vs. how to learn. Accounting textbooks - constantly revised to reflect the latest professional pronouncements - often are selected for courses because of their comprehensiveness. However, law schools do not attempt to teach every law of the land, and neither should accounting faculties seek to teach every accounting pronouncement. Students should learn how to learn, not memorize rules. The longer lasting value, the AECC believes, is for students to learn how to find answers to problems.

Several accounting programs that use this approach emphasize students' abilities to identify problems and opportunities, search for the desired information, analyze and interpret the data and reach well-reasoned conclusions. In all instances, understanding the inquiry process in an unstructured environment is viewed as an important part of learning to learn.

Emphasis on the CPA exam. Undoubtedly, the CPA exam has been a major driver in shaping many accounting curriculums to the exclusion of broader objectives. In addition, often faculty design their courses to track the exam content and students gauge a course's relevance by how closely it relates to the exam.

If a curriculum is to teach accounting students how to learn, it should be designed to help them (1) become productive and thoughtful citizens through gaining a broad understanding of social, political and economic forces, (2) understand business and organizations and (3) grasp accounting's broad concepts. The CPA exam, however, is designed to test only a portion of the third objective, and at the lowest levels of learning - recalling facts and memorizing rules.

Many law schools do not teach to the bar exam, but graduates are expected to and in fact do well taking it. Likewise, a well-designed curriculum should provide accounting graduates with the tools to undertake learning on their own the detailed knowledge tested by the CPA exam. The aspiring CPA should focus on preparing for and writing the CPA exam only after course work is completed.

Communication and interpersonal skills. The traditional accounting curriculum paid little heed to developing students' communication and interpersonal skills. As a result, many graduates are surprised at the important role these skills play in professional advancement. The new accounting curriculum must focus on these skills in every course.

New accounting programs should provide many opportunities for students to write persuasive memorandums, clear briefing reports and effective project summaries. In addition, students should be learning to work in small groups, developing the skills for dealing with different personalities and resolving conflicts. One objective of all the AECC grant projects is the development of students' communication and interpersonal skills. For example, see exhibit 4, page 82, for Brigham Young University's learning objectives, which were added to its undergraduate accounting core courses.

Active vs. passive learning. Accounting educators traditionally lecture and solve problems on the board, with students the passive recipients of professors' knowledge, but research demonstrates learning is greatly enhanced when students are active participants in the learning process. Therefore, case presentations and discussions, role plays, debates and similar activities should be strongly encouraged. Student project teams, simulating practice, are being used increasingly to enhance learning and develop interpersonal skills. For example, at the professional workshop being developed by the University of Illinois, students hone their communication, leadership and other skills and apply them to practice situations.

Technology. Technology is another area in which accounting practice has outpaced accounting education. In the work place CPAs use interactive databases, general ledger and tax software packages and expert systems, yet the integration of technology into the curriculum has been slow.

Accounting educators are working feverishly to integrate technology in the curriculum. One of the most ambitious efforts is being undertaken in the graduate accounting program at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, where state-of-the-art technology is used both in delivering instruction and in student learning projects. In addition, Arizona State University and Mesa Community College are using self-developed computer systems to teach introductory accounting students the rudiments of the accounting cycle in a laboratory setting, freeing up class time for broader and more conceptual issues. Also, the University of Chicago business school faculty developed courses for sophisticated users of accounting information, drawing on databases and other computer-based tools. The curriculum, whose structure mirrors the way accounting data are used for business decisions, emphasizes the economic settings in which the events that occur are translated into accounting reports.



The AECC's activities and the accounting education reform movement mean CPAs have been recognized as consumers of education and as partners in shaping the curriculum. They are consumers when they hire a graduate after evaluating his or her preparation for employment, when they pay that employee to perform accounting responsibilities, when they invest continuing education dollars in new employees under the assumption those employees have the learning tools to benefit from additional education and when they trust those same learning tools to enable the new hire to learn on the job. The AECC recognizes CPAs' consumer role by stressing the need for a strong correlation between the academic preparation of accountants and the capabilities needed for success in practice. In fact, the AECC believes that correlation should drive the curriculum.

CPAs' role as partners in shaping the curriculum follows from their consumer role. They are the best sources for accounting faculty of information about the requirements for success in the practice of accounting. After the AECC's work is complete and the formal partnership between CPAs in the work place and accounting educators has ended, ongoing cooperation between accounting faculty and CPAs in practice will be needed so the curriculum can be adapted continuously to new changes in the demands of practice.

The AECC's activities and the accounting education reform movement demonstrate that one prerequisite for the profession's viability is being given the attention it deserves. New personnel of high quality - the lifeblood of any profession - are vital to the accounting profession at this time when the challenges of practice are evolving so rapidly and the future promises more of the same.

It is therefore in the interests of those in practice to become more active partners in shaping the curriculum. By becoming involved through volunteer positions on campuses, recruiting activities and speaking to student groups and to classes, practicing CPAs can promote the ideas the AECC has been promoting, working to have curriculums serve the changing needs of practice and providing the necessary perspective on the nature of those changing needs.

Efforts to improve accounting education have never been greater. The working partnership between CPA practitioners and accounting educators brightens the prospect for meaningful and lasting improvements in accounting education. The very future of the profession depends on its ability to attract new personnel of the highest quality who are well prepared to meet seen and unforeseen challenges. CPAs need to start planning now for the new generation of accounting graduates who will biing to the profession academic preparation very unlike that of their own.


* ACCOUNTING EDUCATION before the last decade did not prepare new hires well for the requirements of the work place. The Accounting Education Change Commission (AECC) was created to change that situation.

* IDENTIFYING curriculum change as a goal, the AECC committed most of its resources to a competitive grant program. Thirteen colleges and universities have received grants and proposed a variety of curriculum changes.

* THE KEY FEATURES of the new accounting curriculum are

* Emphasizing a broad-based, general education rather than technical knowledge.

* Integrating all aspects of the accounting discipline throughout the curriculum to more accurately reflect practice.

* Avoiding the "one-right-answer" syndrome by reflecting real-world problem solving.

* Focusing on learning how to learn.

* Deemphasizing the Uniform CPA Examination in shaping accounting courses.

* Developing students' communication and interpersonal skills.

* Ensuring students are active participants in the learning process.

* Integrating the latest technology in the curriculum.

DOYLE Z. WILLIAMS, CPA, PhD, is chairman of the Accounting Education Change Commission. The KPMG Peat Marwick Professor of Accounting at the University of Southern California, he is the former dean of the USC School of Accounting and a past president of the American Accounting Association.
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Author:Williams, Doyle Z.
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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