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Accounting education changes course: communication skills and real-world cases broaden the syllabus.

Twenty years ago detractors of accounting education were plentiful among practitioners and academics alike. The heart of their complaint was that university accounting curricula drilled students in rote technical memorization at the expense of the broader business, communication and analytical skills they needed in a real world changing at warp speed. Even recently such critics were easy to find. For example, five years ago in their widely read monograph "Accounting Education: Charting the Course through a Perilous Future," professors W. Steve Albrecht, CPA, CIA and CFE, and Robert J. Sack, CPA, said accounting education was so "outdated and broken" that failure to embrace reform could be fatal.

Their findings were controversial, but few argued with the thrust of Albrecht and Sack's report: Educators needed to better align accounting curricula with workplace realities and alter their teaching methods to encourage critical thinking. The AICPA credited the pair with presenting "a compelling case for dramatically restructuring accounting education" and urged educators to "boldly reengineer their curriculums and programs using the roadmap provided by Professors Albrecht and Sack." Three years later, in "Educating for the Public Trust," PricewaterhouseCoopers said despite advances there still were important educational gaps, from not teaching university students interpersonal and communication skills to not inspiring a commitment to continuous learning.

Fortunately, there are signs the harsh rap against accounting education may no longer be justified. Not only academics think so (though some say their curriculum and teaching improvements have gone largely unnoticed)--so do the firms hiring recent graduates.

"They're better educated today than when I came out of college," says Bill Balhoff, CPA, CFE, audit director at the public accounting firm Postlethwaite & Netterville in Baton Rouge, La. CPA Jim Metzler, AICPA vice-president of small firm interests, agrees: "Young professionals are smarter, more business attuned vs. numbers attuned and good at being able to see the forest and not just the trees."

Even Albrecht, now an Andersen Alumni professor of accounting at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, and associate dean of its school of management, sees some improvement. "It's not universal across all schools, but a lot of them have done some good things," he says. More ethics and fraud courses are being taught now, and there is increased attention to writing skills and class presentations. "There is a lot more case-based teaching, and a lot more of what I would call field studies, where students do projects in the real world. And the cases that are studied require more analytical skills."

Of course there still are schools where professors prefer to rely on lecture-based teaching and textbooks (a content-only approach), but their numbers are dwindling. "We recognize that our students need better development of critical thinking, analytical and communication skills, and we're working on it," says CPA Karen Pincus, chair of the accounting department at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, speaking for the academic community at large. She says colleges don't always have the freedom to reengineer their curricula, however. In zealously supporting technical knowledge "a lot of state licensing agencies specify courses students should take. While that might be good for the curriculum at that moment, it quickly becomes cast in stone" and a roadblock to needed change.

CPA Tom Schaeffer, professor and chair of the department of accountancy at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, Notre Dame, Ind., says many outside observers, even academics who've studied the issue, miss some of the real change that has taken place if they merely look at course titles or individual programs. Professor James Benjamin, CPA, head of the accounting department at Texas A&M University, College Station, agrees that many college-course titles have remained static while the teaching approach and content have changed for the better. "In my last six and a half years here at Notre Dame," says Schaeffer, "the set of expanded pedagogies is really re markable--going from a content-driven to a skill-focused approach, and from passive learning to active learning. We get into all types of things: teamwork, case studies, research-skills development and presentations. A lot of progress has been made, and I don't think it's unique to Notre Dame."

CPA Jerry Trapnell, executive vice-president and chief accreditation officer of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International, predicts that in the years ahead accounting curricula will continue to become less rules-obsessed and to encourage more critical and analytical thinking. In short, he argues, professors will spend less time drilling students in accounting knowledge and more time teaching them how to apply it. He expects universities to offer more ethics and forensic-accounting courses. He also foresees an uptick in the number of students specializing in the attest function--a reflection, no doubt, of the increased emphasis placed on that art by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which mandates that outside auditors attest to the quality and effectiveness of the internal controls of public companies.

CPA Belverd Needles Jr., professor of accountancy and MIS at DePaul University in Chicago, says students also can expect their schools to make greater use of technology to transform the teaching experience. Over the Internet he taught a course in managerial accounting simultaneously to students in Chicago and in Prague, where he was. He and the DePaul students used e-mail, computer chat rooms, blackboard software, spread- sheets, PowerPoint presentations and videotaped lectures that were streamed back to the United States via the Web--and U.S. students earned grades as good as or higher than those of their Prague counterparts.

Still, Albrecht warns the road may not be as smooth as educators hope. Electronic tools may make education widely accessible, but distance learning's reliance on independent reading and videotaped lectures harkens back to a content- rather than skills-based approach. Meanwhile, Albrecht frets, the growing importance of MBA program rankings by the media may prompt some schools to pour money into them at the expense of accounting programs at a time when funding already is problematic.

"There are schools, especially state schools but even some private ones, that are really cutting costs, so that a bigger and bigger percentage of the teaching at the undergraduate level is being done by part-timers and untenured faculty. I perceive that as a threat to the quality of the education they can offer," Albrecht says. He also worries that fewer university professors are entering the CPA profession before turning to teaching, which will compromise their ability to infuse their classrooms with important real-world experience.

The result, he cautions, may be a widening of the divide between the top accounting schools and those that lack the financial resources to attract the best professors and fund the most innovative curricula. Already, he says, the Big Four accounting firms flood the campuses of the top accounting programs with recruiters while bypassing many of those with lesser reputations. "At selected schools in this country, the firms and their recruiters start tracking students from the day they're admitted," he notes. "They go to the campuses and hold ski days, sponsor golf tournaments, 5K races--anything to connect with the students. Those kids are going to have great internships and great jobs, but it's just not going to happen at a lot of schools."

Of course, great schools always have offered great job prospects. None of this is to say that accounting graduates elsewhere won't be able to find work. Indeed, demand for accountants in the post-Sarbanes-Oxley world is strong (see "Accounting Enrollments Swing Higher as Job Demand Soars," below). If current trends in accounting education continue, tomorrow's graduates should be well-equipped for the challenges they'll face in the working world.

Randy Myers is a freelance financial writer who lives in Dover, Pa.

RELATED ARTICLE: Accounting enrollments swing higher as job demand soars.

The far-reaching Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which established broad new financial reporting requirements for public companies and reestablished the value of auditing and attestation, has created strong demand for public accountants. The nation's undergraduates appear to have taken notice. According to data compiled by the AICPA, the number of students awarded bachelor's degrees in accounting rose to 37,000 in the 2002-2003 school year, up 6% from the prior year, and the number earning master's degrees rose to 13,000, up 30%. Enrollment increased 6% in bachelor's programs and 40% in master's programs. The number of candidates sitting for the CPA exam increased in each of the past two years as well.

W. Steve Albrecht, CPA, associate dean of accounting at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, attributes the uptick in college enrollments not only to the demands created by Sarbanes-Oxley but also to reduced competition for finance students following the burst of the dot-com bubble five years ago. He theorizes that the accounting scandals that led to Sarbanes-Oxley also made a difference. "In a sense, any news is good news," he says. All the press about the accounting scandals made accounting "a little bit sexy" and likely boosted enrollments.

Professor Belverd Needles Jr., CPA, of DePaul University of Chicago, agrees. "Who wants to work in a field that's viewed as a commodity? People want something that has a certain amount of excitement and risk to it. The legal profession has had its ups and downs over the years, and many people have joked about crooked lawyers, but that doesn't keep students from wanting to be attorneys. They don't see themselves in that light. Instead, they see themselves entering an interesting, intellectually challenging discipline that will allow them to do good in the world and earn a good income at the same time." Today accounting also fits that bill.

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Author:Myers, Randy
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Oct 1, 2005
Words:1590
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