January 2000


By Richard Vangermeersch

At a recent gathering of accounting educators, practicing CPAs, and business editors, we were discussing the decline in the number and quality of accounting majors in our business schools. We quickly rattled off five, then 10 reasons for this. "Give me a little more time," I boasted, "and I will get to 50."

Though my undertaking began as a lighthearted dare, the issue is a serious one. The future of the profession requires that all parties involved in the equation--students, academics, and accounting firms--address reasons for the decline.

Please note that the 50 reasons reflect my own personal feelings; I'm sure not everyone will agree with them. Here are my 50 reasons, classified as external reasons (those outside the realm of accounting professors) or internal (those where professors have been party to the decline).

External Reasons: Laws and Regulations

1. 150 credits to sit for CPA exam. This change has forced prospective accounting majors and their parents to make an "agonizing reappraisal" of the accounting major choice because of the additional cost. Especially hurt will be the economically disadvantaged. A further complication is that the date for implementation differs among the many licensing jurisdictions.

2. Undisclosed CPA exam. The break with the tradition of disclosing CPA exam questions and providing suggested answers has added an unneeded degree of uncertainty about what it takes to become a CPA.

3. De-emphasized writing skills. The impending changes to the CPA exam, which place less importance on writing skills, send a strong negative signal to prospective accounting majors, who are quite literate and wish to be in a field that demonstrates a high literacy requirement.

External Reasons: Earnings Levels

4. Low starting salaries for 150 credits. Students and their parents expect starting salaries to reflect the additional time and cost of earning 30 more credits. Yet, this has not happened.

5. High starting salaries in finance. The long boom in the stock market has led to very high starting salaries in finance, much higher than in accounting. Better students are attracted to financial fields for this very understandable reason.

6. High starting salaries in MIS (management information systems). As in finance, better students are attracted by the higher starting salaries in MIS. Where once the accounting major attracted "the best and the brightest," now it is not even getting a fair share of them.

7. Seemingly unlimited earnings in finance. Along with the increase in finance starting salaries, there are the well-publicized salaries and bonuses that successful individuals on the street are receiving.

8. Absence of stock options in CPA firms. Students also know that the absence of stock options is a big reason why practicing CPAs do not attain the wealth that others in business are able to show.

9. Seeming cap on earnings but not on liability suits. Students often express concern over the risk to personal wealth that exists for practicing CPAs because of liability exposure from lawsuits.

External Reasons: Fascination with Large Organizations

10. White paper ruled out detail-oriented persons. Many of our current problems started with a 1989 white paper that focused on the large international CPA firms' need for more socially accomplished accountants rather than the stereotypical detail-oriented accountant.

11. War on detail-oriented persons in accounting. After listening to others preach the party line about the failings of detail-oriented persons, I have concluded that I must be an abnormal accountant because I always wanted balance.

12. Large firm domination of the American Accounting Association (AAA). The AAA, the major organization for those in academic accounting, has sold its soul to its significant contributors and, hence, does not offer much assistance to accounting programs that do not promote the large firms.

13. Beta Alpha Psi to the AICPA. Beta Alpha Psi, the national honor society for accounting students, has always tended to be elitist in attitude.

14. Downplaying of the CPA as independent professional. Regional and national meetings for accounting professors give the impression that independence is no longer the primary attribute of the CPA. Many prospective accounting majors are turned off by the emphasis on the business aspect of accounting.

15. Downplaying of the audit function. Similarly, the more auditing is labeled as a commodity, the more useless the audit function seems. It is no wonder that prospective majors find this a huge turnoff.

16. Emphasis on consulting outside the "traditional accounting field." Why bother with the accounting major when a glamorous job in a glamorous accounting consulting company is waiting for those with any business-oriented major but accounting?

17. Complexity of financial and tax accounting, as well as external auditing. As financial transactions have become seemingly more and more complex, so has accounting for these transactions. However, such complexities occur primarily in large organizations, and it is not clear whether smaller organizations are rarely affected by these complexities.

18. Expectations of recruiters that 20-year-old students have the savvy of experienced executives. This is an unrealistic expectation, especially for economically disadvantaged students, and it places them at a disadvantage.

19. Growing chasm between the needs of the masses and those of large firms. The impression given to students is that service to smaller businesses, governmental organizations, not-for-profits, and average-income people is not the same as working for a large accounting firm. Many students are turned off by this attitude.

External Reasons: Society in General

20. Attention to Y2K issues. These issues have diverted many students' attention away from accounting to MIS.

21. Fascination with technology. Again, there is the same result as in the preceding reason.

22. New business majors. The opportunities to become international business and financial services majors in many schools have caused students to forgo the study of accounting in spite of the foundation it would provide for them in those fields.

23. Less prepared high school graduates. This well-recognized decay has led many to turn away from the extensive demands of an accounting major out of fear of failure.

24. Standardized tests. While standardized tests do not have to be 100% objective in nature, they certainly tend to be. These types of tests seem to trivialize accounting knowledge.

25. Change agents, fads, and visions. Accounting has become infested with them. The field needs less of each.

Accounting professors have reacted to these external reasons for the decline by making--or trying to make--internal changes. I will now discuss 25 actions that have not led to an increase in the quantity and quality of accounting majors but rather have contributed to a decrease.

Internal Reasons: Nuts and Bolts

26. Rejection of teaching the basics of accounting. The 1989 white paper unleashed a movement to drop the basics of accounting as the key goal of an elementary accounting education.

27. Refusal to teach debits and credits. The teaching of debits and credits has been dropped, not only in elementary accounting, but also in subsequent courses. This move has robbed students of the ability to use the conciseness of the journal entry and has lowered the skills of accounting majors.

28. No more worksheets. One more victim is the tool that taught articulation of accounting statements better than any other means. The removal of worksheets has led to a fractionalized view of accounting, rather than a holistic one.

29. Accounting teachers bored by details. These teachers have forgotten that most students are not bored by details.

30. Failure to stress mastery of the subject. A failure to master the details of accounting leads to a failure to master the subject.

31. No long problems or labs. Labs were phased out of accounting programs in most schools years ago. Long problems are a more recent victim of a move to make accounting a series of sound bites. This has reduced students' skill levels and sense of accomplishment.

32. Practitioners dropping out of daytime teaching. We have lost these role models. For every student who wants a very academic look at elementary accounting there are a hundred that are looking for an example of what it means to achieve success in an esteemed profession.

33. Laissez-faire attitudes on attendance and homework. Accounting professors used to demand professional behavior from students. Too many no longer do.

34. First course in elementary accounting an introduction to finance. Too many accounting professors have decided to focus on the glitz of the stock market in the first course. As a result, students are lured toward finance without ever discovering accounting.

35. No alternative to the traditional view. Faculty are divided on a new model of teaching accounting. As can be imagined, chaos has replaced order and makes success difficult.

Internal Reasons: Effects of the Failure to Teach Nuts and Bolts

36. No basic building blocks of learning in accounting. It is now very difficult to assume that anything has been learned in preceding courses.

37. No more established sequence of learning. This is the culmination of the previous reason. Many accounting graduates are not ready to be turned loose.

38. Multiple-choice questions. As accounting testing has degenerated entirely into multiple-choice questions, students are presented with a trivialized field of knowledge. The teaching of accounting has become focused on discussions of multiple-choice questions from test books.

39. Huge sections in elementary accounting. Nothing turns off students more than large, overcrowded sections done "on the cheap."

40. Team building in class vs. individual mastery of basics. Even in regular-sized sections, teachers have done team-building exercises in class, robbing valuable class time from students' mastery of the basics.

41. Academic rationalization of students' failure. There are countless rationalizations given for the decline in the quantity and quality of accounting majors. For all the bluster about how much change will benefit accounting students, the situation has continued to deteriorate.

42. Loss of undeclared business majors. In the past, about one-half of those graduating as accounting majors were undeclared business majors excited by the two elementary accounting courses they were required to take. Unfortunately, they are no longer getting excited and, hence, our numbers are significantly lower.

Internal Reasons: CPA-Driven

43. No accounting career alternative to becoming a CPA. While this has been an old refrain for many years, it is even more important with the barrier to some caused by the 150-hour requirement. When students reject the CPA choice for a career, they turn away from the accounting major.

44. Students not attentive to paths in accounting other than the CPA. My colleagues and I have not achieved much success in convincing students of the alternatives. The very rewarding careers in cost/management accounting, governmental accounting, not-for-profit accounting, and internal auditing seem to be lost in the emphasis on becoming a CPA.

45. Complexity of accounting textbooks. As topics in accounting have become immensely complex, especially accounting for large organizations, text books have been written to the level of research of a FASB staff member. This has frustrated students and faculty alike and has, unfortunately, turned off some very bright students.

Internal Reasons: General

46. Faculty lack of non-CPA experience. While there are fewer faculty members with CPA experience, there are now almost none with other types of accounting experience.

47. Faculty not small business oriented. Since many faculty members gained their experience with large public accounting firms, they may have had limited exposure to small businesses. Hence, this important sector is underrepresented, and students do not realize the need for accountants there.

48. Beta Alpha Psi vs. accounting clubs. The nonmember perceives Beta Alpha Psi as a snobbish, elitist group. Accounting clubs tend to be formed in the sophomore year, but their leaders tend to migrate toward joining Beta Alpha Psi in their junior year. Hence, many accounting clubs fold without leadership.

49. Loss of intellectualization of and in accounting. This is an unfortunate outcome of multiple-choice tests and students that lack the mastery of basic skills, both of which do not serve to intellectualize the accounting profession.

50. Failure to stress the good that accountants do for society. While most of my career in accounting has been as an academic, I've also had work experiences with a medium-sized CPA firm, a mid-sized industrialized company, the U.S. Government Accounting Office, an accounting trainer in Egypt, Ingersoll-Rand, NASA, pharmacies, a funeral home, tax services, and numerous not-for-profit and educational institutions. I've seen accountants do immense good for all sorts of organizations. I have attempted to relate this to students with mixed results.

What is needed is an all-out effort to convey to students the good that accountants accomplish in all types of organizations.

Much of this good comes from accountants well-honed in the basics of accounting and well-trained in the analysis and problem-solving that has been the hallmark of accountants.

My task here was to state and briefly discuss these 50 reasons for the decline in the quantity and quality of accounting majors. I believe there are solutions to each of the problems discussed. I now challenge readers to begin a dialogue and find some answers. *

Richard Vangermeersch, PhD, CMA, CPA, is a professor of accounting at the University of Rhode Island.

James L. Craig, Jr., CPA
The CPA Journal

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