to Change Introductory Accounting
complete overhaul of accounting education is long overdue,
according to a comprehensive study by Albrecht and Sack in
2000. Many employers of CPAs have reinvented themselves as
“information consultants,” moving away from traditional
accounting services in the process; recent events indicate
this is not without negative consequences. Accounting education’s
failure to keep pace with these changes in the profession
may be undermining accounting itself as a discipline (Albrecht
and Sack 2000).
old curriculum—which emphasizes memorization of accounting
pronouncements and the mechanics of recording transactions—does
not provide a complete picture of today’s environment.
Students receive a distorted view that could discourage
them from majoring in accounting, and many that are attracted
might not be well suited to the current demands of the field.
Moreover, the focus on memorizing technical knowledge leaves
little time for developing the skills that most employers
emphasis on consulting services and neglect of attest services
by large accounting firms have contributed to declining
professionalism. Furthermore, recent financial frauds and
misleading financial statements—undetected by the
very firms responsible for providing assurance—have
further eroded public confidence. Considering the ethical
environment in which fraud breeds, integrating ethics into
accounting education, along with updated curricula, is crucial
to a healthy profession.
recommendation of the Accounting Education Change Commission
(AECC) was to overhaul the method and content of introductory
accounting (Exhibit 1). The author’s survey of New
York City metropolitan area accounting programs found that
although some programs have updated their introductory course,
71% still use a traditional approach. The academic community’s
failure to update its accounting programs may be partially
responsible for the declining accounting enrollment.
enrollment in accounting programs declined during the 1998–99
academic years, down by 23% from 1995–96, according
to an AICPA survey. In addition, the number of accounting
degrees awarded during the 1998–99 academic year declined
20% from three years earlier, reversing a trend in which
this number had been stable for more than 20 years, according
to Albrecht and Sack. There has been no corresponding decline
in the number of students hired for accounting positions.
A 1996 study by Hanno and Turner in the Massachusetts
CPA Review found that 16% of new staff hired at public
accounting firms did not hold accounting degrees.
firms hire graduates with strong analytical skills, regardless
of their academic preparation. Employers are hiring and
paying larger salaries to graduates with majors in information
systems, computer science, consulting, finance, and investment
banking than to accounting majors. Albrecht and Sack found
that brighter students are choosing these fields, which
they perceive as providing greater opportunities for advancement.
AECC has recommended that the first course in accounting
be a broad introduction to accounting taught from the user’s
perspective, rather than introductory accounting for future
preparers. They suggest that educators focus on what accounting
information is, why it is important, and how economic decision-makers
use it (see Exhibit
approach that stresses understanding accounting information
seems more relevant to introductory classes filled mostly
by nonaccounting majors. The “preparer” approach—which
focuses on learning debit and credit, rules, accounting
procedures, and the preparation of financial statements—is
particularly ineffective in classes where the majority of
students will not become accountants. Precious class time
should not be devoted to teaching tasks routinely performed
by software. Students are better served learning how to
analyze and draw conclusions about financial statements
and the impact of alternative accounting choices.
emphasis on accounting procedures can allow little time
for developing other nontechnical skills that have become
essential. According to a 1997 survey of Fortune 500 executives,
the relative importance of technical accounting knowledge
for entry-level positions had declined from approximately
44% in 1992 to 33% in 1997; it was expected to further decline
to 28% in 2002. Communication skills, problem-solving abilities,
and technological competency rank importantly in the list
of desired characteristics.
business students form their perception of accounting during
their first accounting course. The AECC has recommended
that introductory courses provide students with a more realistic
perception of the field and the skills needed for success.
A 1998 AICPA report found that most high school and college
students were unable to accurately describe accountants’
work or their role in the business world. Albrecht and Sack
found that students perceived accountants as boring “number
crunchers” who often work alone. The traditional approach
appears to do little to thwart these misconceptions. Friedlan
(1995) found that these unrealistic perceptions continued
when students were subjected to preparer curriculums; however,
students that took courses with a “user” focus
developed a greater understanding of the skills and abilities
required for success.
author’s survey questioned 33 accounting departments
in the New York City metropolitan area about their approach
to teaching introductory accounting. Personal interviews
were conducted and syllabi for accounting courses were obtained.
The purpose was to determine if the AECC’s recommended
changes in the approach to teaching introductory accounting
had been adopted. The survey noted the type of approach
being used, and whether a change had been made. The survey
considered introductory accounting courses for both accounting
and business majors; additional questions solicited faculty
opinions on the overall success and impact of any changes
made, or why changes were not made.
shown in Exhibit
2, only 29% of the responding schools have made major
changes to their introductory curriculum. Schools that made
a change have opted for a “blended” rather than
a strict “user” approach. All respondents felt
that a strict user approach was inappropriate for accounting
majors; the blended approach incorporates some of the user
perspective and shifts emphasis away from accounting mechanics.
departments that made a change are mostly satisfied and
report that the updated curriculum is more interesting to
students. One department chair commented that not only has
the new approach helped recruit accounting majors, it has
even attracted nonbusiness majors to the course. Most faculty
find the new approach more rewarding to teach. One instructor
observed that test grades were more evenly distributed with
the new approach, and that students were more likely to
complete the course.
regard to the changes’ effects on other accounting
courses, many believe the new approach provides accounting
majors with a greater understanding of accounting concepts.
One instructor pointed out that the new approach was actually
a more challenging curriculum, because students cannot rely
on memorization as they do in a mechanics-based course.
A department chair commented that their accounting majors
demonstrated greater critical thinking skills with the new
approach. All respondents did mention a need to spend additional
time on the basic accounting cycle during intermediate accounting,
but thought that student performance was on a par with that
of students taught with a traditional approach. Another
instructor remarked that, ultimately, accountants need a
strong foundation in accounting procedures to succeed, and
if these are taken out of introductory accounting they must
be emphasized elsewhere. One school has implemented a one-credit,
online course for students to reinforce procedural skills;
other programs have added computer assignments that reinforce
that did not make a change are comfortable with the traditional
curriculum and are concerned that changing it will undermine
the foundation of the accounting major’s education.
One program adopted a strict user approach, only to switch
back to a blended approach, because they thought accounting
majors were being shortchanged. Although there is general
agreement that nonaccounting majors are better served by
a nontraditional approach, there is also great reluctance
to offer two separate tracks. This is ironic, given that
the AECC’s recommendations were focused on improving
the education of accounting majors. Others schools have
not considered the AECC’s recommendations at all.
the Traditional Approach
can respond to the AECC recommendations by continuing to
use the traditional preparer curriculum or moving to an
updated approach. The latter may require restructuring upper-level
accounting courses; more time would have to be spent on
recording transactions, if procedural aspects were de-emphasized
in the first course. Schools using a newer approach have
reported that students require less time to understand more
conceptually complex intermediate topics. Computerized accounting
courses can be used to reinforce technical procedures. This
would not only expose students to “real-world”
accounting systems, but also provide marketable skills.
In the long run, teaching students the conceptual aspects
of recording transactions is more valuable than having them
memorize journal entries and pronouncements.
alternative would be to offer two tracks: a traditional
track for majors and a new approach for nonmajors. Unfortunately,
this would require students to choose their major early,
and deter students from transferring into accounting from
with a traditional approach, however appropriate in the
past, may no longer meet current needs. A user or blended
approach can be implemented without much disruption, by
restructuring the credits and curriculum in current programs.
These changes should not preclude accounting majors from
being well prepared for upper-level courses. The new approach
also provides an opportunity to emphasize the relevance
and usefulness of accounting to the nonaccounting majors
that fill the majority of seats in introductory courses.
In addition to these reasons to change, almost all respondents
mentioned a decline in the quality of students majoring
in accounting in comparison to past decades. This stresses
the need to update accounting programs in order to attract
brighter, higher-quality students back into the field.
recent events, coupled with the economic downturn, make
it crucial to respond to the environment in which accountants
operate today. Accounting’s future as a profession
appears to be at an important turning point. Implementing
many of the curriculum changes suggested by the AECC, and
integrating ethics into the accounting curriculum, can help
restore the profession’s integrity to its former status.
Failure to update accounting programs is likely to lead
to continued declines in the number and quality of accounting
majors, as well as funding for accounting programs. Ultimately,
the consequences for the profession—and society—are
Diller-Haas, CPA, is an associate professor in the
business department at Kingsborough Community College of the
City University of New York, where she teaches both accounting
and computer courses.