Achieving a More Diverse Profession
Understanding African-American Students’ Perceptions of Accounting

By Kevin L. James

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NOVEMBER 2006 - Over the last 20 years, the United States has experienced profound demographic changes. American businesses have seen their workforces and customer bases become increasingly diverse, and these trends are expected to continue. A more diverse accounting firm can provide a better understanding of the cultures of diverse businesses and can make more effective decisions by bringing diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives into the decision-making process. A perusal of their websites will reveal that many accounting firms have undertaken significant diversity initiatives.

Despite extensive efforts by the AICPA to increase minority representation in accounting, gains have been meager, and some evidence suggests that the profession has even lost ground in recent years. For example, the 2000 AICPA Taylor Report suggests that African-Americans comprise about 13% of college students but only 5% of accounting majors. Recent research also provides evidence that the number of African-American students majoring in accounting declined between 1995 and 2000 [I.T. Nelson, V.P. Vendrzyk, J.J. Quinn, and R.D. Allen, “No, the Sky Is Not Falling: Evidence of Accounting Student Characteristics at FSA Schools, 1995–2000,” Issues in Accounting Education, 17 (3), 2002]. While the profession works to remove barriers that could eliminate accounting as a possible career for African-American students, the numbers point to a significant question: Will African-American students actually choose to pursue accounting as a career if the opportunity exists?

Career-counseling theory suggests that understanding work values is key in answering that question. Work values are beliefs about work that a person holds as standards that guide how he or she should function. These may include the level of financial prosperity, altruism, and independence that should accompany one’s work. Such values play a major role in setting professional goals. In short, a student is more likely to choose a career if his work values match the perceived benefits of that career. The low number of African-American students choosing accounting as a major may result, in part, from a mismatch between the perceived outcomes of a career in accounting and their personal work values.

Survey Methodology

As an initial effort to explore the extent to which the work values of African-American students match their perceptions of accounting as a career, surveys were sent to 69 high-achieving African-American students affiliated with an organization that trains college-bound students in business careers and skills. Student members of this organization were selected because they should have well-formed opinions about different business careers, and are likely to have the ability to be successful in accounting.

For a series of work values, these students were asked to rate on a scale from 1 to 7 the extent to which each value was important to their choice of a career and the extent to which they believe accounting would provide that outcome. The following work values were included in the survey:

  • High income
  • Enjoyment of the job and related tasks
  • Opportunity for sufficient leisure time with family and friends
  • Availability of jobs
  • Opportunity to give back to the community
  • Opportunity to make a positive contribution to society
  • Long-term career advancement
  • Prestige/social status
  • Personal growth and development
  • Good work environment and surroundings
  • The opportunity to be your own boss.

The majority of respondents to the current survey (78%) were high school juniors, 16% were seniors, and 6% were sophomores. High school students were targeted for this survey due to the findings of the AICPA’s Taylor Report that a majority of students in high school are far along in the process of choosing a major. Thirty-three percent of respondents were male and 67% were female.

Survey Results

Overall, the students surveyed have positive perceptions of accounting as a profession, as shown in Exhibit 1. Ratings for career-related concerns like high income, opportunities for personal growth, and long-term career advancement were particularly high. Respondents also seemed impressed with the availability of jobs in accounting and with an accountant’s typical work environment. Viewed least favorably were the enjoyment of job tasks and the amount of available leisure time.

To further analyze how well these perceived outcomes of an accounting career match the personal work values of these students, a quadrant analysis was performed. Exhibit 2 shows this analysis, which plots student perceptions of accounting on the horizontal axis and the importance of specific work values in choosing a career on the vertical axis. Quadrants are defined by using the median average rating as a midpoint for each axis. Therefore, the location of a point in a quadrant should not be interpreted in absolute terms, only in relation to the other values.

One favorable result of this analysis is that three of the career factors respondents perceived as most consistent with accounting (high income, long-term career advancement, and personal growth) were also highly important to them in choosing a career (Quadrant II). This result suggests that African-American students are similar to recruits as a whole, in that large accounting firms that provide greater income and opportunities for advancement may have an edge in vying for talent. All firms may be able to improve efforts to attract minority talent by emphasizing (or developing) strong training programs that will contribute to the individual professional development these students desire. Furthermore, if both individual firms and the profession as a whole market these benefits of an accounting career, the likelihood of attracting African-American students may increase. Another positive finding of this study is that sufficient leisure time and the opportunity to be your own boss, which were rated as being less consistent with accounting, were also rated among the least important values in choosing a career (Quadrant III).

Quadrant I is of the most interest to this analysis. This quadrant notes values that were perceived as important by respondents but were not perceived as consistent with a career in accounting. A surprising and troublesome finding is that three of the top four values ranked in order of importance in choosing a career (see Exhibit 1) are among those values least perceived to be consistent with a career in accounting. Namely, respondents expressed a strong belief that they would not enjoy the tasks performed in accounting, that accounting would afford them little opportunity to make a positive contribution to society, and that accounting would not allow them to give back to their communities.

Career-counseling research has commonly found personal enjoyment of job tasks and the desire to make a positive contribution to society to be among the most important work values held by students. The opportunity to give back to the community is a more unique finding. The reason for this may be rooted in differences in the decision-making process between African-American and students of other backgrounds. Research suggests the African-Americans may be more collective in the career decision-making process, meaning they rely more on input and support from parents, extended family members, and church and community members in choosing and pursuing a career [D. Brown, “The Role of Work and Cultural Values in Occupational Choice, Satisfaction, and Success: A Theoretical Statement,” Journal of Counseling and Development, 80(1), 2002]. This may result in a strong desire to give back to the community out of gratitude for the community’s role in an individual’s success. A culture with a more independent decision-making style may be less likely to attribute individual success to the community and, hence, be less driven to give back.

Implications

The results of this study suggest mismatches in those three value areas. Such mismatches between work values and perceived outcomes could steer African-American students away from accounting. How can the profession address these issues? The greatest impact can likely be achieved by efforts to shape perceptions of high-achieving African-American students like the ones surveyed for this study. The mismatches reported here are less likely an actual failure of accounting to provide values important to African-American students than they are the result of erroneous student perceptions.

First, many students surveyed have a very narrow perception of what accountants do. About one-third saw accounting as boring and tedious. The majority also saw the profession as more detail-oriented than people-oriented and requiring more math skills than problem-solving or analytical skills. These students are apparently not aware of the breadth of career paths in accounting, nor of the extent to which the profession relies on professional interactions and creative analysis and problem-solving. Students’ perceptions of whether they would enjoy the work might have been altered by enhancing their understanding of the wide variety of opportunities available in accounting and the nature of work within different career paths.

Second, these students believe accounting provides relatively little opportunity to make a contribution to society. This is obviously a misperception, considering the critical role of accounting in the functioning of our capital markets and the American economy as a whole. This finding suggests a need to help minority students understand the significant role accounting plays in the successful running of businesses, the protection of investors and lenders, and the overall functioning of capital markets and the economy.

The lack of opportunity to give back to their communities may be a misperception as well. Career fields like law and medicine have traditionally been more successful at attracting African-American students, and this may be in part because they come with clear opportunities to help people in the communities that have supported their success. Many African-American students are familiar with successful doctors and lawyers serving their communities. Providing information on various career paths in accounting that afford these opportunities may help. This may include options like providing accounting or consulting services to community organizations (like healthcare facilities) or working for firms that serve clients in their local communities.

Practical Steps to Take

Past research shows that students often have misconceptions about accounting. African-American students may have less access to information to correct misconceptions due to a lack of African-American mentors. In their 2002 survey of college accounting majors, Nelson et al. found that 85% of their sample knew someone who was an accountant, suggesting that students are more likely to choose accounting if they know someone who can mentor and advise them. The lack of diversity in accounting results in a shortage of African-Americans to serve as mentors and a lower likelihood that students will know an accountant from their families, churches, or communities. To correct misconceptions held by African-American students, it is important that accounting professionals create contact opportunities with students. Listed below are a few suggestions for how this might be accomplished.

Get involved in organizations that serve high-achieving minority students. Certain organizations provide ready access to talented minority students through volunteering or otherwise supporting program efforts. Inroads (www.inroads.org), a national organization dedicated to developing and placing talented minority youth in business and industry, provides one such option. Volunteering to provide training seminars or give office tours would present opportunities to correct misconceptions and create familiarity with individual firms.

The National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) also provides programs where involvement can create contact. For example, NABA’s Accounting Careers Awareness Program (ACAP) increases understanding of accounting careers among high school students from underrepresented ethnic groups through one-week residency programs at college campuses. Beyond these national organizations, a number of universities and community-based organizations offer programs on a smaller basis to train and expose talented minority students to business careers.

Provide internship opportunities to high-achieving minority students. Internship opportunities would provide firsthand exposure to accounting and opportunities for students to experience the tasks involved in the field. They can evaluate the level of professional interaction, analysis, and problem-solving for themselves. Furthermore, a host of conversations will take place with coworkers that provide opportunities to dispel misconceptions. Internships should be provided fairly early, from high school graduates to college sophomores. Misconceptions and a lack of familiarity with accounting could lead many African-American students to other career paths before the senior college year, when internship opportunities are typically provided.

The Inroads organization is one means of identifying viable candidates for internship opportunities. Inroads identifies students for internships and matches them with sponsoring companies as early as the summer before college. Alternatively, contacts at universities from which an accounting firm already recruits could be used to identify high-performing students in introductory accounting classes to interview for internship opportunities. Relationships could be built with high school guidance counselors to identify talented graduating seniors even earlier.

Create contacts at historically black colleges and universities (HBCU). HBCUs are another resource to access pools of talented African-American students (see
ww.ed.gov/about/inits/list/whhbcu/edlite-list.html for help in finding HBCUs). Access to these students can be gained by volunteering as a guest speaker in business school organizations or in accounting classes. Also, building relationships with HBCU professors could reap rewards through referrals of students for job placement or internships, even if the firm does not have an active recruiting relationship with the school.

Become involved in communities with significant minority populations. Due to the lack of African-American mentors, it is important that the accounting profession increase its visibility and awareness with students, their families, and community members. Significant anecdotal evidence suggests that community members and families often steer talented minority youth toward law, medicine, and teaching; increased awareness could put accounting on this list. Examples of ways to get involved include teaching financial literacy, budgeting, or similar classes that can be offered through local churches or community organizations. While such efforts could be undertaken by a firm independently, connection with an established organization can provide greater credibility.

One Step

This study is only intended to be one step toward understanding the issues important to African-American students and how the accounting profession can be made more appealing to them. It should be noted that the number of respondents was fairly small, and their perceptions may not apply to all African-American students. The results still indicate how individual firms and the profession as a whole can work toward greater success in diversity initiatives.


Kevin L. James, PhD, CPA, is an associate professor of accounting at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tenn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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