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High-School Accounting Needs Broader Scope

Louis Grumet

In the November 2009 issue of The CPA Journal, I argued for requiring a master's degree in accounting, a position the Society has advocated for more than a year. We believe that graduate-level CPA candidates will generally be better prepared than those who follow the traditional work model or those who obtain only a bachelor's degree.

Unfortunately, in many instances, students are ill-prepared to study accounting before they even set foot on a college campus. There is a strong need to develop more serious course work in accounting at the high-school level in order to introduce the benefits of an accounting career and to better prepare tomorrow's accountants.

We need to encourage our accountants of tomorrow, not discourage them.

I have spoken with college professors who share the same sentiment. It seems as if there is a trend of high-school graduates hoping to study accounting who are not ready for college-level courses. The math skills are not there. The communication skills are not there. More importantly, the critical-thinking skills that are needed in the accounting profession are not there.

College professors are spending more time remediating those skills in Accounting 101 than in actually teaching students all of the elements that go into making a successful accountant.

At some high schools, accounting courses have been driven out of the curriculum because they don't prepare students for college or because the school decided the resources weren't there to properly teach such a class. It's a maddening conundrum: In these unstable economic times, many people feel there is a need for young students to have a foothold in financial education earlier and earlier, and yet at some schools students aren't offered even a basic course on the principles of accounting, much less how to balance a checkbook.

Don't Inhibit Bigger Thinking

At other high schools, accounting courses are offered, but the classes don't follow a traditional textbook-style of teaching. Rather, like in many high school subjects, worksheets are used and instructors teach to the exams and state assessments. That would be like teaching about the Civil War, its important battles, and the principal characters involved without explaining the broader context of why we went to war. In many ways, this obscures the bigger picture.

And at some high schools, the accounting courses are nothing more than glorified bookkeeping classes, and many do not even emphasize the double-entry system, which might be even worse than no course at all.

What does this all mean? It means college professors are spending more time on teaching basic elements of financial education that students should already know rather than on the actual instruction of college-level accounting.

Some high-school students end up deciding that the accounting class—and therefore the profession—is boring and clinical. We need to encourage our accountants of tomorrow, not discourage them. High-school accounting classes should highlight all the wonderful possibilities the profession has to offer. It should address why we use the double-entry system, how to analyze a financial statement, and how fraud is committed—and caught.

Incorporating Accounting Classes

We should think about revamping high-school accounting along the same lines as the math and science models. In science, most schools teach Earth science in freshman year, and move on to biology, chemistry, and physics over the next three years. In math, it's algebra, usually followed by geometry, trigonometry, and calculus.

Accounting can be structured much in the same way, including a business management component that would upgrade it from its current bookkeeping status, and perhaps classes on understanding a financial statement, business management, and more. The classes should also have a sense of time and place. I'm not saying teachers have to bog down students by incorporating a history component, but they can use examples that illustrate the importance of the profession. For instance, teaching about the Madoff scheme and how it could have been prevented is something from the headlines that students could relate to.

Students today seem to think in silos—they can answer questions based in one particular area. But, as we all know, accounting is far more diverse than just keeping the books. We need to broaden their horizons and give them a more solid foundation upon entering college.

Strengthen high-school accounting classes now, reap the rewards in the profession later.

Louis Grumet. Publisher. The CPA Journal, Executive Director, NYSSCPA, lgrumet@nysscpa.org.

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