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The Missing Link in STEM

Joanne S. Barry, CAE

The Pathways Commission report released last year provided a blueprint for the future of higher education for the accounting profession. Now, a real opportunity to make inroads on one of the report's recommendations has appeared in an unlikely place—an 800-page federal immigration bill, sponsored by New York's own Senator Charles E. Schumer.

Recently drafted by Schumer and seven other U.S. senators, the bill (S.744) mainly focuses on the ins and outs of managing the millions of immigrants who make their way into the United States each year (http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/113/s744). One of its provisions would increase the availability of H-1B visas—that is, an employer-sponsored, temporary work permit for individuals working in specialty occupations—for applicants working or studying in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. As workplace environments throughout the world evolve, STEM skills tend to transcend cultural and economic divides. The increasing global need for employees who are trained in these areas has resulted in many education policy initiatives that focus on the STEM fields, especially because of the perception that the United States lacks individuals qualified to compete in these fields.

What does STEM have to do with accounting? As of now—nothing. That is why the NYSSCPA, other state CPA societies, and the AICPA are urging lawmakers to expand the definition of STEM during the bill's markup phase. The bill's STEM carveout is meant to help keep well-educated individuals trained in these fields available to American businesses. Although much is said about the importance of getting an education in one of the STEM fields in today's competitive job market, accounting and taxation are not benefiting from that increased focus, even though advanced degrees in accounting and taxation are the primary fields from which firms hire. These degrees have a heavy concentration in mathematics; statistics; tax; and, increasingly, information technology. And more chief operating officers have degrees in accounting than any other field of study.

Creating A Direct Pipeline

With changes advocated by the NYSSCPA and the AICPA, this bill could potentially encode the value of accounting into the nation's laws. Just being included in the definition will encourage the perception of accounting as a necessary and vital course of study—and this will set a precedent for other programs that utilize STEM. Including accounting and taxation as a STEM-identified field will only strengthen the case that the Pathways Commission has been making in its recommendation to establish an Advanced Placement (AP) accounting course. The development of a high school accounting class eligible for AP credit would, over time, create a direct pipeline between U.S. high schools and the business world. Once an AP accounting class is in place, the accounting profession will have a viable infrastructure for effective, long-term access to these students.

Auditi Chakravarty, the vice president for AP curriculum, instruction, and assessment at the College Board, noted that the College Board is in the very early stages of potentially developing an AP accounting course and exam (Erik Robelen, “New AP Math, Accounting Offerings under Consideration,” Education Week, Apr. 3, 2013). Although AP pilot programs in select high schools and targeted efforts from several state CPA societies have shown the potential that a career in accounting holds, legislating the inclusion of accounting and taxation as a STEM field of study would elevate accounting—not only as a viable career option, but also as a profession essential to American competitiveness.

Building a Learned Profession

As the global market evolves, so does the demand for individuals specifically trained in accounting. In order for the United States to lead the way in providing accountants for the next generation, we must drastically increase their numbers. This is an ultimate goal of the Pathways Commission report, which recommends building a learned profession for the future by purposeful integration of accounting research, education, and practice for students, accounting practitioners, and educators. This can only be achieved by a widespread increase in the availability of accounting education opportunities.

Through the introduction of AP courses and the expansion of the definition of STEM, we can simultaneously provide the opportunity and resources to make this goal achievable. The CPA profession is not the only one making a pitch for STEM inclusion, but we need to ensure that STEM becomes STEAM, with accounting taking its rightful place alongside the fields of study that will have the greatest impact in the 21st century. It is up to the accounting profession to continue its tireless work by demonstrating to those in power the importance of financial literacy—not just in a professional sense, but to the communities that CPAs serve. CPAs are the glue that holds everything together and, as such, are more than deserving of the additional support currently given to those working in STEM fields.

Joanne S. Barry, CAE. Publisher. The CPA Journal, Executive Director, NYSSCPA, jbarry@nysscpa.org.

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