Recruiting (and Retaining) the Next Generation Accountant: One University's Experience

BY LINDA J. ZUCCA AND DONALD W. MCFALL JR.

What attracts students to accounting? Is it the appeal of social and forensic accounting in a post-Enron world? Is it the allure of big money? Or is it simply supply and demand?

When it comes to attracting students to the accounting profession, faculty in university accounting departments face pressures from two sources: the accounting profession, which continues to demand more qualified accounting graduates; and university administrations, which want to increase enrollment. As a result, turning out well-qualified accounting majors in increasing numbers is of great importance to academia and the profession. More resources are being committed to recruiting accounting students and seeing them through to graduation.

This article examines the successes (and challenges) of the accounting faculty at Ohio’s Kent State University as we explore ways to recruit and retain talented students in our accounting programs from freshman year to completion of a master’s program. The financial constraints of higher education in our state have motivated us to develop solutions that are either cost-neutral or depend on outside funding to help attract larger numbers of well-qualified accounting majors.

SUPPLY AND DEMAND FOR QUALIFIED ACCOUNTING GRADUATES
According to AICPA President and CEO Barry Melancon the “pipeline” of qualified students is one of the four forces shaping the CPA profession today. Although interest in accounting careers has increased (the number of accounting degrees awarded increased 19% from 2000–2005), Melancon says the current demand for highly qualified students still exceeds supply, and this trend is expected to continue in the foreseeable future. He adds that about 73% of current AICPA members will reach or approach retirement age in the next 15 years.

On the supply side, the U.S. Census Bureau projects the number of college-age students (18- to 24-year-olds) will peak in 2010 and then decrease through at least 2020. In states including Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York these declines are expected to continue beyond 2020. Faced with these numbers, universities are focusing on ways to increase student retention. Research has shown that the following student characteristics and experiences tend to increase retention:

n Higher academic performance and achievement.
n Social and intellectual integration into the university.
n Institutional commitment through residential life, classroom experiences, and faculty interaction.
n Early commitment to a major.
n Voluntary involvement in freshman orientation courses.

Our university has seen substantial growth in the number of pre-accounting (freshmen and sophomores) as well as accounting majors in recent years (see Exhibit 1). Although this trend is certainly welcome, we are still faced with the challenge of attracting the best-qualified students to accounting. And, once attracted to the program, we need to retain them through the 150 semester credit hours required to take the CPA examination in Ohio. Traditional four-year undergraduate programs generally require approximately 120 semester credit hours, so the 150 credit hour requirement means that students will need to add another year to their educational experience (Ohio does not require a graduate degree) as we do not recommend students try to take the entire requirement in a four-year curriculum. A joint effort by the practice community and university accounting faculty may help solve this impending supply-and-demand problem.

(EXHIBIT 1 MISSING)

EARLY IDENTIFICATION OF ACCOUNTING AND BUSINESS MAJORS
When our College of Business restructured the undergraduate business program about 10 years ago, we made a concerted effort to help our students become part of the college at the start of their academic career. Pre-business majors are required to take a substantial number of business courses during their first two years, before declaring a major. Our admissions advisers also encourage incoming freshmen to declare a “pre-major” in the College of Business. Although choosing a pre-major does not change course requirements, it does help the departments in the college project the number of students who might actually declare their majors as juniors.

Over the past six years, “pre-accounting” majors (freshmen and sophomores) have ranged from 10.5% to 15% of our total pre-business majors, while our declared majors (juniors and seniors) range from 5.9% to 8.6% of total declared business majors (see exhibits 1 and 2). There is a time lag in this data since pre-accounting majors cannot become accounting majors for one to two years. Likewise, incoming freshmen may not know enough about accounting to make an informed decision on their major and may not be motivated to change their pre-major even when they learn more about the program. However, the data show an interesting, and somewhat disconcerting, trend. We seem to be losing students who professed an interest in accounting as freshmen.

(EXHIBIT 2 MISSING)

We are concerned about the potential accounting majors that we may be failing to serve. Faced with these trends (and spurred by a university-wide focus on student retention), we began looking for ways to attract and retain the most promising freshmen. One of our most effective resources came from the establishment of the Student Ambassador program at our university.

STUDENT AMBASSADORS—ACCOUNTING STUDENTS HELPING OTHER STUDENTS
The Student Ambassador program is sponsored by the Ohio Society of CPAs with financial support from the Ohio Society’s Educational Foundation, Ohio public accounting firms, and individual CPAs. This program designates outstanding current students to assist in student recruitment into the accounting profession using peer-to-peer networking.

These ambassadors receive funding for projects they undertake and a stipend for the hours they work. In 2005, we had our first student ambassador; during the 2006–2007 academic year, we had four student ambassadors. Over the past two years, they have undertaken many projects, including:

n Recruiting high school juniors and seniors to our university and accounting program.
n Making presentations about the CPA credential and profession to freshmen involved in learning communities and freshman interest groups.
n Organizing a “Careers in Accounting Day” for freshmen and sophomores.
n Arranging a mock interview day prior to on-campus internship interviews.

Our student ambassadors say the most effective and satisfying work is student-to-student interaction. Students are more comfortable asking student ambassadors about internship experiences and accounting career opportunities than asking their professors. In many cases, student ambassadors are considered a more credible source of information.

How Can CPAs Help Recruit College Students Into
the Profession?

  1. Get involved in your local colleges and universities by volunteering as a guest speaker in the accounting classroom.
  2. Participate in job fairs targeted at freshmen and sophomores who are still making career choices.
  3. Ask local colleges and universities if you can become involved with freshman orientation classes as a guest speaker or mentor to college freshman who have an interest in an accounting career.
  4. Provide internships and shadowing opportunities to college students.

FRESHMAN YEAR—A SENSE OF COMMUNITY
In 2002, the College of Business instituted a learning community for freshmen in all pre-business majors. The program brings together students who are interested in learning opportunities and developing academic, social and professional relationships. As success with this learning community grew, our department was allowed to develop a similar community specifically designed for pre-accounting majors, called AFIG (Accounting Freshman Interest Group).

AFIG provides freshmen with information on accounting career paths as well as academic counseling while assisting them in the crucial transition from high school to college. Incoming freshmen are recruited to participate in AFIG during our Placement, Advising and Scheduling System Program held during the spring and summer; requirements include a minimum ACT score and submission of an acceptable essay. These first-year students take three classes each semester with other students in the program and are registered in a special University Orientation section.

The orientation class, taught by a full-time faculty member, is modified to provide information on the accounting profession and our academic accounting program. The students take field trips to public accounting firm offices and corporate sites, so they can network with local accounting professionals. In fall 2006, 80% of our inaugural AFIG class started their junior years as declared accounting majors.

SOPHOMORE YEAR—AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PRACTICE COMMUNITY
Business students take two introductory accounting courses as sophomores. Many programs and majors across our campus (and outside of the College of Business) require students to take Financial Accounting, and we have found that many of our best accounting majors are recruited from outside the College of Business after taking this course. Unfortunately, with annual enrollments of up to 1,200 students in Financial Accounting and 800 in Managerial Accounting, and class sizes of up to 200 students per section, it is difficult to motivate high-quality students to consider an accounting major. As a result, we developed several activities throughout the year to provide information to sophomores who are exploring or finalizing their career choices. Our student ambassadors have been particularly helpful with these activities because of their ability to provide individual, student-to-student interaction.

We decided to focus on not just retaining students who had already identified themselves as pre-accounting majors but also recruiting the “best and brightest” students in sophomore-level courses who may not have expressed an interest in an accounting major. At the end of each semester, we sponsor a “Careers in Accounting Day,” specially designed for the better students in these sophomore-level courses. Students maintaining at least a B average receive a special invitation; others are invited through a class announcement.

The three-hour event is held on a Friday, which is also a class day for Financial and Managerial Accounting. Students are invited to travel among four classrooms. Three of the classrooms have professional representatives from a particular area of accounting: Big Four public accounting firms; national and regional public accounting firms; and industry and governmental entities. Student leaders are in the fourth classroom. All are available for informal discussion in the first and third hour of the event. During the middle hour, lunch is served and presentations are made on student organizations and the undergraduate and graduate accounting programs. The event is coordinated and staffed by student ambassadors; out-of-pocket costs are covered by participating external organizations.

“Careers in Accounting Day” is popular with students and practitioners. Students receive information about accounting careers in a personal setting. They report that they enjoy the versatility of the program and the informal interaction with accounting practitioners; several indicated that they would change their major to accounting as a result of the program. Practitioners, mostly alumni, get a chance to return to campus and give back something to the university. They also have an opportunity to talk to sophomores, often a difficult group of students to pre-identify for recruiting purposes.

What Students and Recruiters Say About “Careers in Accounting Day”:

Students:

“I am currently a marketing major, but I am very interested in accounting, and may be changing my major.”

“I really am sure I want to go into accounting after this event.”

Recruiters:

“As an alumnus, the entire recruiting process is a competitive and energizing process, and it is a great way to ‘get back on campus.’ However, the ‘Careers in Accounting Day’ is unique for different reasons. The recruiting season is generally waning, and this event gives professionals an opportunity to promote the profession as a whole. But the fight for talent continues, as the event allows recruiters to focus on the next phase of students and early identify future candidates.”

“As an alumnus of Kent State University I am honored to participate in ‘Careers in Accounting Day.’ Everyone involved is helping to prepare students for their future and a better understanding of the various opportunities in accounting. Students are now able to discover what areas in accounting perk their interest before entering the work force.”

“Students are participating in internships early in their college careers and, as a result, firms are identifying potential candidates as soon as their sophomore year. Kent State University’s ‘Careers in Accounting Day’ allows us to interact with new accounting students in an informal setting and talk about the opportunities available at our firm well in advance of the fall recruiting season. We have found that the added exposure to professionals at our firm and other firms better prepares the students to make an informed decision in regards to where they want to build their career.”

JUNIOR YEAR—INTERNSHIPS AND CAREER PLANNING
The third year is a time for students to clarify and intensify their commitment to the accounting major. Because students declare a major at the end of their sophomore year, the internship program is designed for juniors, seniors and graduate students. Early each fall, accounting majors are recruited into the internship program, culminating in on-campus interviews by more than 20 employers. Eligibility is determined by class standing and accounting GPA. In fall 2006, 85 students participated in the interview process. Before interviews begin, students meet prospective employers at our annual “Get Acquainted With Accountants Night” and also have the opportunity to participate in mock interviews with professional accounting recruiters.

The internship is the most powerful retention tool available for our students, and we strongly encourage participation. For most students, this positive experience provides intensity and direction for the remainder of their academic program. One student said about the program:

It is…amazing to me how much I learned in such a short period of time. I feel that I can call myself an accountant now. I am so happy that I chose to go into public accounting; it is an exciting field where things are constantly changing. I am lucky to have a job at a place I love waiting for me when I graduate. This whole internship has been an amazing learning experience that I would never take back for anything in the world.

For a few students, however, the internship confirms the doubts they had about an accounting career and results in a change of major, often outside the College of Business. Perhaps this is the most valuable outcome of the internship experience since it allows a student to find the right career while still in the middle of an undergraduate program.

In the second semester of our students’ junior year, our MSA coordinator gives students information on career planning and the master’s program. An accelerated track in our curriculum allows better students to combine some of their undergraduate and graduate coursework; admission to the accelerated program is based on overall and accounting GPA and their GMAT exam score.

For more information on research pertaining to student retention, see “The Impact of Major on College Persistence Among Freshmen,” by Karen Leppel, Higher Education, April 2001, pp. 327–342; “The Business of Student Retention in the Post September 11 Environment—Financial, Institutional and External Influences,” by Andrew Braunstein, Mary Lesser, and Donn Pescatrice, The Journal of American Academy of Business, Cambridge, March 2006, pp. 134–141; “What Difference Does a Major Make? The Influence of College Major Field on Persistence by African American and White Students,” by Edward St. John, Shouping Hu, Ada Simmons, Deborah Carter, and Jeff Weber, Research in Higher Education, May 2004, pp. 209–232; “Predicting the Retention of University Students,” by Paul Murtaugh, Leslie D. Burns and Jill Schuster, Research in Higher Education, June 1999, pp. 355–371.

SENIOR YEAR AND GRADUATE SCHOOL— CAREER COUNSELING AND "GIVING BACK"
By senior year, many of our students have completed an internship and committed to full-time employment, commencing after completion of their 150-hour requirement. Some have already been admitted to the graduate program and are taking graduate classes while completing their undergraduate degree. We have begun to emphasize managerial accounting careers in our junior-level Cost Accounting course and to encourage students to begin taking the CMA examination as seniors or graduate students. In fall 2006, we took a group of students to the IMA National Student Leadership Conference and plan to encourage participation in local IMA student activities.

This is also the point in their academic careers at which many of our better students focus on mentoring underclass students on career opportunities in accounting. All of our student ambassadors are either seniors or MSA students. In addition, most of the officers of our student organizations are seniors or graduate students. As they develop programming for the student organizations, they use experiences and contacts acquired during internships. These students design service projects (such as “Careers in Accounting Day” and mock interviews) to help younger students understand the opportunities available in the accounting profession.

One of our challenges is to encourage our students to pursue the CPA examination as soon as possible after graduation. Unfortunately, it is difficult to track the experience of all of our students on the CPA examination after graduation, but we are encouraged that most of our top students are able to pass the exam in the first 18-month window. We are currently working on better ways to track their progress.

SUMMARY
Recruitment and retention are buzzwords in the academic community and they apply particularly well to the decisions facing accounting majors and the accounting profession. The current balance of supply and demand will result in increased interest in accounting on the part of incoming freshmen. Partnering with accounting practitioners has provided increased opportunities for our students and increased access for employers in the recruiting process. Our challenge is not just to accept all students with an interest in accounting, but to focus on recruiting and retaining the brightest—to enhance the accounting profession for the next generation.


AICPA RESOURCES
JofA articles
" 'Success in Two' for the CPA Exam," April 08, page 66
The Red Carpet Treatment,” Aug. 07, page 36
Understanding the Best and Brightest,” Nov. 06, page 41
Tips to Win Campus Friends,” Aug. 06, page 71
Teaching for the Love of It,” June 06, page 30
Recruiting Made Easy,” May 06, page 31
"The Practitioner-Professor Link,” June 05, page 77
 
Publications
The PCPS Top Talent Study: Gaining a Strategic Advantage in Recruiting and Retention (#018202PDF, download)
 
For more information or to make a purchase, go to www.cpa2biz.com, or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.
 


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
n The demand for qualified accounting graduates continues to exceed supply; demand is expected to continue growing.

n Universities are increasingly concerned with retention of college students as they face projections of declining numbers of 18- to 24-year-olds.

n A plan to recruit and retain accounting majors throughout a five-year program is presented.

n Key features include early involvement in campus activities and with faculty, numerous opportunities for interactions with accounting professionals, and increased student-to-student mentoring.

Linda J. Zucca, CPA, Ph.D., is an associate professor of accounting at Kent State University. Her e-mail address is lzucca@kent.edu. Donald W. McFall Jr., CPA, MBA, is a lecturer in accounting at Kent State University. His e-mail address is dmcfall@kent.edu.

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