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How faculty can address declining accounting enrollments

Faculty, firms, and associations all play roles in recruiting students.
By Megan Hart

Many faculty in the United States and worldwide are concerned that accounting enrollments are dropping. The number of U.S. students completing bachelor's degrees in accounting declined from 2016 to 2020, according to the AICPA's 2021 Trends Report. The number of students in U.K. accounting programs declined from 2016 to 2020, according to the Financial Reporting Council, and accountant shortages have been reported in countries including Malaysia and South Africa.

Though some of this decline can likely be attributed to the pandemic, and to demographic trends that have led to a drop in the number of college students as a whole, accounting faculty may still want to do what they can to attract more students to the major.

Accounting faculty must actively recruit students, said Elizabeth Gordon, CPA, Ph.D. She's been in academia for more than two decades, and during that time, students have changed, said Gordon, chair of the department of accounting at the Fox School of Business at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Today's students are seeking careers that combine passion and purpose, she said. It's important for faculty members to show students that accounting offers both. That's especially true as new majors grow in popularity and sometimes offer higher starting salaries, Gordon said.

Temple is a large public university where many accounting majors come from community colleges, which saw declining enrollments during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gordon said. Experts agree that enrollment trends are cyclical. But right now, the industry is facing a challenge that requires help on multiple fronts, said Mark Dawkins, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D.

Dawkins is a professor of accounting at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and current president of the American Accounting Association. "This is all-hands-on-deck," he said, adding that solving the problem will take a concerted effort by faculty, firms, and state societies.  

Trust Chireka, ACMA, CGMA, is a senior lecturer of accounting at Walter Sisulu University in South Africa. "There has been a worrying decline in the number of students enrolling in accounting programs in higher education institutions here in South Africa," he said. Most South African students in university accounting programs began studying accounting in high school, where it can be a challenging subject to understand. "The shortage of skilled accounting teachers in the high schools exacerbates the struggle," Chireka said.

4 ways faculty can attract accounting majors

"We feel like it's a very complex problem," said Kathleen Schaum, executive director of university talent acquisition at KPMG. Schaum, who's based in San Francisco, helps the firm recruit about 9,000 recent graduates each year. "We're trying to attack from a variety of perspectives," she said.

Schaum, Chireka, Dawkins, and Gordon offered these recommendations for how faculty can attract accounting majors:

Actively recruit students to accounting. Earning a U.S. CPA credential requires an intense slate of coursework and exams, and many other countries have strict educational standards for accountants. That's one reason universities, firms, and associations need to reach out to young students and steer them toward the profession.

For example, KPMG has partnered with the University of Houston and the National Association of Black Accountants to host secondary school students for tours at its local office as part of a weeklong program. It's important to identify potential accounting majors early, Schaum said. Her firm recently hosted 150 first- and second-year college students from underrepresented backgrounds at its new training center in Orlando, Fla. The participants were nominated by their professors, and "most of those students walked away thinking, 'I want to major in accounting,'" she said.

Temple held its first residency program for underserved high school students with an interest in accounting this summer and is preparing to host an accounting career day in October for several hundred Philadelphia secondary school students in partnership with the Pennsylvania Institute of CPAs. Local accounting firms have funded the residency program for three years, Gordon said. Professors can seek this kind of support by contacting the firms that recruit their students or connecting with alumni in the accounting field. Gordon's department aims to reach new and undecided students by supporting accounting clubs and offering info sessions on topics that apply to accounting students throughout their college journey, she said.

In South Africa, it's equally important to attract students early since they cannot qualify for many university accounting programs unless they complete an advanced math course in secondary school, which many avoid in favor of a mathematical literacy course, Chireka said.

Help students gain real-world accounting experiences. Offering experiential learning can help attract students and inspire them to stick with accounting. Temple students can participate in its volunteer income tax assistance program for credit, helping families file their returns.

Schaum recommends that faculty members stay in touch with alumni in the field who might be able to serve as guest speakers or offer internship opportunities for students. Gordon and Dawkins said that students want careers that involve problem-solving and creativity. Exposing students to real accounting work can broaden their understanding of the industry.

Graduates of four-year U.S. accounting programs have a chance to gain hands-on experience and mentorship in finance jobs, earn a paycheck, and pursue a Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) designation. AICPA & CIMA launched the apprenticeship program in 2022.

Address what's important to students. Last year the theme for Temple's accounting program was "a profession with a purpose." Another year it was "accounting as technology." It's important to highlight the aspects of the industry that excite students, Gordon said. She noted that accounting is a smart major for students who want to become entrepreneurs, a factor that also attracts South African students to the field, Chireka said. Highlighting this benefit of the major may speak to today's students.

It can also be helpful to develop initiatives with your student population in mind. The majority of University of North Florida accounting students work through school. The university offers a Supplemental Instruction program that allows Dawkins and his colleagues to hire successful intermediate accounting students as tutors to support future cohorts. They earn money to advance their studies and deepen their connection to accounting.

Work with accounting firms. For university accounting programs to be successful they must teach students the skills accountants will need in practice, Dawkins said. The best way to understand what firms are looking for is to maintain relationships with them. Chireka agrees that it would benefit the profession in South Africa to have more firms and associations on campuses.

KPMG offers a variety of tools available to faculty including Career Catalyst for audit and tax, which provides realistic virtual auditing experience. The firm also offers programs like CPA Kickstart, which allows recent graduates to join the firm early and receive financial support while they study for the CPA Exam as a cohort. If faculty members know about programs like these, they can promote them among students who may be weighing accounting against other fields.

Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Florida. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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