How to attract more diverse accounting students

Formal programs and informal classroom interactions make a difference.
By Samiha Khanna

Expanding recruitment efforts to draw students from more diverse backgrounds is a growing priority for most universities and for many accounting programs. Diversity is essential to an education that is going to prepare students for the real world — a world where business is conducted 24 hours a day, around the globe, in many languages, and often with consideration of cultural customs and unwritten rules.

Students must learn how to navigate these nuances to work with collaborators from diverse backgrounds and cultures, said Aida Sy, Ph.D., assistant professor of accounting at Farmingdale State College in New York.

“You can’t do business by yourself,” she said with a chuckle. “You have to work with other people.”

It’s important to not just recruit diverse students but to also make sure they feel included.

“Diversity in the context of higher education means that students from a wide range of backgrounds are able to confidently and safely share diverse opinions, beliefs, and ideas with their fellow classmates as well as with faculty and staff,” said Stephanie Robertson, associate director of admissions and diversity initiatives for the Master of Accounting (MAC) Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The need to enroll more diverse accounting students was a pressing topic discussed at the 2018 Accounting Profession Diversity Pipeline Symposium. Here is some of the presenters’ best advice for attracting and retaining diverse students:

Connect with high school students. Engaging college-bound high schoolers and bringing them to campus is key to growing interest in the profession, and particularly for expanding recruitment of underrepresented groups.

Each of the past three summers, North Carolina A&T State University, a historically black college, has welcomed about 20 high schoolers to its Greensboro, N.C., campus for a weeklong Accounting Career Awareness Program, sponsored in part by the AICPA. Even in these small cohorts, some students who didn’t know much about accounting said they were interested in pursuing the profession after just one week, said Kevin L. James, CPA, Ph.D., associate accounting professor and interim dean of the N.C. A&T College of Business and Economics.

“We’ve seen some shifts in people’s perceptions and understanding of the profession and the value of the profession,” James said. A few participants of the summer enrichment program even ended up enrolling as accounting majors at N.C. A&T as a result, he said.

Similarly, the University of Georgia (UGA) hosts summer programs for high school students interested in business, as well as a specific residency in accounting during which they meet with professionals and listen to panel discussions that offer an introduction to the profession.

“It’s exposing them to what the field has to offer,” said Randy Groomes, director of diversity relations at UGA’s Terry College of Business. “We do find a number of students will say [this program] is the reason they chose accounting as a major.”

Many accounting departments have students pay informational visits to local high schools, offering presentations on accounting careers and financial literacy to capture the interest of high schoolers while they’re considering what fields to pursue in college.

They also recruit students with strong GPAs at community colleges, whether by referral or through formal programs. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program offers transfer opportunities to high school seniors or community college students whose household incomes fall at or below 300% of the federal poverty guidelines, Robertson said. This year, the program hosted a spring event hosted by the UNC MAC Program and EY.

Host support networks for diverse students. Support networks are vital to making sure students of all backgrounds feel welcomed and included. At many schools, support can take the form of student-led organizations, such as a campus chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA). At UGA, the student chapter of NABA has grown from 20 members to more than 50 in just a couple of years by hosting social networking events, sending students to conferences, and offering scholarship opportunities, Groomes said.

In addition to peer networking and support, other accounting programs offer integrated academic and career support, such as the MAC Mentorship Program at UNC-Chapel Hill, co-sponsored by PwC. The mentorship program is just one of several at UNC geared to supporting students from underrepresented groups, including racial and ethnic minorities, first-generation college students, and students from low-income families.

Help students get to know others of different backgrounds. An inclusive environment must also be attained through small gestures, such as encouraging collaboration in the classroom. Sy teaches in New York, and many of her courses are attended by students who recently arrived from other countries. Whether it is intentional or subconscious, she noted, students tend to group themselves by nationality, with a number of Chinese students sitting together, Russian students in another corner, and so on.

To help students get to know others outside the circles they may first be drawn to, Sy has them complete group projects. She assigns the groups herself so students learn to work with peers from different backgrounds and who speak different native languages.

Practice inclusion. Professionals, including faculty, need to understand how diversity and inclusion are distinct if efforts to build a diverse workforce are to succeed, James said.

“When you recruit that diverse talent, you need to think what your culture is like and what it feels like to someone who is from an underrepresented population,” he said. “You can’t necessarily just put someone in that environment and assume they’re going to be comfortable and that you don’t have to think anything more about what that experience feels like for them.”

Faculty set the tone for their classrooms and can shape students’ interactions to create a more inclusive environment, Robertson said.

“The unique perspectives that students from diverse backgrounds bring into the classroom help create a space where intellectual curiosity is celebrated and synergetic discussions are encouraged,” Robertson said. “Diversity and inclusion means providing that space for people, especially the disenfranchised and marginalized, to have their opinions heard, their ideas respected, their input taken into serious consideration, and their proposals implemented.”

As faculty and students gain more practice and awareness of inclusion, they are better prepared to carry these experiences forward into an increasingly diverse workforce, Robertson said.

The path to diversity in accounting will continue to be challenging, and it will take years to see the results of some of the small changes that universities have made, James said.

“It’s not something that happens overnight,” he said. “You have to keep pushing the envelope. We have made steps, but what we are being faced with is a marathon.”

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this story or to suggest an idea for another story, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

Where to find June’s flipbook issue

The Journal of Accountancy is now completely digital. 





Leases standard: Tackling implementation — and beyond

The new accounting standard provides greater transparency but requires wide-ranging data gathering. Learn more by downloading this comprehensive report.