The Long Arm of the Big Four

The public firms' massive recruiting presence on campuses steers colleges' focus on auditing at the expense of broader corporate skills, professors...
David McCannMarch 21, 2008

Accounting professors might be expected to disagree with the general premise of an article published on Wednesday; namely, that colleges prepare students more to work at public accounting firms than in corporate finance and accounting departments. But actually they agree, at least in part.

Corporate needs include using information to make better decisions, price products, and set sales commissions and quotas, according to Chris Paisley, former CFO of 3Com Corp. and now executive professor of accounting and finance at Santa Clara University. “These things are not well taught at schools, partly because they’re not easily taught,” he says.

But Paisley opines that the actual amount of coursework aimed directly at landing a job at the CPA firms is not actually that great. “It’s not like they’re being taught all the skills they need to be effective auditors or tax preparers on Day One, either,” he says. Rather, students gravitate toward public accounting primarily because of the firms’ pervasive presence on campuses. Even the largest company hires only a small fraction of the accountants that any of the Big Four does, so the latter can afford to devote vastly greater resources to recruiting.

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“The Big Four accounting firms do the best job of recruiting undergraduates of any industry around,” says Paisley. “It’s absolutely the case that if you’re an accounting student, you have the opinion that if you take a job with anyone else you’re somehow making a suboptimized decision.” He notes that because the firms often are contributors to accounting schools and sit on advisory boards, “their presence is made known, and not in a bad way.”

Even the students who don’t really want to go into public accounting may not see another option, says Richard Houston, professor of accounting at the University of Alabama. It’s hard to match up students with jobs in industry because of corporations’ small recruiting presence, he says. At the same time, he adds, there’s been a slight change in that during the past couple of years: “Everyone wants people with three to five years [of] experience, but there’s not enough of them. So now a few more companies are looking at master’s programs.”

Such efforts almost surely can be effective, according to Mike Peters, associate professor of accountancy and information systems at Villanova University. In a way, he says, it makes little sense that virtually all of the school’s accounting graduates get their first jobs at public accounting firms. “When you think about it, that’s what they all want to do? I don’t think so,” he says. “If they were exposed to another worthwhile track, some would probably try that.”

Houston puts the onus on corporations to do a lot more in this regard. “Maybe there’s something on the education side that we’re not doing or could be doing better,” he says. “But the big challenge is for corporations to attract students to go straight into industry rather than spend four years in public accounting.”

But corporations, for their part, may see little choice as well. After all, they’ve got to do most of their recruiting from public accounting firms because the accounting crop coming out of college is so green.

Indeed, Peters acknowledges that colleges are more focused on preparing students for the public firms. At the firms, he says, young accountants get to work with a variety of different companies and see how they’re run. After just a few years, he notes, “they know a heck of a lot about what happens in corporate finance departments. They have a good grasp of accounting issues, how to work in a professional setting and client-based setting, and how to work in groups. And they’ve got technical skills.”

Houston notes that colleges couldn’t possibly teach all the skills that corporations desire. “We would love to offer a lot of classes that we just can’t because of staffing. We have few good years in terms of budgets,” he says.

To be sure, Alabama (as well as Villanova) offers for-credit corporate internships. But Houston resists a notion raised by some corporate officials that classroom work is theoretical at the expense of being practical.

For example, he says, in Alabama’s accounting master’s program, classes routinely explore the way accountants and auditors think and the various mistakes they can make. There’s a valuation class where students value businesses using financial statements. What’s more, there’s an advanced managerial class in which members of the Institute of Management Accountants participate, consisting of case studies that speak to the real-life issues of corporate finance departments. And there’s a class offering a lot of specifics about the risk of corporate fraud and controlling fraud.

“All in all,” Houston says, “I don’t see that we’re very theoretical.”

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