The Rap on Accounting Education

Are colleges focused too much on preparing students for public accounting and not enough for their later corporate careers?
David McCannMarch 19, 2008

CFOs are already on record with their views on the personal traits of young people entering the accounting workforce today: too often lacking in drive and determination, gripped by a hunger for constant praise, and disturbingly prone to job-hopping at the first wisp of unhappiness.

But some senior finance executives are also frustrated with the low level of practical knowledge exhibited by new talent hired out of college or, more often, public accounting firms. This shortcoming is blamed in large part on schools’ lopsided focus on audit, compliance, and tax — the work of public accountancies — at the expense of content that will prepare students for the corporate work that will be the ultimate career direction for most of them. In those jobs, they’ll need strong backgrounds in such areas as budgeting, forecasting, internal controls, risk and performance management, and leadership development.

The Institute of Management Accountants, whose members are corporate accounting and finance professionals at every level right up to CFO, has been beating that drum louder of late. IMA recently scored a coup when it persuaded a Fortune 100 CFO, David Burritt of Caterpillar Inc., to address the issue before the Treasury Department’s Advisory Committee on the Auditing Profession.

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The committee could play a meaningful role in helping to effect change, Burritt told some time after he testified. “If they would advocate appropriate curricula for preparers of financial statements and not just focus on inspectors of financial statements, we’d be better off,” he said.

Burritt likened the career preparation of accountants to the manufacturing process, something with which he’s become quite familiar at Caterpillar. “You want your assembly line to be running very well so you can minimize inspection at the end,” he said. “If you simply strengthen the inspection, you create a lot of additional work and costs. When you look at the focus of academics as well as public accounting firms, it’s to strengthen the end of the financial reporting process. We want to pick talent that has been effectively developed and trained so we can make sure we get it right” before the auditors take over.

The need for changes in college curricula has grown more urgent because of the regulatory pressures placed on corporations by Sarbanes-Oxley, which has caused greater demand for, and thus a shortage of, accounting talent. “It’s very important to make sure that Sarbanes-Oxley methodologies are sustainable,” Burritt said.

An effective accounting curriculum would include coursework on business development and analysis, cost management, information management, and performance management, according to Burritt. “Accountants are asked to do more than just count the beans,” he said.

Asked about the outlook for meaningful change in college offerings, he said vigilance from the corporate community is the key. “I think it’s going to happen as long as we stay proactive with the universities, and we’re seeing pockets of it where they do have leadership training and internships,” he said.

Testifying at the February hearing, Burritt implored the committee — formed in July 2007 to advise the department on the auditing profession’s ability to attract the requisite human capital, as well as audit-market competition and finances — to expand its mandate. “We must carefully consider whether the current accounting educational system prepares graduates for careers in the various fields of accounting, and how it can be improved in the context of the increasing globalization of business and the onset of [International Financial Reporting Standards],” Burritt said. Students are also unprepared for government or nonprofit work, he added.

In written testimony, IMA chimed in that the committee, chaired by former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Arthur Levitt and former SEC chief accountant Don Nicolaisen, “should not miss this opportunity to actively consider what role the preparer community has, what responsibilities it must shoulder, and what accountabilities in must jointly share with the auditing industry.”

A call to the Treasury Department seeking comment on Burritt’s and IMA’s testimony was not returned.

Raef Lawson, IMA’s newly hired director of research and professor-in-residence and the former accounting department chair at the State University of New York at Albany, listed Harvard and Babson College as schools with an exceptionally strong focus on corporate accounting. Northwestern University and Johnson & Wales University have new B.S. programs in management accounting, he noted.

To that list, Kathy Fitzpatrick, vice president of finance leadership development at Johnson & Johnson, added Rider University, Penn State, and Butler. These schools are leaders in providing programs that offer college credit for paid corporate internships, she noted, but added that not enough schools are doing the same. Only about 40 percent of the undergraduate-degree finance and accounting students the company hires have participated in such programs.

Because of the lack of college preparation, “we have to spend extra time training our associates to get them up to speed on what we expect from them,” Fitzpatrick told What is lacking, she said, is a practical approach. Colleges “give students a lot of theory, but where is the practical application once they go into the work force? You can’t just say ‘this is how I learned it in school’ — you have to understand how a business works and makes decisions.” Also lacking is technology training, with many candidates inadequately skilled in Excel.

Johnson & Johnson, which is among a fairly small group of large companies — another is General Electric — with aggressive rotation training programs for entry-level finance and accounting workers, hires many more such employees than the typical corporation. A majority of graduates are sucked up by the insatiable needs of the public accounting firms.

IMA speaks critically of the public accountancies’ “high-contribution-margin model” and claims it is responsible for colleges’ heavy focus on auditing. In an article last October in the institute’s Strategic Finance magazine, IMA chief executive Paul Sharman called that focus “tunnel vision.” In short, the firms bill out young, low-earning employees’ time at highly profitable rates. And they need to replenish the ranks constantly because young accounting professionals typically see two to six years of public accounting as the path to a corporate career.

That means the firms are extremely aggressive recruiters on college campuses, which further encourages schools to tailor curricula toward their needs. “Until we alter the mental model of accounting education … we will not see a meaningful decrease in the number of errors in publicly issued financial statements,” IMA wrote to the Treasury Department auditing committee.

Editor’s Note: On Friday, see what college accounting professors have to say on these issues.