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Three Suggestions For Professionalizing The Accounting Curriculum

by Dr. James W. Deitrick, PhD

Does the accounting curriculum at your college or university provide students with a sufficient number of opportunities to develop a realistic sense of the profession today? If the answer is no, or if you are not sure, then this article may be of interest to you. In the following article, I will describe three features that can be added individually or in combination and at little or no cost to most accounting programs. The benefits of incorporating these features include accounting majors who are more aware of the multi-faceted nature of their profession, better understanding its challenges and opportunities, as well as students with improved critical thinking abilities and stronger communications skills. Specifically, the three features are a lyceum program, case-oriented classes and a case competition, and a formal internship program.

Lyceum Program

In 1985, the University of Texas started its Professional Program in Accounting (PPA), an innovative response to the widely anticipated 150-hour legislation being considered by the AICPA. Students typically begin study in the PPA during the fall semester of their junior year and continue forward for the next three years. Upon completion, graduates are awarded both the Bachelor of Business Administration and Master in Professional Accounting degrees. An important and unique feature of the PPA is its weekly lyceum series held each fall semester.

A special lyceum course is developed for juniors just starting out in the PPA and a second lyceum course is available to students in their second and third years. Candidates in the traditional Master in Professional Accounting program (these students already hold undergraduate degrees from Texas or other institutions) are invited to attend the latter lyceum. Each lyceum course meets once a week for 75 minutes, is offered on a credit/no credit basis, and requires attendance. The content of each lyceum is carefully developed by a faculty member (usually the program director) to meet the changing professional and academic needs of the students as they progress through the program.

The following topics are presented here as examples of what could be incorporated into a lyceum program. The first-year lyceum usually begins with a general orientation session that covers the requirements, policies, procedures, and expectations of the program. Time usually remains for a general question and answer period. In the past, the orientation session has been followed by a few workshops introducing PPA students to the school's computer systems and to several accounting and business software packages which they are expected to use throughout their programs. These sessions, which are very much "hands on," are usually conducted by a team comprised of faculty members and representatives from the accounting profession.

For the rest of the semester, speakers from business and government come to campus to talk with the students about potential career paths for which accounting majors have competitive advantages. The speakers are normally partners, controllers or assistant controllers, accounting managers, and other appropriate individuals selected from the top ranks of key organizations. These sessions are primarily intended to focus on information dissemination rather than recruiting. Speakers typically cover such areas as auditing, taxation (public accounting and corporate), consulting, management information systems, investment banking, commercial lending, internal auditing, corporate financial reporting, and not-for-profit organizations. This lyceum not only helps students identify possible areas of concentration for their upper-level courses, but they also make students more aware of accounting as a valuable field of study and of the numerous opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. It is usually not difficult to find qualified speakers willing to discuss their personal experiences and perceptions with college students.

The lyceum program for second- and third-year students is organized around contemporary accounting and business topics of a rather broad nature. As with the first lyceum, most speakers are from the business world. They are invited to speak because of their special expertise, leadership positions, or familiarity with an important topic or problem. These sessions have included presentations about such topics as the consolidation movement in public accounting, international accounting and reporting, auditing for fraud detection, gender issues in the workplace, the process for developing accounting standards, company philosophies regarding risk management, accounting and sports management, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB), business issues involving intellectual capital and other intangibles, derivative transactions, and several specific tax topics. As intended, this lyceum assists in putting accounting students on the cutting-edge of current practice and enhances their understanding of the profession they are about to enter, either on a full-time basis or as interns.

The entire lyceum program at Texas has been immensely popular with the students and with the business community. Although it is a relatively low cost endeavor for the accounting department, a lyceum series probably will require a faculty member to assume responsibility for planning, coordinating, and implementing each session. But given the broad range of benefits from having a successful program, faculty cooperation should be easily attainable.

The Use of Cases

Another way of bringing professionalism to the accounting curriculum is through the use of cases. Accounting textbooks at all levels seem to include an increasing number of "real world" cases in their end-of-chapter materials. A case catalog and individual cases also may be obtained from several organizations including the Harvard Business School, the Colgate-Darden School of the University of Virginia, and the AICPA. In addition, there are several good casebooks on the market today that can be used if one wishes to offer an entire accounting course built around the case methodology. By taking a case course, students should significantly improve their research skills, analytical reasoning, and presentation abilities. Such a course also allows them to learn the historical details of real business and accounting problems faced by authentic companies. Moreover, the unstructured case environment helps students develop and evaluate alternative solutions for these problems and appreciate their likely impact on the company and its different strategies.

In addition, we have supplemented the accounting curriculum at Texas with an annual case competition. Up to 20 teams of four students each compete in a fall tournament. Procedurally, the teams receive the case mid-week and they immediately begin to organize their solution. Each team makes a 30-minute presentation Friday morning to a panel of judges (each panel contains a professor, a practicing accountant, and another representative from the business community). The top four teams are invited back for the afternoon's final round. The finals are open to the general public (e.g. students, faculty, administration, and local business leaders) and is video taped for future reference and review. As an incentive or reward, each member of the winning team receives a $1,000 scholarship and members of the second place team receive $500 each. The scholarships are provided by the tournament's sponsor, Ernst & Young LLP.

This type of competition helps students learn first-hand many important lessons about teamwork, time pressure, organization, delegation of duties, the elements of effective presentations and how to respond with poise and confidence to a panel of critical business people. Spirited competition such as this enables students to assess their individual strengths and weaknesses, and it helps them identify some personal and professional areas where improvement is needed. Subsequent coursework or other relevant experiences can help students overcome their deficiencies and capitalize on their advantages. For the accounting department, the use of cases and a case competition are relatively low cost ventures with tremendous educational potential for students.

Internships

The final suggestion for professionalizing the accounting curriculum involves an internships program. Such a program can be somewhat more costly and difficult for some accounting departments to offer, especially if academic credit is to be awarded for the internship experience. At Texas, PPA and MPA students may select an internship as an elective course under the supervision of a faculty member. The faculty coordinator works closely with each company taking an intern in order to verify that the agreed upon terms and conditions are being met. These terms include, but are not limited to, sufficient professional training and education, adequate supervision and mentoring, and the required preparation of an employment log (diary) and research paper.

In order to accommodate a large number of students wanting internships, and considering the preferences of companies for interns during different spans of time during the spring semester, some creative thinking was needed. For example, accounting firms are especially interested in having audit (or similar-type) interns beginning in January, while taxation interns are not in great demand until March. From a curriculum perspective, students with spring internships also usually want to make significant academic progress toward their degrees. As a result of compromise and several good-faith discussions, it was determined that the audit interns should work from early January to mid-March; they then return to campus to take two accelerated graduate accounting courses. In contrast, the tax interns take two accelerated graduate courses from early January (starting before the spring semester officially begins) through late February. They then go out to serve their internships through April 15 or later. Because of the faculty's commitment to our graduate programs, and with the cooperation of the administration, student and faculty schedules have been modified so that these accelerated courses have the same number of contact hours, as do comparable semester-long classes.

With some creativity and hard work, a successful internship program should provide many positive returns for the students, sponsoring companies, faculty, and the curriculum. Faculty members have especially noticed improved performances from students after they return from their internships. Interns usually bring to campus a renewed enthusiasm and interest in accounting, an important professional perspective, an expanded work ethic, and a broader understanding of the business world. These carryover effects are difficult to fully identify and measure, but they are very real and important.

Conclusion

From our experiences at the University of Texas, I strongly recommend a lyceum series, case projects and formal internship programs to any school looking for successful, low cost ways to enhance the professional nature of its programs. Moreover, these features can be used to help keep faculty and students up-to-date about accounting and its allied disciplines, as well as to make them aware of the perceptions, beliefs, and practices found throughout the business world. These projects can also help improve the valuable relationships between accounting programs and their important external constituencies. To meet the dynamic challenges that lie ahead, colleges and universities should seriously consider these and other innovative ways to enhance the professional education of its accountants.

Over the past three years, spring internships at Texas have grown from 128 in 1995 to 153 in 1997. Not everyone who wants an internship is able to get one. All companies willing to take interns conduct several interviews and go through their usual selection processes.

Dr. James W. Deitrick is an accounting professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

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