Need Accounting Talent?

January 25, 2024

By Andrew Kenney, for the Journal of Accountancy

The popularity of undergraduate accounting programs in the U.S. has been declining for years. According to a 2023 AICPA survey, the yearly number of new graduates with accounting degrees dropped 18.3% from its peak in 2016 through 2022.

It's part of a broader drop in U.S. college enrollment that was particularly pronounced during the pandemic years. But the changes have been especially sharp for some accounting programs. And with many organizations struggling to hire accountants and other financial professionals, it's raising concerns that the talent pipeline is running dry.

For a deeper understanding of the issue and suggestions to tackle it, the JofA turned to three recent winners of the AICPA's Distinguished Achievement in Accounting Education Award, the organization's highest honor for academics.

The three experts — Thomas R. Weirich, Ph.D., CPA, professor of accounting at Central Michigan University; Nancy Bagranoff, DBA, CPA, professor of accounting at the University of Richmond; and D. Scott Showalter, CPA, CGMA, director of the Jenkins Master of Accounting Program and professor of practice in accounting at North Carolina State University — responded to emailed questions about trends and observations. The answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Why do you think accounting enrollments have declined in recent years?

Bagranoff: Enrollments have dropped primarily due to market factors. Salaries are low in comparison to other business majors. The entry jobs are not always interesting, and students see the major and the work as more challenging with not enough reward. There has also been a robust job market overall, making the appeal of career stability less of a draw.

Showalter: The principal reasons for decreases in accounting enrollments can be attributable directly to the accounting firms and the need for the accounting firms to change these trends, including a lack of increases in starting salaries, the inability to leverage technologies to transform the work and tasks performed by associates, and the lack of a diversity of clear career paths to success.

Weirich: The attitude of students and the perception of the profession has changed due to the negative publicity in the press as to the culture of long hours and low pay as compared to other job opportunities.

How have the students you interact with changed?

Bagranoff: One change we have noticed is increased salary transparency. Students make use of online tools to compare salaries and are more aggressive in negotiating terms. We have not noticed any changes in demographics.

Showalter: Post-pandemic, many students prefer online classes, but as a result they are struggling with soft skills and with demonstrating critical thinking skills. We don't see this as a difference in character from previous generations. Rather, the difference is more a byproduct of the learning environment during the pandemic.

Weirich: Over the years, students have experienced an increase in job opportunities, especially in the technology field. As a result, more business students are trending to information systems and finance. We also strongly recommend that accounting majors double major in IT/business information to enhance their job opportunities and meet the 150-hour requirement for CPA licensure. Double majoring also provides the CPA candidate additional knowledge for the new (CPA) Exam in the areas of data analytics and AI.

How have students' attitudes toward and impressions of accounting evolved? Are programs meeting those needs?

Showalter: While we may have lost the battle with students in the business schools due to differences in starting salaries, the salaries and opportunities in the accounting profession are very attractive to students who are not in business. We need to expand the population of the students who we recruit for accounting majors. We have been able to expand the diversity in our graduate accounting program, but it takes a lot of work to identify and attract more diverse students. It's a one-on-one effort.

Are you involved with any efforts to boost accounting enrollment? If so, what are those and what have the results been so far?

Bagranoff: I teach the introductory undergraduate class, and all of the instructors at that level work to make the class interesting and to ensure that students know about the wide variety of jobs available to accounting majors. I also teach courses in cybersecurity, and I think that area has appeal to students who have some interest in accounting technology and data analytics.

Showalter: Institutions should open graduate accounting to individuals who do not have an undergraduate accounting degree. There are many individuals who are currently in a career with limited future potential. At N.C. State, 30% of our graduate students do not have an undergraduate career in accounting.

Weirich: Our most popular accounting course is forensic accounting, with students participating in actual financial fraud investigation cases with the Michigan State Police. This specific course has expanded the students' knowledge that there exist other "cool" opportunities besides public or corporate accounting.

Also, to increase the pipeline, the basic accounting courses for all business majors need to be revamped to include topics such as ESG [environmental, sustainability, and governance], sustainability, cryptocurrency, and how the accounting role is important in protecting the public interest. These intro courses need to be staffed by the most dynamic and engaging faculty.

What kind of feedback are you receiving from firms about your graduates, especially regarding their soft/essential skills?

Bagranoff: Feedback about our students' skills is generally positive. Employers are pleased with their communication skills and professionalism. What we do hear about is a need for more technology skills in specific areas, and we are continuing to integrate these technologies into our curriculum to meet those needs.

Showalter: We receive very positive comments about the soft/professional skills of our accounting graduates. We have a 1 credit-hour class focused on professional skills in addition to incorporating presentation and writing skills into most of our graduate classes. In addition, most of the classes focus on applying the skills learned so students become familiar with uncertainty and demonstrating critical thinking skills.

Weirich: Feedback from the firms as to technical skills is positive, with the request for more emphasis on data analytic skills. As to student soft skills, all our business students are now required to take a business communication class.

Do the changes to the CPA Exam (such as the growing focus on technology) offer opportunities to update the accounting curriculum to make it more attractive to students?

Bagranoff: We have introduced two new courses: "Cybersecurity for Accounting with Analytics" and "Forensic Accounting." These are elective courses that students may take in either their major or the concentration.

Showalter: We looked at the Blueprint for the CPA Exam to see if there are significant skills missing. We also used the Blueprint to identify CPA Exam skills that were no longer being tested to provide space to add more emerging skills to the curriculum. For example, we continue to add more data analytics to the curriculum, plus AI such as ChatGPT.

Weirich: We are working diligently to transform our curriculum to include data analytics across all accounting classes and are currently actively working on STEM [science, technology, education, and mathematics] recognition for our program.

How would you address the pipeline issues in the accounting profession?

Bagranoff: We have identified a faculty member to be the director of accounting student engagement. She is charged with creating programming, social media, and other communications that will help in recruiting and retaining students in our accounting programs.

Showalter: We need to do a better job at describing the variety of careers that are available to accounting professionals. This message should be communicated in middle school or earlier when students begin to think about the future. And curricula need to be modernized to reflect the current and future state of the accounting profession; this is particularly true for some colleges that often portray accounting as bookkeeping.

Weirich: Better and more communication to high school students, including the use of social media, in addressing the career opportunities in accounting, and also to address the negative stigma of the profession.

How can practitioners work with universities and accounting departments to bolster the accounting pipeline?

Bagranoff: Having practitioners on accounting department advisory councils is a great way for faculty to obtain feedback about the profession and its skills needs. These advisory council members can also meet with students and guest lecture in classes.

Showalter: Practitioners should spend time on college campuses other than for recruiting. Most firms primarily want to come to campus to recruit students. The pipeline could be enhanced if accounting professionals spent time in classes explaining the variety of careers and tasks available and how emerging technologies are being used in the accounting profession. We provide firms with topics the students want to learn about. Students get excited about the opportunities that lead to career discussions.

Firms should revisit what happens during internships. Students form opinions about future careers based on the internship experience. If the internship experience is clerical in nature with few engaging activities, that message comes back on campus and undermines the value of a career in accounting.

Weirich: To further enhance the accounting pipeline, we are working jointly with practitioners and the Michigan Association of CPAs with the regional high school Business Professionals of America program, which provides the opportunity to interact and present to approximately 400 high school business students. Furthermore, we are requiring all beginning financial and managerial accounting business students, consisting of 400 students, to attend a "Back Stage Pass" program to meet professionals in public, corporate, and government accounting (FBI, Homeland Security, and IRS-CI) to discuss the opportunities available and examples of their work-life balance.

Are you optimistic about the future of accounting? Why or why not?

Bagranoff: I still believe in an early AICPA tagline: "Accounting is the One Degree with 360 Degrees of Possibility." I think as cybersecurity and sustainability become increasingly important reporting areas, accountants have more possibilities than ever. Today's companies face a lot of risk in these areas and beyond, and accountants are highly trained in understanding risk. Who better can management and boards turn to for help as they navigate turbulent times? The accounting mindset will always be valued.

Showalter: I am bullish on the accounting profession. After almost 50 years in the accounting profession, I have seen the profession evolve numerous times in reaction to emerging technologies while meeting the ever-changing needs of stakeholders.

Weirich: Accounting is the "language of business," and I am optimistic of the future as the profession and academia continue to work diligently to change the brand and implement new tools and topics into the accounting programs such as AI, cryptocurrency, and ESG.

Andrew Kenney is a freelance writer based in Colorado. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew at


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