Is accounting an obsolete major? That’s the question posed by John “Jack” Castonguay, PhD, CPA, in the August/September 2021 CPA Journal. He writes:
Accounting — at least as an independent field of study — is becoming obsolete in today’s technology- and analytics-focused world. Its value lies in its interdisciplinary applicability and position as a foundational business curriculum. In recognition of that reality — and to maintain a pipeline of candidates open to CPA licensure, increase the number of engaged accounting students, and keep the profession relevant to the next generation — this author believes that colleges and universities should eliminate the accounting department as a stand-alone department and reorganize accounting under finance and information systems departments.
It’s long been established — and we here at Going Concern have nearly 13 years of evidence littered throughout our archives to prove it — that the accounting profession has a recruitment problem. A decade ago, the profession’s efforts were honed in on increasing diversity, but nowadays it’s about getting people in the door.
The most recent AICPA Trends report [PDF] — published in 2019 — tells us that accounting enrollments are down overall, though it does look like there’s some positive movement on the diversity side:
Total projected accounting enrollments are down 4% from the highs of 2016, but are still among the highest on record. Master’s enrollments are down 6% from 2016. Racial/ethnic diversity has increased in the 2017-18 academic year. Universities have reported increases in Hispanic or Latino enrollees of 3 and 8 percentage points at the bachelor’s and master’s levels, respectively. Seventy-two percent of bachelor’s of accounting programs and 65% of master’s of accounting programs expect to have the same or higher enrollment in 2019.
We are anxiously awaiting the newest AICPA Trends report, which is published every two years and therefore should show up anyday now. Until then, we can only guess on what the next batch of numbers will look like and hand-wring over the data we do have.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast employment of accountants and auditors to grow 13.1% from 2012 to 2022; current BLS data projects 7% growth for this segment from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations.
About 135,000 openings for accountants and auditors are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Let’s talk about retirements while we’re on the topic. A few years back, the AICPA estimated that a whopping 75% of its members (read: CPAs) would be eligible for retirement in 2020. When you combine this figure with waning interest in accounting as a major, more and more accounting graduates foregoing the CPA exam, an accounting professor shortage, and the pressures of a traditionally reactionary profession to take proactive steps to adapt to new technology, well, it doesn’t look pretty.
The CPA Evolution project aims to address that last issue, and the AICPA and NASBA recently released a revised CPA Evolution Model Curriculum upon which university accounting programs can build their curricula but are by no means required to. I’m hearing grumblings from deep within the bowels of academia that some professors are less than thrilled about this project, but no one is willing to go on record, so if you’re an accounting professor with an opinion on CPA Evolution good or bad and willing to put your name on it, please do reach out.
The problem with this approach, writes Castonguay, is that the new curriculum fails to address the “jack-of-all-trades” problem; early-career accountants in particular are expected to know a little bit about a lot of stuff, essentially.
Even though the CPA Evolution Project is aligning the credential with practice, it is also underscoring that the value in the license lays not within the accounting curriculum that has existed for decades; the new value is the technology, the analytics, the systems, and the tax research. But I believe the curriculum realignment anticipated by the CPA Evolution Project will only lead to an even faster decline in enrollments if accounting remains siloed as a stand-alone major.
As the profession gets more specialized, the accounting curriculum is expanding to include more information, more courses, more skills, and more tracks—but students are less skilled at each one. It’s a cycle that can’t be fixed by repackaging existing courses. It can only be fixed by eliminating the accounting major and unlocking accounting’s interdisciplinary value and specialization within finance, information systems, or other departments.
In order to better recruit future accountants (or should we start calling them accounting analysts?), Castonguay suggests a total rehaul of accounting education, rolling existing accounting curriculum into other departments. This, he says, is preferable to trying to cram technology content into existing accounting programs instead, which seems to be the current plan.
[T]he accounting department itself should be eliminated and reorganized predominately under finance and information systems departments. In the author’s opinion, this approach will unlock the value in the fast-evolving accounting roles that accounting firms and future employers seek from graduating students.
So what do we think? Is accounting a dead major? Is the solution to the profession’s pipeline problem as easy as parasitically latching onto other business majors hoping to snag a couple future CPAs with the captivating glitter of accounting fundamentals?
I’ll say this: the next few years are going to be very, very interesting.