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January 27, 2023

Yale Grad and Grant Thornton Lawyer Argues The Case For an Undergraduate Accounting Program at Yale

illustration of a calculator graduation cap

Alexandra Newman (Yale University, B.A. 2005 with Distinction in Philosophy; Northwestern University School of Law, J.D. 2010) has penned an article for Yale Daily News that argues — quite well — why Yale needs an accounting program.

Any time the discussion of Ivies and accounting comes up, people who aren’t accounting graduates like to remind the discussers that accounting is a trade (like these Quora users who say Harvard doesn’t offer accounting for the same reason they don’t offer hairdressing and cosmetology majors, ouch), in a way that makes “trade” seem like a dirty word. There’s nothing wrong with the trades, in fact if you do the math many plumbers make more per hour than early-career public accountants (ouch again). But the implication is that accounting is not part of some greater picture in the way the liberal arts should be, that it is a specific set of mechanical skills taught to people who will spend their careers repeating these skills.

Ms. Newman, a philosophy major who somehow ended up working for Grant Thornton an in-house attorney, acknowledges this immediately:

Yale should offer an undergraduate accounting major.

“But Yale is a liberal arts college. Accounting is a trade.” “Yale trains leaders — entrepreneurs, CEOs, heads of state. Accountants are ‘bean counters’ who wear pocket protectors and green eyeshades.”

I have been at the periphery of this profession for 15 years and not once have I seen a green eyeshade, much to my disappointment. I’m pretty sure there is no one alive today who has seen a green eyeshade other than as a Halloween costume. Surely no one believes this stereotype in current year?

There is apparently a single undergraduate accounting course offered at Yale: ACCT 270a, Foundations of Accounting and Valuation:

Modern accounting practices and their use in distinguishing value creation from value redistribution. Basic determinants of value and the techniques used to assess it; the creation of value through the production and delivery of goods or services; the conversion of that value into cash flows; basic financial statements, balance sheets, income statements, and cash flow statements, and the accounting mechanics with which they are built. Undergraduate enrollment limited to 50. Juniors and seniors only.

ACCT 270 is taught by William S. Beinecke Professor of Accounting at the Yale School of Management Rick Antle, who looks exactly how you expect a professor of accounting at a prestigious school to look.

Rick Antle William S. Beinecke Professor of Accounting
That resume tho

Like many future accounting grads, Antle didn’t even want to go into accounting (he wanted to be a lawyer). It was a professor at Oklahoma State known for poaching students from other majors who convinced him to do it. From a December 2020 Yale Insights interview, Antle explains:

[Dr. Wilton Anderson, head of OSU’s accounting department] also recruited students from other majors. He got me that way. I’d been given a small scholarship my freshman year. It was a few hundred dollars, but that was enough to cover tuition. I made all As, but the scholarship was only for one year. When I told Dr. Anderson, first he said, “There’s no better training for a lawyer than accounting. A CPA-attorney will never have trouble finding work.” Then, he offered me a scholarship from funds he had raised from the accounting firms. So, basically, the answer to your question of “Why accounting?” is, I was bought for $400.

A tale as old as time really.

Back to Ms. Newman’s argument for an undergraduate accounting program at Yale (the AICPA is salivating at the thought, I’m sure):

The accounting field has changed since the 1960s when President Brewster declared Yale’s mission to train “1,000 male leaders a year.” Accountants today are not number crunchers relegated to the back office. Instead, professionals trained in accounting are called to lead in the private, public and nonprofit sectors. Yale could help to enhance and ensure integrity in the global business community by rigorously training undergraduates in accounting.

The profession has changed tremendously since then, too. What was once a straightforward, oft-boring calling for business majors has now evolved into one at the fringes of a technological revolution (the AICPA didn’t pay me to say that).  Next year, future CPAs will be tested on technology concepts that up until recently weren’t required to meet the standard of knowledge and skills that entry-level CPAs must possess to practice public accountancy. Who knows how different things will be in a decade.

Here are three reasons she gives for why undergraduates at Yale should, as she says, have the option to study this challenging and evolving field as a major and acquire deep accounting knowledge to benefit society as leaders:

  • The modern study of accounting is consistent with a liberal arts education The Yale College Programs of Study states that a liberal arts education “aims to cultivate a broadly informed, highly disciplined intellect without specifying in advance how that intellect will be used.” The goal “is to instill knowledge and skills that students can bring to bear in whatever work they eventually choose” rather than “train students in the particulars of a given career.” The modern study of accounting aligns with this mission.

 

  • Accounting is a truth-seeking endeavor that can serve the public interest Yale’s motto is “Light and Truth.” President Salovey has emphasized the University’s truth-seeking mission and urged undergraduates to “fine-tune your ability to sift fact from falsehood.” Accounting — in particular, the subfield of assurance — is consistent with this imperative.

 

  • A major in accounting will complement the major in economics and provide career opportunities Economics is currently the most popular major at Yale [when Ms. Newman was an undergrad in the early 2000s, it was history]. An accounting major would complement both the economics and history majors, given accounting’s focus on telling the story of an organization through historical financial information. Just as economics and history majors conduct original research, undergraduates could conduct impactful research in accounting like that done by students in the School of Management. Indeed, accounting research has influenced the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s rulemaking processes, which in turn impact capital markets and the goal of investor protection.

For a profession facing a potentially catastrophic shortage of entrants, this might be just the kind of thing that breathes new life into accounting as a career and exposes a whole new crop of students to the possibilities (the AICPA didn’t pay me to write that either). Feel free to argue for or against it in the comments.

NEWMAN: Yale needs an accounting major [Yale Daily News]

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4 Comments

  1. Great read. AG, check last bullet point towards end of your article. Think it is a mistake, it is repetition of the paragraph above it, word for word. Just a heads up. Thanks for another job well done!

  2. Thank you for digging into what I’ve been up to at Yale for the last few years and thank you to Ms. Newman for writing the Yale Daily News article advocating for an accounting major at Yale. They were both wonderful surprises.

    I feel strongly that accounting courses, appropriately oriented, have a natural place in a liberal arts education. Accounting plays a deep and important role in civilized societies that is often overlooked and definitely under-appreciated. Basic accounting practices such as organizing financial records around the Fundamental Accounting Identity (Assets – Liabilities = Equities in a for-profit or Net Assets in not-for-profit) and using double-entry techniques to analyze and enter transactions and other information into the records have proven their value over several centuries and merit study.

    Accounting is also a great subject for developing numeracy, quantitative reasoning abilities, and even basic spreadsheet skills. I have been developing a website to weave these things together in a first accounting course, and I invite you to visit it at:
    https://learning-accounting.yale.edu

  3. The study of accounting is older than economics, sociology, or geology. Accounting was started as method for Rome to keep accurate records of its holdings during the Middle Ages. If accounting is good enough for Popes and Emperors, it’s good enough for undergrads.

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