Throughout this issue, we’ve highlighted the impact of technology on the accounting profession, with artificial intelligence and robotics likely to have the most dramatic effect on traditional accounting responsibilities. So, in that world that is rapidly advancing toward us, what changes have been made, or can be made, in academia to better prepare students for careers in the accounting field of the future?
The Challenge: Transformation
Those who have been in accounting education for some time may remember previous calls for reform. The report of the Accounting Education Change Commission (1990) stressed that graduates entering the profession should be more broadly educated. A switch in focus from acquiring technical knowledge to developing a process of continual learning was emphasized. The report also called for developing students’ communication and interpersonal skills, as well as ensuring that students were active participants in the learning process.
Ten years later, in the midst of a low point in accounting enrollments, W. Steve Albrecht and Robert J. Sack published Accounting Education: Charting the Course through a Perilous Future. Among their findings was that practicing accountants perceived the education most accounting graduates received to be outdated. Furthermore, they claimed that many accounting educators resisted restructuring the accounting curriculum to equip graduates with the tools they needed for the business environment. The authors called for practicing CPAs to provide insight about the changing nature of the profession and employer needs by being involved in alumni advisory boards and offering internships as a way to attract more students to the profession.
Although it may not have been as sweeping or timely as some would have preferred, most accounting programs did implement changes in light of these recommendations. Arguably, one big impediment has been the CPA Exam. Until the relatively recent advent of task-based simulations, the exam has been a content-driven exercise that primarily tested remembering, understanding, and the application of technical matter. Rightly or wrongly, many accounting programs aligned the content covered in accounting courses to the CPA Exam.
Going forward, accounting educators may have to adopt changes more swiftly and comprehensively. In the fall of 2018, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) and the AICPA launched the CPA Evolution Working Group. This initiative is chaired by Cathy Allen, CPA, founder and managing member of Audit Conduct LLC and a member of NASBA’s board of directors. “Technological innovation and changing client demands are rapidly transforming the skills accountants need to thrive,” Allen said. “We want to reimagine the CPA learning and licensure approach. Working group members recognize the critical role of technological and data analysis expertise needed in firms and businesses today. Our goal is to recommend a strategy that provides the guiding principles for how to build related knowledge and skills into accounting curricula and how to test for those proficiencies on the CPA Exam.”1
Many universities have accounting advisory boards consisting of CPAs working in public accounting, industry, and the nonprofit sector. The boards can be a terrific resource in helping shape curriculum development when it comes to keeping pace with a rapidly changing technology landscape.
At Rowan University, a four-member subset of the advisory board agreed to serve on a faculty committee that had been formed to address how the accounting program could incorporate more data and analytics content into the curriculum. The group included representatives from two Big 4 firms, one individual who works at a Fortune 500 company, and another who works for a large global bank. The four entities these members represent invest heavily in data and analytics, and all four advisory board members were knowledgeable about the nature of these investments and how they were affecting workflow processes and the nature of tasks performed by newly hired graduates. They offered valuable insights that contributed greatly to the committee’s deliberations and progress.
Two University Examples
Rowan University has a baseline expectation that its students develop their Excel skills as they work through the curriculum. Rowan had considered requiring a separate advanced Excel skills course, but ultimately decided to embed the software’s use throughout the curriculum, encouraging its use to solve problems and incorporating it into case studies. Workshops are offered for those students wishing to enhance their skills even more. Two other changes Rowan is in the process of making include developing a required course in data and analytics for all accounting majors and adding an Auditing II elective that will include a hands-on approach to data sets and analysis.
Rowan also engaged in a benchmarking analysis that compared its required accounting courses and electives to about 10 schools it views as peers and competitors in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. This exercise was valuable in understanding current practice and shaping the curriculum to meet the needs of today’s rapidly changing technology landscape.
Kutztown University of Pennsylvania also emphasizes Excel skills as extremely important. A course required of all business majors has been modified to cover more advanced functions and features to analyze and present business data. Kutztown also has an advanced business computer applications course that, among other topics, uses intermediate and advanced spreadsheet functions to solve business problems, and has modified its business statistics course to expand coverage of regression analysis and data analytics.
Most students at Kutztown complete the 150-hour requirement by taking courses at the undergraduate level due to time and cost considerations. Based in part from input received from its accounting advisory board, Kutztown is now recommending that students complete as many electives in information technology (IT) or computer science as possible. If the student is completing 150 credit hours, a minor or a dual major in IT or computer science is recommended.
The impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on the future of employment is viewed in two very different lights. Some say technology will be highly disruptive and lead to a massive loss of jobs; others hold that robotics and AI are poised to create new and more exciting job roles that will improve employment prospects. Many, though, agree that initially robots will take lower-level jobs, leaving more interesting positions that require critical thinking and judgment to humans. A 2015 Accenture report predicted that robots could automate or eliminate up to 40 percent of transactional accounting work by 2020. Whether or not that turns out to be true, it appears we are well on the way. KPMG’s use of IBM Watson illustrates that technology can already be tasked to complete higher-level work in accounting.2 As the jobs that accountants perform change significantly, education will too.
In 2017, Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University, published Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Aoun claims that most college curricula and pedagogy still place inordinate weight on the transfer of information into students’ minds. Development of higher-order mental capacities, like critical thinking and elegant communication, is certainly one of the objectives of a college education, but all too often is secondary to the ingestion of content.3 He believes that if higher education rebalances its approach by helping students acquire the content they need to understand in their field of study and emphasizing the broader cognitive capacities needed in a highly automated environment, students will be prepared for the future.
Aoun proposes an educational model that centers on three literacies: technological, data, and human. The latter literacy and the cognitive capacities he emphasizes are skills prioritized in a liberal arts education – critical thinking, judgment, communication, creativity, teamwork, and collaboration, among others. These are skills that many accounting educators already emphasize and hold as desired learning outcomes in their courses.
Machines are not as adept as humans in dealing with unquantifiable, qualitative thinking. Aoun notes that machines have a problem with interpreting contexts that humans encounter in daily life. The Journal of Accountancy, discussing the issue with Dan O’Leary, professor at the USC Marshall School of Business, notes, “Knowing how to use technology is vital, but even more important is the ability to apply it in a business context. Accountants who have contextual knowledge of complicated issues and the ability to discuss it thoughtfully with colleagues and clients will excel in work settings.”4
Learning across disciplines, project-based learning, and real-world connections are also imperative in a robot-proof education, according to Aoun. Furthermore, he thinks that a human’s greatest teacher is experience, and regards experiential learning opportunities as a critical component of a robot-proof education. Developing partnerships with practitioners has always been vital to accounting educators. It will take on even greater importance in the future for these learning opportunities to be fully realized.
The recommendations set forth by Aoun appear to be held by those in the profession too. For instance, EY’s University of the Future: Bringing Education 4.0 to Life recommends many of the same steps Aoun has suggested.5
Many of the recommendations here are similar to proposals that have been championed in the past: teaching models need to emphasize active learning (learning by doing), and connections between practitioners and academicians should be increased to expand experiential learning. It is imperative that these initiatives continue.
Endeavoring to prepare students to enter a world being reshaped by changes in technology warrants the close attention and focus of educators. Having said that, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of a college curriculum – even when a student graduates with 150 credit hours. There is still the overarching need to prepare students for the CPA Exam and all the topics it touches upon, and to develop their office-based “soft skills.” Technology skills are vital, but there are only so many classroom hours available. Some training will need to take place “on the job” versus “in the classroom.” Most universities require accounting majors to complete two principles of accounting classes; two intermediate accounting classes; a tax, cost, and auditing class; and perhaps an accounting information systems class, among others. Most schools have other required business and general education credit requirements. It is, and will continue to be, a challenge to address everything students will need to know in the accounting profession of the future.
1 Ken Tysiac, “Working Group Considers Changes to CPA Licensing Requirements,” Journal of Accountancy (Nov. 29, 2018).
3 Joseph E. Aoun, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. (2017), p. 53.
4 Sarah Ovaska-Few, “Prepare Accounting Students for Working with Data Analytics,” Journal of Accountancy (Dec. 12, 2017).
Jerry J. Maginnis, CPA, served as KPMG’s Philadelphia office managing partner prior to his retirement. He currently serves on several public, private, and nonprofit boards, is an “executive in residence” at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., is vice chair of the Pennsylvania CPA Foundation, and is a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David D. Wagaman, CPA, is an associate professor and coordinator of the accounting program at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania in Kutztown, and is a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at email@example.com.