AS most people familiar with the accounting profession know, a future CPA must meet several requirements prior to obtaining that coveted license -- they must earn a college degree, pass the CPA Examination, and gain some experience in the profession. Before all of that, though, one crucial moment occurs in the life of a future CPA: Someone, somewhere, introduces that student to the profession of accounting -- and from that day forward there is shaped in this young person's mind a possible future, and a possible self that she or he might want to be.

In the more than 25 years that I've been serving the profession through the New York State Society of CPAs, I've noted that a future CPA's introduction to the profession often occurs in one of two ways: a family member (a grandfather/father/mother/aunt/uncle) was a CPA and instilled a respect for the noblest of career paths; or later in life, through a college professor or possibly a first employer. More recently, however, the CPA profession has suffered from a bit of a branding problem, particularly with high school students.

That problem was clearly defined in the American Institute of CPAs' Taylor Report, released in 2000, which found that high schoolers had negative and misinformed perceptions of the accounting profession. The report also sought to explain the source of these perceptions, and it cited one culprit in particular - many of the accounting courses offered in high schools are remedial in nature and therefore do not create the type of interest necessary to increase the number of accounting majors. Researchers selected a few quotes from one of their high school focus groups to highlight this finding: "There weren't any accounting classes in the [Advanced Placement] classes in high school. Those courses were for secretaries," along with this one: "If you are a detail-oriented person who likes to work by themselves, then [being a CPA is] for you." I don't imagine any professional association would want that for a tagline.

The report also found, "Students make decisions -- or at least have strong opinions -- regarding career plans at a very early age." This finding supports the need for intervention in early high school, before students have "a set idea of what accounting is like."

That was 12 years ago, but if you have a hunch that not much has changed, you might be right. A recently released report by the Pathways Commission, Charting a National Strategy for the Next Generation of Accountants, addresses much more than accounting's lackluster reputation among high school students. With the number of tenure-track accounting professors dwindling at a rapid rate and the struggle that colleges face in adapting their curriculum to meet the demands of constantly changing market developments, the future of accounting education has a serious risk of becoming compromised. The commission seeks to change that.

 

BUILDING THE BRIDGE

A joint project of the AICPA and the American Accounting Association, the commission proposed seven broad recommendations, along with objectives and action items. There is plenty to digest in the Pathways report, but one of the commission's solutions that I believe will establish a direct pipeline between our high schools and the business world over time is the development of a high school accounting class that is eligible for AP credit. The commission confirms that once an AP accounting class is in place, the accounting profession will have a viable infrastructure that will provide effective, long-term access to these students.

What's better is that the groundwork for such a course began just a few years after the Taylor Report was published. Kansas State University launched the Accounting Pilot & Bridge Project in 2006, and has been working to establish a model of what an AP accounting course might look like. Instead of students working their way down a balance sheet the way they might in a vocational course, this program, spearheaded by KSU accounting professor Dan Deines, focuses on accounting's role in a broader context -- deconstructing how businesses work, how to plan for business operations, issuing debt, and the philosophical and economic concepts behind them. More information on the initiative can be found at www.accountingpilot.com.

But in order for an AP course and exam to be offered, the College Board, the nonprofit organization that oversees AP curricula and examinations, must agree to offer it.

 

GETTING IT DONE

Currently there are 34 AP courses approved by the College Board -- but none for accounting, making our work that much harder, and the introduction of an AP accounting course that much more crucial to the viability of the profession.

So how does this all get started?

First, the viability of a new AP course depends on the desire among colleges and universities to provide college credit for an AP accounting course offered in each state's high schools, and the capabilities in the high schools to offer that course at a high degree of quality. According to the College Board, a minimum of 100 colleges that typically receive the largest number of AP scores must attest to their desire for an exam that would allow high school students to skip that course in college, and a minimum of 250 high schools need to attest to their capacity and desire to offer the AP course for students, with a minimum of 25 students at each school prepared to engage in the coursework. The program is then submitted to the College Board for approval.

Once approved, the College Board's staff would then identify and work with key leaders in the accounting academic discipline to determine the learning objectives, the curriculum framework, the exam, and the teacher professional development workshops and institutes for the course. Colleges and universities nationwide are then given an opportunity to give feedback on the proposed course; revisions then take place until the course reaches the point at which it is widely embraced by colleges and universities for credit and placement. At this point, the College Board said, it is then an official AP course.

The Accounting Pilot & Bridge Project has trained hundreds of high school teachers throughout the country, in a curriculum similar to what an AP course in accounting might provide. High school business teachers are interested in their schools becoming one of the 250 needed for board approval, but resources are drying up. For example, the Business Teachers Association of New York State supports the program and some of its members have undergone the training, but president Christine Choi points out that continuing pilot programs has been challenging in light of recent school budget cuts.

A concerted joint effort needs to be made in every state with every stakeholder group sharing resources to get the job done: the high schools, universities, state societies, and state boards of public accountancy. Working together, we can provide the resources these programs need to increase the possibility that an AP accounting course and exam will be approved by the College Board.

With more than 2 million academic all-stars enrolling in AP courses each year, we have an opportunity to introduce accounting as a profession to the best and brightest students, changing what these future professionals think accounting is, to what we know it to be -- a passport to a global, licensed profession that offers diverse possibilities for success. Let's get moving.

 

Joanne S. Barry, CAE, is executive director of the New York State Society of CPAs.

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