Accounting Educators Address Fewer Students in the Discipline

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Perceptions of accountants evoke images of people stuck in stuffy offices for 80 hours per week, poring over numbers.

Some may even think they, or the work they do, is boring.

That perception, accounting educators say, may be part of the reason the number of college students who graduate with bachelor’s degrees in accounting is dropping.

According to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants’ 2023 Trends Report, bachelor’s degrees in accounting fell 7.8% from 2021–2022 after a decline of 1% to 3% per year since 2015–16. Master’s degree completions also decreased in 2021–2022 (-6.4%).

Mahoning and Shenango Valley higher education institutions see the drop too.

“Our numbers are going down in accounting, not rapidly,  but a little bit,” says Jeremy Schwartz, director of the Lariccia School of Accounting and Finance at the Williamson College of Business Administration at Youngstown State University.

In 2023 at YSU, 67 students graduated with an accounting degree. The number was 66 in 2022, 65 in 2021 and 70 in 2020. In 2019, the number was 55.

At Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa., the number has fallen in recent years, too.

In 2017, Westminster had 80 accounting graduates and in 2022, the number fell to 45. In 2023, it rebounded to 58.

CPA Exam

“It’s probably a combination of things,” Schwartz says. “For 20 years, there was a 150- [semester] hour rule to become a CPA [certified public accountant].”

That required students to take classes beyond the semester-hour requirements for a bachelor’s degree, adding expense.

That requirement dropped to 120 hours recently to sit for the exam with 150 hours still required to become certified. That allows students to get a job and start earning income while earning the remaining hours.

Keith B. Bittel, assistant professor in the Westminster School of Business, is studying the decline in the number of students entering accounting.

He agrees that the number of semester hours required may be a deterrent.

“That means the potential of an extra year of school,” he says. “That becomes problematic. It’s another year barrier to entry.”

Other Contributors

But there are other factors too.

Both Bittel and Melissa Oakes, chairwoman of the Arthur McGonigal Department of Business Administration and Accounting at Thiel College in Greenville, Pa., believe budget cuts in high school education could play a role.

Many high schools used to offer accounting classes to students, giving them an idea of the kinds of careers open to accountants, Oakes says.

But most of those classes have been axed because of budget cuts.

Whether a student has a positive experience in their first accounting classes may also make a difference, says Bittel, who also has a CPA practice.

Having people who have practiced may help.

Oakes, who teaches accounting at Thiel, says she and the other professor there recruit from within.

Principles of accounting is a requirement for business majors, so if a business major is doing well in that class and seems to enjoy it, Oakes will ask if he’s interested in majoring in accounting.

It was an accounting class with one YSU accounting professor that made Ashley Thompson switch her major.

 Thompson, of Canfield, started at YSU as a business administration major but changed to accounting after taking a class taught by Jessie Wright, an assistant professor.

The professor is bubbly and enthusiastic and uses a lot of real-life examples, Thompson says.

“I found it fun and I didn’t know accounting could be fun, so that’s why I switched my major,” she says.

A degree in accounting opens doors to careers other than being a CPA, Schwartz says. The Ohio Auditor of State’s Office, federal agencies, manufacturing and retail companies and non-profit organizations all need accountants.

Role of Perception

The perception of long hours, boring work also may factor into the decline in accounting graduates, the educators say.

People may believe that being an accountant means long hours at a desk and no work-life balance, Schwartz says.

There are times when long hours are required, but companies allow more flexibility at other times of the year.

“The perception is that it’s boring or that accountants themselves can be boring,” Bittel of Westminster says. “In my 29 years of being an accountant, I’ve run into my share of accountants who were not the life of the party.”

If an accountant wants a successful career though, he needs a personality, he says, adding that he doesn’t do a lot of number crunching in his business. Others in his office do that.

“I do more with client relationships and business development,” he says.

Relationships with Industry

YSU’s Williamson College of Business Administration uses an advisory panel of people in the industry to ensure it’s preparing students for jobs.

The university also has events where it invites both students and people in the profession to campus to meet.

Nov. 3 marked the 27th Accounting Practitioner Day at YSU (See story page 44). That’s where Thompson, the fourth-year accounting major from Canfield, and other students met accounting professionals.

She’s trying to decide what kind of job to pursue after she graduates.

“I think I’m more interested in nonprofit accounting,” she says.

She’s planning to work as an intern with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program this tax season.

Besides the work, Thompson says the availability of jobs in accounting appeals to her.

“There are all of these different avenues you can go down with accounting so I feel like it’s stable and I enjoy it,” she says.

Preston Smith from Austintown, a third-year accounting major at YSU, plans to be a CPA.

“I really like the numbers part of it and just looking through the data and sorting things out,” he says.

Practitioners’ Perspective

Bruce Flyak, partner at DG Perry; Nicole DeCenso, change management specialist at FNB; and Andrew Klapac, supervisor at Schroedel, Scullin & Bestic, were among the professionals who attended the Nov. 3 YSU event.

Flyak likes interacting with YSU accounting students and hearing their questions and offering tips.

“We’re always looking to recruit,” he says. “YSU is, at least for our local office, where we get the vast majority of our interns and future hires,” he says.

DeCenso, who also graduated from YSU, says it’s a way to maintain a relationship with the university.

“We do look for students for our internships, but it’s not just accounting,” she says. “It’s finance, it’s data analytics, IT. It’s everywhere within the bank.”

The representatives from the three employers say they aren’t seeing a shortage of accounting graduates but other obstacles affect hiring.

Since Covid, more companies allow employees to work remotely, Flyak says. That means graduates can work for a firm anywhere in the country leading to more competition for employees.

“Each professional at this table, their firm has strong relationships with the [Williamson] College of Business,” DeCenso says.

Firms that don’t have those relationships may be experiencing a lack of graduates to hire, she says.

Flyak says that’s the reason his firm attends events like Accounting Practitioner Day.

“We need quality, talented people in order to be successful and so it’s critical being involved with the university,” he says. “You also want to be part of what the university is looking to do, what they’re looking to teach their accounting students. It’s good to have that relationship because they’re always looking for feedback.”

Part of that feedback is what YSU can do better to prepare students, Flyak says.

He and Klapec say one area where new graduates could improve is soft skills.

“You could have the smartest person. They could know everything,” Flyak says. “But just the ability to be able to interact in a team environment [is important]. You’re going to be in front of clients, in front of other people.”

Those skills can take you a long way, he says.

Klapec says that’s especially helpful the longer a person is in the company.

“The first couple years coming out of school, it’s much more about the technical side of the work,” he says. “Once you get into client management, the soft skills and the interactions come into play a lot more.”