Corporate Scandals Attract Students to Accounting

Have accountants finally shed their dry bean-counter image? Can accounting be viewed as a ‘sexy’ career choice?

Maybe so, if the number of new accounting majors among college freshmen is any indication. Academics say the seemingly never-ending series of corporate scandals over the last few years has piqued the interest of today’s students.

Consider these numbers provided by the AICPA and reported by the Wall Street Journal:

  • The number of accounting degrees awarded nationwide in 2003 jumped 11 percent from the year before.
  • The largest accounting program in the nation, at Florida International University in Miami, saw a 43 percent increase in student enrollment between 2000 and 2003.
  • The University of Michigan saw a 76 percent increase in accounting master’s students over the past three years.
  • The University of Illinois, one of the nation's biggest producers of accountants, saw a 66 percent increase in undergraduate accounting majors from 2001 to 2004.

"What this tells us is there's no such thing as bad publicity," says Ira Solomon, head of the department of accountancy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "All the focus on accounting created a perception to students that accounting matters and is perhaps even sexy."

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act also gave students a reason to feel a sense of security in entering the field. The corporate reform law created new jobs by expanding the duties of auditors. The pay is good and banking and consulting jobs are harder to get, the Journal reported.

So while enrollments are strong, accounting professors are retiring and the number of accounting Ph.D.’s is declining. Students will need to learn the new regulations, but professors are hard to find. According to the American Accounting Association, there are more than twice as many faculty openings as there are applicants.

Still, the highest number of accounting degrees issued nationwide, more than 60,000, was in the 1994-95 academic year. Nearly 50,000 accounting degrees were awarded in the spring of 2003, according to the AICPA. "I don't feel like we can just step back and say it's gotten better," says Brent Inman, partner in charge of recruiting at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. "We as a profession still have work to do."

The growing interest in accounting is giving educators a new sense of optimism. "People are now going in understanding that this is a high-risk profession that requires a lot of integrity and courage, but is an important part of the economy," says David Wright, head of the masters in accounting program at the University of Michigan, where master's enrollment has jumped to 60 from 34 students since 2001. "We are finding people who are truly passionate about accounting."

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