University of Texas accounting program tops rankings once again

It's probably no surprise that one of the most renowned business schools in the country claims top-ranked accounting programs, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

But the attitude is far from "Ho hum, another year, another No. 1" at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. The undergraduate program was recently given the top ranking by U.S. News and World Report and by Public Accounting Report. U.S. News also gave the accounting graduate program a No. 1 ranking in its annual analysis of professional-school programs.

How do they do it? "In my view, it's simple," says Thomas W. Gilligan, dean of the business school. "We have great faculty and we recruit great students."

While the program is never managed to receive high grades, so to speak, faculty and students are grateful and take pride in the long tradition of excellence that reaches back to the 1920s. The first accounting course was started in 1921 and the Texas MPA program was created in 1948 - decades ahead of others - says Professor Stephen T. Limberg, faculty director of the Texas MPA. A five-year integrated bachelor's/master's program was also started in 1984, long before state CPA boards required that level of education.

The formula for success involves outstanding professors, top students, strong alumni commitment, and business partnerships that reach back to the 1950s in some cases, but it's the "superb depth" in all these areas and the synergies created that makes Texas special, Limberg says. The accounting program stands on a strong historical foundation, but Limberg stresses that the Texas tradition is one of innovative and change. "Tradition isn't staid and stagnant. It's the antithesis in the Texas MPA. We're very forward-looking and adaptive to the times."

Limberg, who served as accounting department chair for seven years, said the professors are well-known as researchers, authors of accounting textbooks, and educators committed to being great teachers, and not just about the technical aspects of accounting. "We want to teach students to be great thinkers," he said.

Students are exposed to diverse set of fellow MPAs, MBAs, and business leaders from around the world, and they recognize that accounting is a great basis to become a business leader in virtually any area of an organization. "It's an outstanding set of skills to work from, for whatever goal they want to achieve in business and beyond," Limberg said.

In fact, the applicant pool this year increased by over 30 percent overall. Among U.S. students, the increase was over 50 percent. The popularity of accounting is not waning in light of the recession. Any organization, in good or bad times, whether it be a business, professional service organization, or not-for-profit enterprise, needs skilled professionals to file financial reports, tax returns, save cost, improve performance, to name just a few activities, Limberg notes. "Accounting is highly relevant, no matter what the economic circumstances are."

Having said that, Limberg adds that while accounting firms have not been able to hire fast enough in recent years, there are signs of slowing, but students are flexible. "Students are very adaptive and realistic about the marketplace. They seek the wide variety of opportunities available and employment is still strong. The Texas MPA is among the last programs employers will cut back on, even in hard times, and we are mindful of the privilege and responsibility this represents," he said.

Limberg says the McCombs School of Business fosters a cooperative spirit that challenges everyone to be their best. "There's a mindset that anything's possible. Optimism and a strong positive attitude foster a can-do spirit. These are intangible features which enable an organization to make a special mark."

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