A CASE FOR USING EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION IN ACCOUNTING

 

Allen J. Rubenfield – Clark Atlanta University

Ganesh M. Pandit – Clark Atlanta University

 

Accounting educators and practitioners always have been concerned with what is happening in accounting education today and what the future will look like (Albrecht and Sack, 2001).  The main debate centers on the question of how exactly future professionals are to be trained so that they are best prepared to face the challenges and opportunities that await them in the business environment.  Practitioners and educators have expressed their concerns that something must be done to the present educational system to better equip future accounting graduates, not only with the basic oral and written communication skills and computer literacy, but also with social awareness and ethical background (Albrecht and Sack, 2001; AICPA, 2000).

The debate is not new!As early as 1978 the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) noted that in order for auditors to fulfill their professional responsibility, a learned profession such as accounting should be closely tied to its educational base. Even then the AICPA noted that the educational base was greatly weakened by a wide “schism” between academic and practicing accountants and that the “schism” had already become detrimental to the development and growth of the accounting profession (AICPA, 1978). Since then, in response to the demands of the profession, society and organizations such as the AICPA and the American Accounting Association (AAA), several colleges, universities and professional schools around the country have been trying to address the need to revamp their curriculum. The AAA, after becoming aware of these demands formed the Accounting Education Change Commission (AECC) in 1989 to suggest ways to meet these many demands on the accounting education. The AECC’s objective was to be a catalyst for improving the academic preparation, skills and knowledge of future accountants as may be required for success in the profession (AECC, 1990). Further, the AICPA felt that a 150-hour educational requirement to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) instead of the old 120-hour requirement would produce better professionals. Accordingly, beginning in the early 1980s, a great majority of states began requiring the 150-hours of college education from prospective CPAs. However, the success of requiring the additional hours may have been very questionable as witnessed by the state of the accounting profession today. In fact as a result of the continuing problems in the profession and in education, in the year 2000 the AICPA itself argued in favor of a competency-based education based on a set of core competencies as spelled out by the AICPA (AICPA, 2000).

Today more than ever, business and accounting educators continue to worry about the growing gap between American accounting education and accountant’s competency (Albrecht and Sack, 2001; AICPA, 2000). The purpose of this paper therefore is to respond to the current professional education controversy and perhaps offer a solution. The paper examines the value of practice-based, experiential accounting education. The authors feel that perhaps it is time we stopped looking for the grand panacea such as 150 hours, core competencies or curriculum revisions to cure what ails the accounting profession educationally and move more toward practical clinical experience, i.e., reality. The objective would be to expose students to the concrete and complex problem situations that practitioners encounter. These changes would allow the interaction of accounting, practical, institutional and personal dimensions, and challenge students to identify, analyze, consider and plan a course of action. Therefore, the authors present certain views in favor of the argument that accounting programs should adopt practical and clinical experiential education as an alternative approach to bridge the gap between academics and the profession. Specifically, the following merits of experiential accounting education are presented:

  1. First, providing a student with the opportunity for practical education through internships or involvement in a clinical setting while in school will enable the student to better understand the career opportunities and skill requirements of the accounting profession.  Providing students with a wide variety of clinical experiences would give students the opportunity to be involved in different types of accounting fields.  These could include internships and work experiences in public accounting, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, corporations, service industries, public utilities and others.
  2. Second, practice based education will facilitate the socialization process into the profession.  It will make the students' transition and entry into the profession somewhat easier.  Accounting scholars and practitioners always have expressed the importance of socializing students into the profession.  Teaching them how to think, write and solve problems like a practicing accountant, and learn the accounting and interpersonal skills of the profession are among the issues expressed in accounting education and are very much the problems facing accounting programs and business schools (Mayer-Sommer and Loeb, 1981).
  3. Third, clinical and practical experience courses will allow optimum use of faculty time and resources.  This is possible if those instructors who work with the students are assigned as the primary supervisors of clinical experiences. The involvement of the faculty member with such a practicum would probably also lead to more applied as opposed to theory-oriented research and the contacts developed through this process could facilitate the conduct of such research.
  4. Fourth, students who have practical experiences will be more likely to get jobs quicker compared to those students who do not have such practical experiences.  Students who are involved in practical education can easily make invaluable professional contacts that are important for their entry into the profession as jobs become more competitive.  The success of practice-based accounting education programs would contribute to better cooperation among schools, students, employers and the community at large and thereby enable the universities to attract business and donors' financial and material support to strengthen and improve their accounting programs.
  5. Finally, there may be other additional advantages for faculty members who move away from theory towards practice-based education.  Direct involvement in the accounting practice would enable faculty members to understand the needs and priorities of employers and practitioners, as well as the accounting profession.  Faculty internships could result in invaluable contacts for faculty members seeking grants, consulting or other financially rewarding opportunities. 

 

While most accounting programs vary by size, number of faculty and students, financial resources and diversity of degree programs and reputation, they all seem to have certain common features.  Most accounting students are just out of high school and begin their programs as undergraduates.  This differs greatly from the other learned professions.  To enter a non-accounting professional program such as medicine or law, students are required to complete a four-year undergraduate program.  Besides, many of these students may have work-related experiences when compared to accounting students who for the most part are undergraduate students with limited or no professional work experience.  Consequently, many accounting students do not develop early commitment to their profession.  It is only in their junior year of undergraduate program that they declare accounting as their major field of study.  The students’ identity in most part remains with the university and the business school instead of with the accounting program. The university system does not give them the means and resources to practice accounting in their third or fourth year of study.
 

In conclusion, the authors suggest that practice-based or experiential accounting education is an area that needs to be addressed in view of the ongoing changes advocated by AECC and the AICPA (2000).  Accounting education can benefit from comparable programs in other professions.  While Albrecht and Sack (2001) argue that all accounting programs have to be reshaped within the framework of the program itself and the resources they have available, and although they make many excellent suggestions on what may be done, very little is still said about the actual socialization of students into the profession at an early stage.  Accounting students should be encouraged to develop professional identity by joining the accounting profession at the beginning of their studies.  This would facilitate the student's socialization into their professional careers as Mayer-Sommer and Loeb (1981) and others have suggested. 

 

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