What Students Think of CPAs: Is The Stereotype Alive and Well?
By Charles J. Coate, Mark C. Mitschow, and Michael D. Schinski
Each year when recruiters visit campuses it seems that there are plenty of accounting jobs, but not enough accounting students. The downward trend in accounting enrollment is a national issue, as highlighted by Albrecht and Sack in their March 2001 CPA Journal article, based on their landmark 2000 study.
Albrecht and Sack listed five reasons for the decline in student interest in the accounting major: low starting salaries, more attractive career choices, a willingness to choose risky majors, a misconception of accountants and the accounting profession, and the requirements of the 150–hour rule. Three of the five reasons are related to student perceptions. While accounting coursework may influence student perception, it is likely that students arrive on campuses with a preconception of accountants. The authors believe that gaining an insight into students’ preconceived notions about accountants can be helpful in understanding the decline in student interest in the accounting major.
The authors surveyed 165 underclassmen enrolled in accounting principles courses about their perceptions of accountants as compared to an average individual, with respect to 30 personality traits. If student perceptions and the usual stereotype were consistent, then the stereotype directs students either into or away from the accounting major.
The student sample was almost exclusively traditional students, ages 18–20; 56% were freshman and 44% sophomores. The students were 50% male and 50% female, with 23% expressing a great interest, 54% expressing some interest, and 23% expressing no interest in pursuing an accounting or financial career. The sample included students from urban, suburban, and rural areas, and almost all resided in New York.
To select the traits or characteristics to use in the survey, the authors relied upon psychological theories of normal personality and personality assessment. To define a trait, the survey posited the extremes of that trait. For example, the first trait was warmth, with one extreme labeled “friendly, affectionate” and the opposite “formal, reserved.” These traits and descriptors trace to the NEO Personality Assessment developed by Costa and McCrae, which is based on the Big Five taxonomy of personality. The Big Five taxonomy of personality suggests that the personality of a normal person can be assessed along five basic dimensions: Extroversion,Agreeableness,Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, and Openness to Experiences. Within the NEO each of the five dimensions is divided into six traits. A complete list of the 30 traits, organized by dimension, is shown in the Exhibit, along with the survey results.
The students were given a survey with each of the 30 traits and asked to circle a numeric response for each that compared accountants to average individuals on a nine-point scale between the two extremes of the trait (a 5 indicating that an accountant was a typical individual with respect to that trait).
In an effort to consider the universal application of the accounting stereotype across career paths, two versions of the survey were prepared. One version of the survey’s preface described an accountant as a personal financial advisor, and the other preface referred to an accountant as working in a business organization.
Responses were grouped into three categories: responses of 1, 2, or 3 were grouped together; responses of 4, 5, or 6 were grouped together; and responses of 7, 8, or 9 were grouped together.
The survey results show that students perceive accountants to be somewhat less extroverted than the average individual. Students described accountants as more formal and reserved, content to be alone, and non–thrill-seeking. Interestingly, students thought accountants possessed more leadership qualities. With regard to the Agreeable dimension, students perceived accountants to be less agreeable or likable than the average individual. Accountants were viewed as having a tendency to be skeptical, blunt, and somewhat competitive.
The strongest and most pronounced perceived differences between accountants and the average individual were found for the Conscientiousness dimension of personality. Accountants were perceived to be very capable, ordered, principled, diligent, self-motivated, and cautious. For each of the six traits classified under Conscientiousness, accountants were consistently rated as extremely conscientious. Another characterization of accountants was a tendency to be more emotionally stable than the average individual. Accountants were seen as less easily dejected, somewhat less self-conscious, and more immune to stress. They were generally seen to be slightly less open to different experiences. Notably, accountants were perceived to be somewhat less imaginative, changing with difficulty, and reliant upon established norms.
There were no meaningful differences in responses by demographic group. There were no differences between the responses based on the differing descriptions of accountants included in the survey preface.
The Stereotype Survives
With regard to the perceptions of incoming business majors, the accounting stereotype appears alive and well. Underclass business students perceive accountants as somewhat less extroverted, somewhat less agreeable, very conscientious, slightly more emotionally stable, and somewhat less open to experiences. One conclusion is that CPAs face the daunting task of undoing what seems to be an age-old stereotype. The survey offers strong evidence that underclass college students have proxied a stereotype for their perception of the accounting profession. Before attempting to reverse the stereotype, it would be prudent to consider its validity. It is worth wondering whether CPAs themselves might have responded to the survey in a similar way.
This stereotype, which seems embedded in student perspectives, most probably contains both positives and negatives. On the positive side, conscientious, prudent, and less stressed individuals are valued in all occupations. Somewhat less likable traits can be assets for accountants. Bottom-line decisions are often very difficult and demand a business-like approach. On the negative side, today’s accounting work is inconsistent with the stereotypical view of an accountant working alone with tedious numbers. Accounting work requires substantial social interaction, and accountants would benefit from being more gregarious than the stereotype suggests. Furthermore, accountants should be more creative, imaginative, and open-minded.
Albrecht and Sack have suggested that the perception of accountants as scorekeepers rather than problem solvers and decision makers perpetuates the uncreative component of the stereotype. A student’s first formal exposure to accounting may be a high school “accounting” course that is actually a bookkeeping course. Such a course reinforces the scorekeeper image while offering few challenges to an intellectually curious student. Future accountants would be better served in high school by a computer or economics course.
Modifying the Stereotype
The accounting stereotype, to some extent justified, remains somewhat misleading. Certainly, CPAs should be working to modify this. The first step should be changing the scorekeeper job description, with the target audience being high school juniors and seniors and college freshman. The recruiters should be dynamic individuals that are mindful of their role in modifying the stereotype.
More than half of incoming business students express an interest in an accounting or finance career. Accounting faculty and practitioners should work toward letting students see them as a dynamic and diverse group. Faculty can minimize the tedious material covered in principles courses and replace this material with analysis or problem solving. Practitioners can redefine themselves at campus career nights or student nights at professional association meetings. This might be as simple as business casual dress or taking a few minutes to banter with students about nonbusiness issues; the goal is to come across as more gregarious and more creative.
Robert H. Colson, PhD, CPA
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