High School Students’ Perceptions of Accounting

By Carolyn L. Hartwell, Susan S. Lightle, and Brian Maxwell

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JANUARY 2005 - The lifeblood of any business is its employees. The ability to recruit and hire entry-level personnel who can become successful, contributing members of the company is critical. Effective recruiting begins with understanding the target pool of potential new hires. For a CPA firm, that pool is primarily graduates of accounting programs. A significant decline in accounting graduates has forced CPA firms to work harder to increase the number of students going into accounting programs. Growing this target pool begins when they are high school students.

The authors surveyed high school students to measure their impressions of, and interest in, accounting careers. Understanding students’ perceptions of accounting is an important first step in the effort to attract the best to the accounting profession.

According to AICPA research conducted in 2002, the number of graduates of accounting programs, undergraduate and graduate, declined by 21.3%, from 59,140 in 1990/1991 to 46,555 in 2000/2001. The number of candidates sitting for the CPA exam fell by 24%, from 140,042 in 1991 to 106,072 in 2001.

Several factors have been identified as possible contributors to the decline in accounting majors, including an unflattering perception of accountants, low starting salaries, and recent accounting scandals. In their gloomy assessment of the accounting profession, Accounting Education: Charting the Course Through a Perilous Future (2000), W. Steve Albrecht and Robert Sack described a perception of accountants as people who “wear green eye shades, are narrow and boring, who work alone and who do tedious numbers-related work.” Albrecht and Sack also noted that a lower starting salary was the main reason that students were choosing other majors. The Enron accounting scandal and the collapse of Arthur Andersen put the profession in headlines, but commentators disagree on whether the effect has been to increase or decrease students’ interest.

Survey Results

The authors’ survey was administered to high school students in Ohio and Indiana during the spring and fall of 2002. A total of 278 usable responses were obtained, 64% male and 36% female. The vast majority (93%) expected to attend either a public or a private university after high school graduation.

In the study, 22% of respondents began thinking about a college major even before entering high school, and most (87%) had begun considering their major before their senior year in high school.

The survey showed that the majority of students (70%) were considering a career in business. Medicine and law were the next most popular choices (14% and 13%, respectively), followed by engineering (10%), education (9%), and music/arts (5%). Eight percent were undecided.

Factors That Affect Career Choices

What factors are high school students considering when thinking about careers and selecting college majors? The survey listed a variety of factors, and the students were asked to indicate any that influenced their decision. Business majors were examined separately from nonbusiness majors. As shown in Exhibit 1, the factor chosen most often by both groups was “potential salary amount.” This appeared to be more important for the business majors; 70% selected this factor, compared to 58% of nonbusiness majors. The opportunity to contribute to society ranked second for nonbusiness majors (40%), but was chosen as an important factor by only 25% of business majors. A flexible work schedule has been suggested as important to young employees; however, only 27% of the business majors and 33% of the nonbusiness majors indicated this.

Among the factors listed as influencing career choices, high school educators were the least frequently cited. Only 12% of intended business majors and 8% of intended nonbusiness majors said they were influenced by teachers or counselors. This finding may affect how professions market themselves to students.

Salary has been suggested as a major reason for the decline in interest in accounting. This issue was examined by asking students to indicate what they expected to earn as a starting salary. Responses were by likely accounting majors, likely other business majors, and likely nonbusiness majors.

Other business majors expected higher starting salaries than did accounting majors. Nineteen percent of accounting majors expected a starting salary between $50,000 and $75,000, as compared to 27% of the other business majors and 20% of nonbusiness majors. Starting salaries between $35,000 and $50,000 were expected by 57% of accounting majors as compared to only 44% of other business majors and 39% of nonbusiness majors. The percentages of students expecting starting salaries of $35,000 or less were similar for the three groups. Nonbusiness majors—which included likely medicine, law, and engineering majors—were most likely (13%) to expect greater than $75,000 for a starting salary.

Respondents were asked to indicate what they believed to be the starting salary of an accountant. The average starting salaries of accountants and auditors in 2002 was $37,860, according to The Quick Guide to College Majors and Careers, by Laurence Shatkin. As Exhibit 2 indicates, students that did not express an interest in an accounting career were more likely to underestimate starting salaries in accounting. Thirty-seven percent of other business majors and 31% of nonbusiness majors believed that an accountant’s starting salary was less than $35,000, compared to only 23% of accounting majors. Because 66% of all students surveyed identified salary as a factor that influenced their career choice, this underestimation of starting salaries in accounting may be a contributing factor to the decline in accounting majors.

Perceptions of the Profession

There has been a lot of speculation as to the perceptions that students have about the work accountants do. The movie industry has even been blamed for creating an image of a boring, detail-oriented person doing tedious tasks. Students were asked to indicate their opinion of several statements concerning the accounting profession (Exhibit 3).

In general, students believed that a degree in accounting would be useful to someone who wants challenging work (74%), or to be president or CEO of a major company (81%) or a business consultant (85%). Contrary to the stereotype, only 39% agreed that accounting is predictable and stays the same, while 56% said that accounting would be useful for someone who wants variety in work.

Accounting majors were significantly more likely than nonaccounting majors to see accounting as challenging work. This may suggest a need to focus professional marketing materials on the challenging nature of accounting work.

Self-Described Characteristics

It has been suggested that creative, people-oriented individuals steer away from accounting and pursue what they perceive to be more exciting careers, leaving the accounting profession with less-creative, more-detail-oriented individuals. To examine these potential differences, respondents were asked to describe themselves. Exhibit 4 indicates that accounting and nonaccounting majors were similar in many aspects. An overwhelming number of accounting majors and other business majors said they enjoy being with people: 94% and 96%, respectively, as compared to 86% of nonbusiness majors. Results were similar among the three groups concerning their self-reported writing skills and creativity.

Not surprisingly, accounting majors expressed a higher level of interest in math: 75% said that they like math, as compared to only 43% of other business majors and 57% of nonbusiness majors. Interestingly, another difference between the groups was comfort with public speaking. A larger percentage of nonbusiness majors said they were uncomfortable speaking in front of a group (28%), compared to accounting majors or other business majors (17% and 16%, respectively).

The Enron and Andersen accounting scandals appear not to have deterred interest in the accounting profession, and may have elevated students’ perception of its importance. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said that after learning about the Enron details, they believed CPAs to be more important than they had previously thought. Only 10% said they would not pursue a career in accounting after learning of the scandal.

Begin Early

Those interested in attracting more students to careers in accounting should consider this study’s findings in formulating strategic initiatives. The AICPA and some state societies have introduced several programs and marketing materials designed to attract students to accounting. Employers and universities also have a stake in attracting students to accounting careers.

The findings suggest that recruiting efforts should begin early and should emphasize the challenging nature of accounting work and provide specific information about starting salaries. Rather than avoiding discussion of the recent accounting scandals, recruiters should considering using them as an illustration of the critical role accounting plays in our capital markets.

Reversing the decline in accounting enrollments will not happen overnight, and cannot be achieved in isolation. It will require creativity and cooperation among educators and practitioners, and possibly changes in the profession itself. A good starting place is to listen to high school students’ perceptions of the accounting profession.

Carolyn L. Hartwell, PhD, CPA, is an assistant professor in the Department of Accountancy at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio.
Susan S. Lightle, PhD, CPA, CIA, is a professor in the Department of Accountancy of Wright State University.
Brian Maxwell, MEd, is human resources manager for the Ohio Valley Region Tax Practice of Deloitte.




















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