Developing an academic accreditation process relevant to the accounting profession.by Pastore, Joseph M, Jr.
While there may be little disagreement about the need to identify incisive measures of effectiveness, there is much less agreement about what constitutes effective measures of educational quality. Debates about evaluating educational programs are often mired in disputes over methodology and jurisdiction. For example, should a program assessment concentrate on the resources involved in the process of education or focus upon the outcomes of that process? Who should have the authority to evaluate? Should assessment be a customized, self-directed process carried out by the institution itself, validated by external accrediting agencies; or should it be an external, certifying endorsement of institutional or program effectiveness as measured against universal standards? Should educators retain jurisdiction over assessment and accreditation processes or should practitioners and professionals play a major role--especially in the evaluation of professional education programs? What is the role of the government? And, beyond these conflicts over how to measure, there are enduring disputes over what the measurement signifies and the extent to which it should be promulgated.
The Accreditation of Accounting Programs
The accounting profession has not been untouched by the interest in assuring quality education. The profession had, for years, been satisfied to rely mostly on objective measures of quality. The attainment of a baccalaureate degree, certification, and experience were and, as a practical matter, remain, assurances of quality. Beyond such objective measures, the AICPA resolved in 1969 "that the accreditation of accounting programs is the responsibility of the academic community..." For accounting programs, this resolution left the accreditation process to the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)--an organization of collegiate business schools represented mainly by their deans and augmented by business and other professional organizations.
The risks inherent in a profession's disengagement from the assessment and accreditation of academic programs which provide entry to the profession are well known in law and medicine, and by now, accounting. Less than four years after yielding accounting accreditation jurisdiction to the academic community, the AICPA Board of Directors adopted a 1973 resolution which recognized that "during the last several years, the professional dimension of accounting as an academic discipline has suffered a decline in many schools ... contrary to the public interest..." and urged the creation of professional schools of accounting.
In retrospect, it is unfortunate that the call for the establishment of professional schools of accounting became, for a time, a dominant issue. Debate about professional schools of accounting appears to have temporarily deflected a primary and legitimate concern for quality accounting education. Attention was directed more towards matters of organizational structure, governance, and countervailance between accounting and business administration programs within academe. By 1976, however, the AICPA had clearly refocused its concern for quality accounting education when it resolved the following:
Whereas the accounting profession is vitally concerned with the nature and content of accounting education; Whereas we are deeply concerned with the quality of academic preparation for entrance into the profession; Therefore, be it resolved that the AICPA should encourage the development of quality professional programs of accounting and participate in their accreditation.
The AICPA was joined in its call for accreditation participation by the American Accounting Association (AAA). Attention shifted properly to a primary concern for quality academic programs, thus making the governance system which manages such programs a secondary concern.
The accounting profession's participation in the assessment and accreditation of accounting programs is reasonably well documented. The effort began with collaboration between the AICPA and the AAA--known as the "committee of six"--and was quickly embraced by the National Association of Accountants (NAA), the Financial Executives Institute (FEI), and the Association of Government Accountants. After initial resistance, the accounting profession was joined, and now is essentially led, by the AACSB. By 1981, the accreditation of accounting programs was underway, administered by the AACSB in conjunction with the AICPA, AAA, NAA, and FEI and also advised by the Federated Schools of Accountancy, the Government Accounting Office, and representatives from national public accounting firms.
Is Accounting Program Accreditation Working?
During the past 15 years the accounting profession has called attention to the need for effective program assessment and accreditation systems. After early jurisdictional conflict, especially between the AICPA/AAA and the AACSB, accounting and business professionals and academic organizations have attempted to merge their interests through productive relationships.
On a more practical level, however, a number of concerns about the effectiveness of program accreditation remain. As the AACSB begins a review of the seven years' experience with this process, honest, incisive and analytical efforts should be directed at a number of central issues, four of which are cited herein. These issues are especially important to the accounting accreditation process but are significant to business administration program accreditation as well. Consider the degree to which the process meets these four major tests for effective accreditation:
1. Access to the Accreditation Process. There is serious question whether the accounting program accreditation process has reached deeply enough into collegiate programs to influence a broad-based concern for quality. In seven years, only 72 of approximately 1000 accounting programs have been accredited, although it is encouraging to note that 60% percent of the states are represented. In addition, since in most cases AACSB accreditation of an institution's program in business administration and management is a threshold condition for accounting accreditation, it is reasonable to assume that fewer than 261 programs (the current number of AACSB accredited business programs among the 853 AACSB member institutions) will ever subject themselves to accreditation scrutiny.
If the number of accredited programs continues to grow by 10 per year, it will be approximately the year 2010 before the remaining number of currently eligible accounting programs are accredited by the AACSB. Whatever the projections, current accounting accreditation practices affect few programs each year and are likely never to influence the majority of programs--many of which will be satisfied to maintain current practices or to meet only public sector mandates for program registration. In addition, a question may be raised about the ethics and fairness of a process which suggests that 90% of the educational programs in a discipline are sub-standard. Alternately, one may question the quality and public policy responsibilities of a profession which many enter with credentials regarded as sub-standard.
2. Accreditation as a Method of Consumer Protection. The primary motivation for the development of accreditation processes was consumer protection. In addition, the AACSB notes that those institutions meeting and maintaining the required level of quality for accreditation in professional education for business administration, constitute sound choices for both prospective students and for those responsible for recruiting students with professional preparation in business administration.
The consumer, however, may be more confused than enlightened by an accounting accreditation standard--assuming the consumer (student or corporate recruiter) is aware of it. One need attend only one student recruitment forum to witness the confusion resulting from discussions about regional accreditation versus specialized program accreditation versus program registration with a State Education Department versus membership in the AACSB. Too often, the student and the recruiter must rely on anecdotal measures, such as the perceived quality of graduates they have known or hired.
Many, even the AACSB, are likely to concede that accounting accreditation, narrowly defined, means only that a given institution has subjected itself to and successfully met the AACSB accreditation standards. The absence of accreditation, per se, does not necessarily mean a non-accredited program is of poor quality. This suggests that the marketplace, especially the employer in search of entry level professionals, may be well-informed and capable of making independent and discriminating judgments about a particular program and its graduates. Thus, the accreditation process is often misunderstood and tends, in many cases, to be discounted by the consumer. The result is a weakening of the process as a consumer protection mechanism.
3. Accounting Accreditation as a Means of Program Improvement. The evidence is incomplete to indicate whether seven years of accounting accreditation experience has yielded an improvement in the quality of accounting programs. The mere process of examining and, at times, actively responding to accreditation standards no doubt serves to improve quality. The AACSB, to its credit, is reviewing the process and hopefully will attempt to measure its effect on program improvement.
The challenging question, of course, is this: how do we measure the measures? The practitioner's measures do not always coincide with those of the academician. Practicing accountants have been concerned about the extent to which accounting courses and faculty exert their presence in the business curriculum, the extent to which such a curriculum has career relevance, and the extent to which the failure rate on certification examinations has been mitigated--all factors reflective of the 1976 urging by the AICPA to engage an accreditation function. On the other hand, while members of academe may acknowledge the profession's measures of effectiveness and motives for accreditation, the expressed value system of academe as it relates to the advantages of accounting accreditation processes falls short of the "program improvement" needs of the practicing profession. In a 1985 study by T.E. Balke and J. F. Brown Jr., the most popular reason given for supporting the accounting accreditation process was "pride and status in achieving this credential." Other reasons most frequently mentioned include:
* To compete successfully with other accounting programs;
* To measure up to a standard level of excellence;
* To aid in recruiting faculty and students;
* To use as leverage in securing resources; and
* To indicate to recruiters the existence of quality programs.
In fairness, most educators probably assume that program quality is the overriding objective underlying accreditation, and that "pride," "competitive advantage," and "resource leverage" are all by-products. At the same time there is reason to suspect that the measure of concern for substantive program improvement versus a more politically-based concern for pride and competitive advantage is heavily tipped toward the latter.
4. Essential Acceptance of the Accounting Accreditation Process. The Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (COPA) is a non-governmental organization dedicated to the improvement of postsecondary education through voluntary accreditation. COPA is authorized to recognize accrediting agencies. Among the provisions required to gain COPA recognition is evidence that the accrediting body's policies, evaluative criteria, procedures and evaluative decisions are accepted by the appropriate communities of interest such as educators and educational institutions.
The current accounting accreditation system can demonstrate some essential acceptance of its policies. However, there is evidence to show differences in opinion as to what constitutes accounting program excellence. Concerns about this issue still center on doctoral and experience requirements for faculty, teaching versus research, and whether accreditation should focus more on graduate than undergraduate programs. The earlier concern remains that the AACSB-led accounting accreditation process is a redundant application of the AACSB process and standards for accrediting programs in business administration. Also, there is the lingering concern that there is insufficient recognition of product or output measures (e.g., performance on standardized examinations) and excessive reliance on process measures (e.g., percentage of doctorally qualified faculty, percentage of full- time faculty). Such concerns further impede the likelihood that the accreditation process will be embraced by a significant number of accounting programs and therefore reduce the likelihood that such programs will move toward the desired standard.
Enhancing Accounting Program Accreditation
After much debate and experience with the effort to improve accounting education through accreditation, it appears that the process has reached less than 10% of the available programs, is not apt to affirmatively impact more than twenty percent for decades to come, is limited as a consumer protection device, and remains constrained by differences of opinion regarding what constitutes generally acceptable standards of excellence or value. The need remains to encourage more, in fact most, of the 1000 or so accounting programs to move closer to generally accepted standards of program excellence in a timely fashion. Most important, the accreditation process must be more informative. While the current process reports that 72 programs are accredited, it does little to inform the public about the remaining programs.
It is important to emphasize that the answer to concerns about the scope, generally accepted standards, and effectiveness of accounting accreditation processes is not the discontinuation of the AACSB effort. The current process is the result of a concerted effort by accounting educators and practitioners to devise and urge a high, uniform measure of accounting program excellence. The process should continue to serve as a forum for considering what constitutes quality control in accounting education--but it needs augmentation to effectively serve the profession.
Interestingly, improvements to the accounting accreditation process may be found in the very nature of what accountants do. Improving the accounting accreditation system requires at least three enhancements to present policy--each predicated on the characteristics of the accounting profession and its governing principles:
1. The adoption of more contingent set of process standards reflective of the diverse nature and needs of the accounting profession.
2. The need to maintain an aspect of independence similar to that found in an audit function.
3. The need to provide full information and to apply the basic accounting postulate of disclosure.
Contingent process standards. The practical need remains to acknowledge that what constitutes a "quality" program may be contingent upon the unique needs, expectations, and values among sectors of the accounting profession that depend on the graduates of accounting education programs. Given that graduates move on to public accounting, managerial accounting, government and non-profit accounting, financial services, information systems, taxation, law, and management services, and even accounting education, the assumption that a single accreditation process with a single and narrowly defined accreditation threshold can serve as a quality control system may be unrealistic.
Acknowledging that an accounting program's characteristics may depend upon the environment and purposes it is intended to serve is consistent with the "contingency approach" to management strategy and policy formulation studies taught in the same accredited business schools which control the accounting accreditation process. With prescribed uniform process standards, many programs are stripped of the prerogative to pursue goals reflective of the unique environment in which the program exists.
Independence. Improving the accreditation system will require some tolerance of independent judgment. The accreditation process is, in many ways, analogous to the public audit function. Such audits do not, however, result in judgments by the auditor of the quality of the audited firm as an investment; that decision is left to the reader of the financial statement.
Applying the independent audit assumption to the accreditation process requires that those responsible acknowledge the likelihood that employers and many students (especially at the graduate level), can make informed judgments about the nature of a program. Such an acknowledgement may be too great a "leap of faith" for most accrediting bodies; however, the promulgation of generally accepted standards can guide better informed employers and prospective students in the independent assessment of a particular program.
Disclosure. Above all, improving the accreditation process requires the immediate and comprehensive provision of full information--a variant on a fundamental accounting postulate: disclosure. There is an opportunity and a need for the voluntary promulgation of standardized information about the characteristics of all accounting education programs. Those responsible for the accreditation process should also assume responsibility for uniform, summary data collection and dissemination to indicate how particular programs compare with generally accepted accreditation standards. In addition, since most of the accreditation standards are process-oriented, data describing output measures such as student performance on proficiency and certifying examinations, career placement, and career development and promotability could also be provided. The extent to which such information constitutes a significant or relevant measure of quality can then be left to the reader.
A process of promulgating standardized accounting program profiles against generally accepted standards of program quality should accomplish the following:
* Reaffirm the recognition of AACSB standards for accounting accreditation as a generally accepted standard.
* Expand the extent to which accreditation standards affect all programs, thereby mitigating the claim that the accreditation process represents little significance to most programs.
* Provide a form of consumer protection through full disclosure and assume that many consumers, notably employers, have varying needs and values and are sufficiently informed to make independent judgments about the value of a particular accounting program.
* Invite program comparisons and provide information to measure and foster program improvements among academic institutions.
* Illustrate the variance between current program characteristics and the generally accepted standard and serve as a guideline for determining additional resource needs.
* Provide a means for promulgating output measures (e.g., performance on standardized examinations) which the reader can accept or discount depending upon the reader's interest in such information.
Accounting educators and practitioners have, for more than a decade, embraced an actively renewed concern for the quality of accounting education at the collegiate level. Efforts to identify measures of effectiveness began nearly 15 years ago and the accreditation process has been underway throughout most of this decade.
The AACSB-led accreditation process serves as an acceptable vehicle for focusing debate and decision on what constitutes program quality. At the same time, there is reason to believe that the diversity of the profession's needs, the logistics required to review hundreds of collegiate programs, and unresolved differences of opinion as to what constitutes quality appear to limit the degree to which the accreditation effort has influenced collegiate accounting education. Candid judgments must be made to determine whether the accreditation process can ever positively shape programs in a timely fashion, whether the process is serving the standard accreditation purposes of consumer protection and program improvement, and whether the process is embraced by those it is expected to serve and influence.
The need exists for an augmentation of the process in a manner which reflects the nature and methodology of the accounting profession. An information system designed to encourage standardized disclosure of how the full range of accounting programs compare, on a factor by factor basis, to generally accepted quality standards would help provide a basis for deciding whether a particular program is well-structured. In that sense, the accreditation process can be maintained and augmented by building on the principles inherent in an audit function--the generation of a standardized, full disclosure reporting system which allows an independent value judgment.
Until the process, as currently devised, conveys sufficient information about virtually all academic programs that provide entry to the accounting profession, educators and professionals are obligated to provide an alternate and augmented basis for judgments of program quality.
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