Learning About Today’s Accounting Students: Perspectives of University Accounting Department Heads

Avatar photoMarc Rosenberg, CPA / Jun 20, 2023

Our Chicago area roundtable group, comprised of 70% of Chicago’s local CPA firms, invited the accounting department heads of two leading universities to talk to us about today’s accounting students. We were privileged to host Brad Cripe, PhD, from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill., and Kevin Rich, PhD, from Marquette University Brad Cripe and Kevin Richin Milwaukee, Wisc. We were expecting some revealing observations, and these accounting luminaries did not disappoint!

Comments Shared by Both Professors
The number of accounting graduates is down a whopping 50% from several years ago. They attribute this to the following:

  1. An accounting major is seen as tough, demanding work.
  2. Quality of life is the top priority for students, and they fear they will be required to work too many hours in public accounting. A word of caution was given: firms need to define work-life balance when recruiting interns and professional staff.
  3. Partners who send emails to staff at nine o’clock at night deliver a damaging impression that the firm wants them to work long hours.
  4. Entry-level salaries for marketing, management, and IT majors, among others, are now higher than accounting majors. This is an amazing turnaround from a decade or so when accounting majors earned one of the highest salaries of all majors.
  5. There is a focus on data analytics.
  6. Covid has foundationally changed the learning process.

The key to recruiting is continuous presence on campus, not once or twice a year. Admittedly, this stretches the resources of smaller firms.

Firms should focus on getting their brand out clearly. Smaller firms might lose out to the larger firms initially, but after the staff gets burned out in the Big 4, they may remember the time they spent with smaller firms.

Smaller firms need to be more persuasive about why it’s better to work at their firms instead of the Big 4. They need to stress that, at their firms, they will have a life; will have more diverse, mainstream work experiences; and will work in a more family-like environment.

Great recruiting tips for firms:

  1. Go into the classrooms (but make sure the people you send are exciting presenters).
  2. Develop one-on-one relationships with students.

The new, expanded second edition of our book, CPA Firm Staff: Managing Your #1 Asset, addresses ► talent management ► retention ► flexibility ►importance of the boss ►mentoring ► leadership development ► advancement ► performance feedback ►recruiting, and other issues.

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Comments by Professor Kevin Rich of MarquetteKevin Rich

  • The university has revolutionized its curriculum, incorporating data analytics in many courses.
  • Only 70% of their students want to work as an accountant; of those, most want to work in public accounting, mostly at the larger firms.
  • 50–60% of their students are interning with not just one but two firms.
  • For decades, CPAs have felt that university professors influence their students toward the Big 4. Rich feels the bigger influence is the amazing efforts and resources the Big 4 are devoting to recruiting.

Comment by Professor Brad Cripe of Northern Illinois UniversityBrad Cripe

Since larger firms have begun recruiting heavily to freshmen – a practice unheard of not too long ago – career fairs are less important in the overall recruiting process. By the time that students attend career fairs in their junior and senior years, they are already quite familiar with the firms. Smaller firms are increasingly finding that the students have “gone” by the time the career fair comes around.


How They Describe Today’s Students

  • Are good at collaboration; they are resilient.
  • Want to know why.
  • Like to be challenged.
  • Don’t want to work heavy overtime.
  • Work great in teams, so much so that their one-on-one communication skills “stink.”
  • Are used to getting information quickly (via the internet, etc.).
  • They crave communication.

To today’s students, compensation is not as important as firms might think. Quality of life is their top priority.

About the CPA Exam
We asked, “Will lowering the requirement to sit for the CPA exam from 150 hours to 120 help make accounting more appealing?” The professors did not have strong opinions. Rich said that their data indicates that students who take accounting classes in their fifth year of school score higher on the exam.

We thank Art Kuesel for contributing to this blog. Art’s firm, Kuesel Consulting, is an elite provider of business development training to CPA firms in the country. He leads eight CPA firm roundtable groups, both in person and virtual. Art has also become a major player in the CPA firm merger arena. He is an accomplished speaker and author, having spoken and written for numerous conferences and publications. In 2020, Art was named as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting.

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