Illinois colleges and universities must rise to the challenge of preparing the accountants of the future to keep driving the profession forward.
Technology is advancing at an accelerating pace, bringing a truly seamless global
marketplace ever closer to our horizon. Imagine business and trade, financial and
professional services, and more, all available and accessible 24/7 to an interconnected
global population, unbound from borders and currencies. Now imagine what that
means for accounting and finance professionals—and their educations.
These forces are driving significant evolution in the accounting industry, pressing
accounting firms to rethink their needs and services, and inspiring the development
and transformation of human capital.
In response, Illinois colleges and universities must rise to the challenge of preparing
the accountants of the future by reimagining their curriculums to ensure that tomorrow’s
accounting and finance graduates can keep driving the profession forward.
It’s widely predicted that technologies such as artificial intelligence,
blockchain, and advanced robotics will take over the majority of
basic accounting work. While some portend that this could eventually
eliminate the roles of many accountants and auditors, others
believe that these technologies will simply free these highly skilled
professionals from mundane and repetitive manual tasks, empowering
them to focus on business-critical advising and guidance,
problem solving, and strategic planning.
“The ability to only be a gate keeper of historical results will be
greatly diminished and replaced by technology,” explains Maurie
Richie, a human resources generalist at the CPA firm of Ostrow
Reisin Berk & Abrams Ltd. “It’s very important for young accountants
to not only be able to produce financial statements, tax returns,
and an audit, compilation, or review, but they must also be able to
analyze, manipulate, and organize larger volumes of data and provide
meaningful interpretations of the information that’s collected.”
Expanding on that thought, Thomas Walker, Illinois office managing
partner of accounting and advisory firm Baker Tilly, says “the workforce
of the future will need a different set of competencies and
skills, with a greater emphasis on complex problem solving and
In fact, today’s accounting firms are already ratcheting up their
expectations and demands, seeking only the best and brightest
graduates and experienced talent that exudes technical aptitude for
big data, data analytics, and business intelligence—and the interpersonal
skills to be well-spoken and present analytical findings.
It’s a challenging mix to find, and a challenging transition to make
for those accustomed to accounting being a back office function.
The demand for more strategic, more visible accountants is
definitely on the rise, says Timm Bellazzini, CPA, partner at professional
services firm Sikich LLP.
“Clients expect their accountants to be business strategists today,”
Bellazzini explains, meaning what’s learned in the classroom needs
to immediately apply to the challenges businesses and clients face.
To best position students to meet the demands of firms, Richie
believes that more emphasis needs to be placed on problemsolving
and data-manipulation skills, explaining that “stressing
more of an information technology component and skill set within
the accounting degree will make graduates more valuable and
capable to make a difference.”
Making a difference is what matters as the growing emphasis on
data drives change in the presentation of financial information. “For
example, advances in information science allow risk assurance professionals
to analyze millions or billions of transaction files to detect
flaws in a company’s internal control system, or to design systems
to better protect assets or financial information,” explains Brad
Cripe, assistant department chair and Gaylen and Joanne Larson
professor of accountancy at Northern Illinois University (NIU).
Cripe also points to the trend of using larger and larger amounts of
data to analyze the impact of current and future regulations on taxable
income and global financial income. As the profession deals
with the confluence of globalization, economic and tax reform, and
the use of enormous data sets to answer questions and solve problems,
he says the next generation of accountants needs to be well-rounded
in both accounting and economic theory and have strong
data-processing and presentation skills.
“Ultimately, at Northern Illinois University, we hope that our graduates
can see beyond the current problems to identify the larger
implications facing society. Governments are balancing the need
to be competitive within the global economy while simultaneously
facing base erosion and transfer pricing issues. Accountants are
uniquely qualified to help both governments, taxpayers, and other
users of financial information,” Cripe explains. “In this economy,
the successful accountant asks the question that no one else
thought to ask, and as a result, moves the process forward in a way
that wouldn’t have been otherwise possible.”
To ensure their accounting graduates are positioned for success,
NIU has adjusted its undergraduate and graduate curricula in
response to the accounting community.
“Our curriculum has adapted to include coursework in judgment
and decision theory, data presentation software such as RStudio
and Tableau, iterative writing seminars, communication facilitation
seminars, and of course, a solid foundation in the core technical
accountancy coursework,” Cripe says.
NIU’s deepened focus on communication skills also requires accountancy
students to enroll in an accountancy writing seminar
where they learn to communicate both financial and non-financial
news to various stakeholders and receive feedback through an iterative
“While incredibly time consuming, iterative writing requires students
to receive, interpret, and use feedback to improve their writing.
We have a responsibility to all of our students to improve their
ability to be effective and efficient communicators,” Cripe explains,
adding that graduate students are also sent to Second City or the
Chicago Comedy Club to learn the art of extemporaneous communication.
“As they practice those skills in different environments
with different fact patterns, they learn to embrace opportunities to
communicate to peers and superiors.”
Real-world experiences are also the focus at Loyola University of
Chicago’s Quinlan School of Business. The school secured a $2
million grant from the CME Group Foundation to create a business
analytics lab that provides accounting students with hands-on
experience analyzing and presenting data. The lab enables finance
and accounting majors to access tools such as Bloomberg Terminal,
RStudio, and Tableau.
“Our students are really taking advantage of this resource, and
they’re actively learning how to store, access, and present data to
the client. We’ve added a course on scientific visualization of data
so our students are prepared to present complex data in ways that
can add real value,” says Kevin Stevens, CPA, dean of the Quinlan
School of Business. “Accountants are no longer in the back office
crunching numbers—they’re up front, presenting data-driven strategies
that businesses can actually use.”
Quinlan also created a business data analytics certification in
response to industry demands. Students pursuing the certification
take courses in data warehousing and data mining and get hands-on
exposure to software, programming languages, and methodologies
used for modeling and analyzing data. Students also can apply
certification course hours to other degree programs, like its new
user-focused master’s in business analytics, and the 150-credit hour
requirement for obtaining a CPA license.
“We don’t want our students taking just any class to fulfill the education
requirement. We want them to get meaningful, experiential
knowledge that will help them advance in their careers,” Stevens says.
As career advancement becomes an increasingly global opportunity,
educators and their institutions must also consider how their
education practices fit in with globalization. As money flows freely
from one capital market to another, domestic companies expand
offshore, and international accounting standards grows stronger,
the marketplace is increasingly demanding talent with global
experience. In light of this, Quinlan partnered with the Association
of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) to ensure that students
are prepared to handle any market. “The ACCA is recognized in
over 100 countries, so our graduates will be qualified to sit for the
U.S. CPA exam and the international accounting certification,”
BRIDGING THE GAP
The partnership between Quinlan and the ACCA is just one example
of how academic institutions are positioning themselves to
address one of their greatest challenges: ensuring that their accounting
curriculums align with current and future industry needs.
Cripe urges colleges and universities to establish and maintain
robust ties with the professional community, pointing to the idea of
using academic-practitioner partnerships to drive the direction of
curriculums, training, and resources. He further suggests that
establishing professors-in-residence at CPA firms during the summer
and having practitioners teach courses at universities could be two
components of forming strong academic-practitioner partnerships.
Along similar lines, Tara Tomter, a recruiting manager with Baker
Tilly, recommends that academic institutions participate in organizations
such as the National Association of Colleges and Employers
(NACE), which helps schools make industry connections. “Another
way universities can gain a modern perspective on accounting is
by adding an accountant to their board of directors,” Tomter says.
Sikich offers yet another example and solution for bridging the
academic-industry gap. “We offer academic institutions the chance
to participate in our Sikich University professional development
trainings onsite and online,” explains Nicola McGarry, director of
talent acquisition at Sikich LLP. The firm created this learning and
development program to build deep technical and soft skills
expertise across the firm. McGarry explains that it’s beneficial for
academic institutions to build direct relationships with firms
because those relationships can yield access to internships for
students, professional development, mentoring, and other opportunities
that will help prepare students for success in the industry.
That said, Cripe emphasizes that it’s important for academic institutions
to maintain the intellectual curiosity that is the hallmark of the
university experience. “Accounting curricula should always be
grounded in theory, supported by pedagogy and value relevant to
the profession and the public it serves,” Cripe adds. “As a social
science, the academy of accountancy sits at the crossroads of
theory and practice. A great institution blends both to provide meaningful
contributions to itself, its students, and the profession.”