insight magazine

Educating Tomorrow

Illinois colleges and universities must rise to the challenge of preparing the accountants of the future to keep driving the profession forward. By Carolyn Kmet | Fall 2017


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 creative thinking.”

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 writing process.

“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,” Stevens explains.


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.”

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