WASHINGTON – Recruiter Richard Rabicoff has told students for years that accounting can be “sexy,” but it took corporate scandals at Enron and Arthur Andersen to make them listen.
After years of decline, the number of accounting majors started to rise last year both in Maryland and the nation. Experts say it may be the one good thing to come out of the recent corporate scandals.
“People used to think it’s dull people doing dull numbers in the back office,” said Rabicoff, a spokesman for the Maryland Association of Certified Public Accountants. “Now, with all the recent press, they realize it can be interesting and even exciting.”
Enrollment in accounting programs rose 1.2 percent nationwide this academic year and 5 percent last year, according to the American Institute of CPA’s. The increase was even higher at Maryland colleges, where accounting enrollment jumped 11 percent last year, to 1,748 students across the state, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
Stephanie Markwardt said she has noticed the change at University of Maryland, College Park.
“I don’t know if I’d call it a fad, but it’s more popular these days,” said Markwardt, an accounting senior. “There’s a lot of new faces in class. One of my classes went from 35 (students) to 75.”
The nationwide increase in accounting students follows years of steady decline during the tech boom of the 1990s.
“As far as I can tell, it’s a lot more sexy to students now,” Rabicoff said. “It couldn’t have become less sexy, I’ll tell you that much.”
Accounting enrollment nationwide fell 23 percent between the 1995-96 and 1998-99 school year — declines that a widely cited study called “frightening” and “disturbing.” In Maryland, the numbers were even worse, falling every year from 1992 to 2000.
“At the time, accounting seemed very boring,” said Steve Albrecht, who co- authored the study. “Students were jumping into information systems and the dot- com excitement.”
Now that the boom has gone bust, students are scrambling back to accounting.
“The scandals might have actually had a positive effect,” Albrecht said. “Accountants are in the spotlight more than before, and right after the Enron and Andersen scandals, the numbers at schools actually rose.”
Loyola College accounting professor Ali Sedaghat agreed.
“We didn’t have a good public example before to make students excited. Now we have too many,” said Sedeghat, who said he had students standing in the aisles and sitting on the floor at his last panel discussion on Enron.
But for College Park sophomore Julie Smiley it was job stability — not Enron — that caused her to switch majors to accounting last month. “It’s a nine-to-five job with good pay,” she said.
Accounting has long been regarded as a stable profession in the up-and- down world of business.
“There’s always a need for accountants,” Rabicoff said. “Whether the economy’s doing good or bad, companies still need their financial statements prepared.”
And demand could be rising. A recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers predicted accounting would be the degree most desired by companies this year, up from No. 3 last year.
Salaries for accountants are also increasing, according to recruiting firm Robert Half International. At large public firms around Washington, D.C., entry- level accountants can expect to earn $43,992 to $51,324, a 1.6 percent increase over last year.
But educators and industry leaders don’t know if the recent rise in salary, demand or student interest will continue.
“We still haven’t seen the total fallout from the Andersen scandal,” said Dennis Gring, director of Maryland’s State Board of Public Accountancy. “And there are new mergers, new laws. I would adopt the wait-and-see attitude.”
One such law, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, imposes stricter rules on financial statements, which may cause companies to depend more on accountants. But the act, passed by Congress last year, also attempts to separate accounting and consulting.
“I don’t know how that will turn out,” Sedaghat said. “It has created such a tension in the profession, people don’t know how to cope with it.”
Either way, the American Institute of CPA’s is not taking any chances. Last year, it launched a five-year, $25 million ad campaign aimed at high school and college students. The Maryland Association of CPA’s is running its own campaign, and recruiters have visited more than 35 high schools and 15 colleges this year.
“We’ve never campaigned this aggressively before, but it’s urgent now,” Rabicoff said. “Students are very interested in it, teachers are teaching it, and accounting now seems cool.”