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UI accounting program: The 'write' stuff

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Accountants who can write? ... In proper, readable English?

Some would say that's as likely as having the Internal Revenue Service offer refunds for poor customer service.

But turning out future accountants with communications skills that are as well developed as their bookkeeping prowess is an increasingly important goal of the department of accounting at the University of Iowa College of Business Administration.

For example:

-- The program hires writing coaches from the department of English to help critique student writing;

-- The program has revamped many classes to make sure all accounting students complete assignments that showcase their written and oral communication skills.

Daniel Collins, head of the department of accounting, says the success of students in the field depends on a broader array of skills than has traditionally been expected.

"The stereotype of accountants as one-dimensional 'bean counters' is a thing of the past," Collins says. "The accountants of today are really much more like business consultants to their clients rather than people who just know how to keep the books.

"Because of that, it's vital that our students know how to communicate effectively as well as be technically proficient in the nuts and bolts of financial reporting," he says.

While April may be the month when accounting becomes important to average Americans filling out tax forms, those in the business of educating future generations of accountants say most popular images of accountants are no longer true. Faculty and administrators in the UI department of accounting, recently ranked as the 29th best in the country by U.S. News and World Report, say the field has changed enormously in recent decades and are working to make sure UI students are prepared for those changes.

On one hand, there is simply much more to learn. The number of auditing standards and tax rules have increased tremendously in the last half of the 20th century, making the process of acquiring the knowledge necessary to be an accountant much more complicated.

Students have to complete a rigorous course of study in the basics of financial statement preparation, cost accounting, taxation, and all the other ins and outs that are a foreign language to most Americans.

In addition to that, students have to know how to use the latest computer software, spreadsheets, and other technologies that have revolutionized number-laden professions.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2001, all students who want to practice as certified public accountants (CPAs) in Iowa must complete 150 hours of college course work and pass the CPA exam in order to be licensed. Many other states already have the requirement.

That means students who want to be CPAs will have to complete a five-year, combined graduate and undergraduate course leading to the master of accountancy (M.Ac.) degree. The UI department of accounting offers the state's first accredited 150-hour program.

At the same time, students have to prove that they can communicate clearly and effectively with clients who will rely on them as much for advice as for a balance sheet.

"You can't succeed in this business without good social and communication skills," says Amy Dunbar, assistant professor of accounting who teaches upper-level courses on taxes. "We can teach you how to get the right answers to tax questions, but if you can't communicate what you know, what good are the answers?"

As part of Dunbar's class, students must complete 10 short writing assignments based on the weekly "Tax Report" in the Wall Street Journal. Students submit the papers, called memos, to Dunbar, who grades the students on their understanding of technical issues, and to Douglas Anderson, a graduate student in the department of English, who grades the papers for grammar, style, and punctuation.

Students must revise the memos, taking into account the graders' comments, to get full credit.

It was a lesson that became real life for Kirk Bonniwell, a senior accounting major, who interned last summer with a major accounting firm. He found that he spent a lot of his time writing memos to supervisors and clients, making recommendations about important issues.

"That was a real eye-opener," Bonniwell says. "There's a stereotype that accountants are the people who wear green eyeshades, don't have any social skills and sit around crunching numbers all day. But your analysis of the numbers is just as important as the numbers that you come up with.

"Accountants have to be able to convey their interpretations of what the numbers mean so that people act in ways that are beneficial to clients or beneficial to the company," Bonniwell says.

Thomas Carroll, assistant professor of accounting, says employers still value people who can crunch the numbers, especially during the tax season, and always will. But he says technical competence alone won't set graduates apart.

All classes in the M.Ac. program now require students to make formal and informal presentations to their classmates, Carroll says. That, too, helps students build confidence for situations they will face as practicing accountants.

"Firms expect students to hit the ground running," Carroll says.

"They expect new employees to be able to talk with and counsel clients, to be able to think critically and be able to explain their positions clearly," he says. "It's a part of accounting that the public doesn't often think about."