CONTACT: SCOTT HAUSER
100 Old Public Library
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0007; fax (319) 384-0024
UI accounting program: The 'write' stuff
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Accountants who can write? ... In proper, readable
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.
-- 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
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
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
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
"Firms expect students to hit the ground running," Carroll
"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."