More than Accounting
Liberal arts background gives Southwestern graduates an edge on the CPA exam
One wouldn’t necessarily think of a liberal arts college as a training ground for CPAs.
But for students who attend Southwestern to study accounting – or those who switch to it once they get to Southwestern – the decision pays off.
Southwestern is ranked sixth out of 140 schools in the southwest region when it comes to pass rates on the Uniform CPA Examination, according to data released by the American Accounting Association for the period covering 2009-2011. The CPA exam is a four-part exam that includes sections on regulation, finance, business environment concepts and audit.
John Delaney, an associate professor of business who has taught accounting at Southwestern since 1988, said one reason Southwestern students do well on the CPA exam is because the school has had two full-time faculty members teaching accounting for the past 25 years, both of whom are CPAs and also have Ph.D.s in accounting. Delaney teaches courses on cost accounting and auditing while Fred Sellers – who has been at Southwestern since 1987 – teaches courses on government accounting and accounting theory, as well as the accounting capstone class.
“It is very unusual for a school our size to have two accounting Ph.D.s teaching and two CPAs,” Delaney said. “Many schools rely on instructors who are MBA/CPAs or part-time faculty members.” Delaney estimates that about 30 percent of liberal arts colleges offer accounting as a major.
Delaney said Southwestern also teaches its accounting students differently – giving them accounting with a liberal arts orientation.
“We emphasize writing and presentation skills,” Delaney said. “Those help our students in the long run – not just on the CPA exam. Other first-year recruits have to learn to do those things while in a more stressful setting, typically while employed in an accounting position after graduation.”
The accounting capstone class that Sellers teaches, which is a requirement for the major, is a good example of this. Sellers said when he came to Southwestern, the class was taught as a review class for the CPA exam. He has changed it to be a seminar in the liberal arts tradition that explores the connection between accounting and the broader business, economic and financial worlds. For the first six weeks of the class, Sellers has students read, discuss and write about the work of economic theorists ranging from Karl Marx to Milton Friedman.
“This is more likely to get students thinking and talking,” Sellers said. “Students ought to be conversant on subjects like this if they are going into the business world.”
For their term paper in the capstone class, students have to research a historical change in accounting rules. They then have to give a presentation based on their paper. In a recent capstone class, Hope Brown was giving a presentation on accounting for pension funds and Chris Luna and Philip Davis were giving a presentation on accounting related to stock options.
Delaney said students who come to Southwestern for accounting do so for the small class size and faculty/student interaction that a small school offers. The program graduates about 10 students a year.
“I heard wonderful things about Southwestern,” said Brown, a nontraditional student who will be graduating in December.
Jennifer Tindle, a 2011 accounting graduate, didn’t just pass the CPA exam when she took it in the summer of 2012. She had one of the highest scores in the country out of the more than 92,000 candidates who sat for the exam.
In March, she learned that her score made her one of 39 winners nationwide of the 2012 Elijah Sells Award, which is given by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants to recognize exceptional achievement on the Uniform CPA Exam. CPA candidates must receive a 95.5 cumulative average or better on their first attempt at all four parts of the CPA exam to receive the award.
The Texas State Board of Public Accountancy (TSBPA) will announce the award when Tindle receives her CPA license, which will probably be in December.
“I had hoped to do well but didn’t think the award was a possibility,” Tindle said. “A lot of people don’t know this, but there is a writing component on the CPA exam. Going to a liberal arts school like Southwestern really prepares you for that.”
Tindle said she came to Southwestern planning to major in biology, but switched to accounting because she wants to start her own business someday and thought accounting would be a good background for that. After graduating early from Southwestern with a BA in accounting, she went to Vanderbilt to earn a master of accountancy degree. Since September 2012, she has been working in the Houston office of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) – a job she landed after interning with them while she was at Southwestern. She plans to relocate to their Austin office this summer.
Tindle said her firm gave her a nice bonus for winning the Elijah Sells Award, which enabled her to pay off a significant amount of her student loans. She said the award also has given her the opportunity to meet leaders in her firm who she otherwise would not have met.
“I’ve been surprised by how many people recognize me not only in the workplace but also in my former educational institutions,” Tindle said. “Also, I think I had more LinkedIn invitations in the month after receiving the award than in the past year!”
Delaney said Southwestern has a network of alumni working in major accounting firms such as PWC, which helps other students get internships and jobs.
Jonathan Owens, who graduated from Southwestern in 1997, is now an audit partner with KPMG in San Antonio.
“As part of the small classes and in conjunction with the liberal arts curriculum, I was very prepared for the business world,” Owens said. “My classes at Southwestern prepared me to work in a team environment and I feel that my writing and presentation skills were much better than students graduating from larger universities. The small classes and day-to-day interaction with my professors also taught me about professional relationships from both an internal and client relationship perspective.”
During his 11 years with KPMG and five years with Arthur Andersen right out of college, Owens estimates that he has hired about 10 interns from Southwestern. He typically comes back to visit an accounting class once a year and participates in other events hosted by the university to increase his visibility among prospective hires.