Why Are Students Leaving Accounting?

by Shivani Somaiya

Colleges across the United States have seen a 17% decline in the number of students enrolling for finance and accounting degrees. We sit down with a former accounting major from Temple University, Nathan Wakefield, to learn more about his experience and decision to pivot away from accounting and the factors that influenced his decision.

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COVID-19 induced workplace shifts had an effect on almost every industry. But, for the finance and accounting profession at large, these shifts have contributed to a mass exodus of accountants. It was recently reported by The Wall Street Journal that more than 300,000 US accountants and auditors have left their jobs in the past two years.

Colleges across the United States have seen a 17% decline in the number of students coming into the field that can't fill the gap.

We sat down with a former accounting major from Temple University: Nathan Wakefield, to learn more about his experience and decision to pivot away from accounting and the factors that influenced his decision.

Shivani Somaiya: Nathan, before we get into our conversation, can you start by giving our listeners a brief overview of your background?

Nathan Wakefield: Yes, of course. I entered Temple University as an accounting major and now I am a real estate major. I initially joined as an accounting major, but I was still open to exploring alternative career paths.

I had joined a few student organizations that existed at the school, one in accounting and one in real estate. That's where I found more information about real estate as a career and as I did that, I added real estate as a double major. It's still in the business school but it was just more focused on the finance side. The more I got into that, the more I found out about different career paths and the different things you can do with real estate degree.

In turn, I found urban planning, which was a fun research topic that I was looking into in some of my classes. As I did that, I realized I wanted to take more of these classes and that I wanted to minor in this field. That’s when I dropped my accounting altogether and I'm now a real estate major and urban planning minor.

Somaiya: How did you originally choose to major in accounting coming out of high school? Did you know anyone in the profession?

Wakefield: I originally decided to major in accounting because I really enjoyed working with numbers. I had taken an accounting class in high school, and I was taking some business electives. I learnt that accounting was something I was good at it made sense to me.

It felt like piecing together financial information, almost like a puzzle, to find a correct answer. In accounting, the numbers have to match and all that was rewarding to put together. I had also worked, for a couple years at a tax and accounting firm. It was just a small family owned firm. I had gotten a lot of experience in personal tax, public-facing programs there. I thought it was a really great way to work with the public and to use my knowledge and skills in accounting and personal finance. So, I went into college thinking, I will just pursue accounting.

Somaiya: Can you talk to me a little bit about what your experience has been like being an accounting major?

Wakefield: On the academic front, I found the accounting classes a little intensive. It's focused heavily on the accounting curriculum and the coursework can be very heavy sometimes, especially if you're taking multiple accounting courses at the same time. It's a lot of homework, a lot of assignments, a lot of understanding of complex ideas. I would understand the work, despite the coursework load or the advanced ideas that were talked about.

From my experience, there were a lot of resources available, at least at the school I'm at. There's a lot of opportunities for internships. There's a lot of organizations around accounting. So, it did feel like there was a lot happening in the field of accounting outside just the courses. I was really exposed to accounting pretty heavily in my experience.

Somaiya: And at what point did you realize that you wanted to pivot away from an accounting and finance major to pursue a real estate major?

Wakefield: As I took more real estate courses and obviously more of the urban studies courses as well, I found that to be a career path I wanted to pursue more. I found an accounting as being pushed in my perspective towards the big four companies. They would come in to give presentations and they would be a little bit identical. They would all seem like the same job positions, the same benefits, the same just about everything. I wanted to explore other career paths. I wanted to feel like I could be more than just a cog in a machine in my mind.

I was also struggling to find some career paths that intrigued me beyond just my skills, my skills in Excel, my skills in accounting. I wanted to do research and I felt like in real estate there was more opportunity to do that. I saw the career paths in real estate as more creative and I would get less bored of them later in my career. At the same time, I was starting to research these real estate topics such as how cities work, green design, sustainability, and social issues and, that was something I had really enjoyed my time doing.

I saw more opportunity in real estate than in accounting to pursue those ideas and pursue that research further.

Somaiya: How would you compare your experience being an accounting and finance major to the experience of majoring in real estate?

Wakefield: I would say that the real estate curriculum, is more project based. It's a lot more real life examples of finding properties, doing proformas, doing financial models on actual information. With the accounting curriculum, a lot of it was based on building your skillset and learning topics without necessarily applying it to a real-world situation.

Personally, I find it a lot more fulfilling to work on a project, especially if it's a group project, than to just sit down and learn concepts class after class and then have to be tested on them. I like to have a presentable I can show at the end and work through the whole process of implementing solutions to problems and just a full rounded showcase of my skills.

Somaiya: From your perspective, what needs to change in the industry and in the academic world in order to make finance and accounting an attractive career path?

Wakefield: On the perspective of the industry, I would suggest highlighting the versatility of career paths besides just trying to funnel people towards the large, big four firm. Also, highlight smaller firms, family owned firms, mid-size firms, and also career paths outside. The majority of accounting careers that you see is limited to tax consulting and audit. I think forensics accounting is really cool, really interesting.

It's also a good idea to showcase the impacts accounting jobs have. It'd be very cool to see how accountants in their role support communities, and society. Just showcasing that could draw more students to accounting and make it seem like a more attractive career path.

Personally, when I worked with VITA, which is a volunteered tax service for low income Philadelphia residents, I thought that was just wonderful. Seeing the firsthand impacts that what I was doing is having on people's lives was really fulfilling and I think if we could showcase that to other students: that the work you're going to be doing is going to have great benefits, would be really a beneficial thing to see.

On the college side, encouraging dual majors or a major and a minor in accounting could be beneficial. I think accounting pairs well with other disciplines. It's obviously a high demand skill and I think encouraging students to see how they can use accounting in even other industries, it could really increase the appeal of accounting and also create more well-rounded professionals when people do graduate from university.

Somaiya: What do you wish, if at all, professors or professionals did differently to make this a more attractive career path?

Wakefield: I think professors do a great job at teaching students the accounting skills and making them prepared for jobs outside the classroom. I think, if anything, I would like to see professors try to connect students more with professionals in the industry, for example with firms that are local to the school university. I feel like that could be really beneficial to students in giving them a perspective to see what they can do after college, instead of just being focused on the next exam or the next content that's going to be covered. They'll really just expand the learning outside the classroom and get students excited for going into the workplace and just building those connections with professionals that are already doing great work in accounting.

Somaiya: Nathan, I'm curious to know, but what role did getting your CPA play into your decision to change majors?

Wakefield: I wouldn't say it was a distraction at all. I liked the idea of getting a certification. It felt like it was proof that I knew this concept and knowledge and that I was equipped to be an accounting professional.

I did, however, feel like it siloed students into one path when they do pursue accounting. It felt like everyone around me was going for their CPA, and to get there, you had to take X amount of classes, you had to do this well, your GPA had to be this good. So, in that sense, I did feel like it was a little bit limiting, but I wouldn't say it directly correlated to me leaving the accounting field.