How Universities Are Working to Diversify the Accounting Pipeline

Faculty-led programs help diverse students find success in the profession.

April 12, 2016

When Evelyn A. McDowell, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., passed the CPA exam in 1985, she recalls being one of only a handful of African-Americans in the entire state of Ohio with a CPA license. Three decades later, African-Americans still make up only 3% of new hires at CPA firms, according to the most recent AICPA workforce report.

McDowell is among numerous accounting professors who have been outspoken in academic and professional circles on the need to recruit and engage more students from diverse backgrounds to match an evolving client base.

“Minority-owned businesses continue to grow, but ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender diversity are still lacking in the profession,” said McDowell, an associate professor at Rider University in Princeton, N.J. “It’s up to all of us to correct this problem because it is the moral, just, and ethical thing to do.

“Accountants are the gatekeepers to financial capital,” she said. “Since people tend to feel more comfortable with others who come from the same community, the gatekeepers should be racially and ethnically diverse to ensure equal access to financial markets.”

That’s one reason universities and organizations such as the AICPA are working to bring more students from underrepresented groups to the accounting profession. The AICPA, for instance, offers scholarships and fellowships to minority students, and hosts an annual Accounting Scholars Leadership Workshop for minority accounting students. The AICPA National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion meets quarterly to discuss strategies for improving diversity within the profession, said Florence Holland, the AICPA’s lead manager of Pipeline Initiatives.

“As a profession, we strive to create a seamless transition from energizing young talent to creating the culturally responsive work environments they will thrive in,” she said.

McDowell and peers at other universities are also piloting strategies to diversify the profession. In 2011, McDowell and other accounting faculty members, sponsored by Allen Boston, a retired EY partner and a member of Rider’s College of Business Administration’s Executive Advisory Council, used a $10,000 grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to launch the Rider University Aspiring Accounting Professional Program (RUAAPP), which offers African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students opportunities to meet with accounting professionals and gain work experience at firms, while also requiring weekly study sessions, journaling, and attendance at events where they practice professional soft skills and networking.

The program has produced nearly 75 graduates and, according to surveys of three cohorts, all participants felt more successful and supported to move forward in the accounting profession, McDowell said.

Queen Ross, who is working on her master’s of accounting degree at Rider and studying for the CPA exam, says RUAAPP helped her reach her goals. “Being an accounting major was difficult,” she said. “It required long study hours and this program really encouraged me to stay focused and motivated.”

The program also fostered her success in the accounting field by connecting her to Discover EY, the Big Four firm’s invitation-only convention for college students, which in turn led to her taking three internships with EY. The firm has offered Ross a full-time audit position once she earns her degree. 

Moving into its fifth year, RUAAPP now requires that graduates of the program visit high schools and share what they have learned about the profession so that rising students can see someone they can identify with who has been successful in the field. Those positive impressions add up, McDowell said.

“If each student went on to influence two others, then the profession could change very quickly,” she said.

At North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, N.C., a historically black university, the department of accounting and finance starts engaging freshmen right away, said Kevin James, CPA, Ph.D., an associate professor of accounting.

“Within a couple of weeks of them setting foot on campus, we are getting them together so we can orient them to the school and the program,” he said. “We immediately try to get them interacting with professionals. It takes them way outside of their comfort zone, but gives them a basis to start training and getting experience.”

All accounting students at the university are enrolled in a yearlong colloquium that teaches students soft skills, said James, who is also chairman of the department of accounting and finance. That way, they’re better prepared for their first internships, which typically occur the summer after their sophomore year. The accounting department has also started a formal mentoring program in which older students mentor freshmen and sophomores.

Some N.C. A&T students also act as “diversity ambassadors” who make presentations to students in high school business classes in hopes of recruiting more students from underrepresented groups. They help show high school students how accounting is relevant to their lives.

Many students, James says, “want to start their own businesses, so we talk about the value of accounting to entrepreneurs and other areas they’re interested in. It’s a win-win-win situation. We’re helping build the pipeline, we’re getting some bright students interested in our program, and we’re helping the students by opening their minds to a career option that could really lead to a lot of success for them down the road.”

N.C. A&T also relies on organizations such as the Beta Alpha Psi Honor Society and the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), both of which have a strong presence at the university, where they engage students through mentorships and information sessions.

Student organizations play an important role in the university setting, says Hubert Glover, Ph.D., CPA (inactive), CGMA, chairman of the accounting department at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where they work aggressively to develop opportunities for accounting students to get tutoring, mentoring, and scholarship. But Glover and colleagues are reaching even further, trying to engage groups such as Junior Achievement and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America to hold one-day workshops or camps that introduce K-12 students to the profession at a younger age.

Lack of diversity in the accounting profession “is an issue for competitive firms, academia, and the professional organizations,” he said. “We need every thought perspective in the room. We are all going to have to rally together to address the challenges of building a pipeline of students, improving retention, and creating some upward mobility for underrepresented groups.”

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this story, email lead editor Courtney Vien at

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