Algebra to Accounting

In my college accounting classes, I have seen that students who have been exposed to accounting in high school possess a clear advantage on Day 1 in college. This makes sense: accounting is often called “the language of business” as it requires understanding new terms, new rules, and how those terms and rules fit together. So students who have had a jump on all of this in their K through 12 education can enter a college classroom more equipped to start applying the rules more quickly. This invites an important question: how can we better introduce accounting to students in high school, and even middle school?

This is a question the industry is grappling with, and there is even legislation that has been introduced in Congress to make accounting part of STEM (learn more about the STEM Education in Accounting Act, S. 3398).

One basic challenge is awareness: accounting is not a visible role in community, like a police officer or fire fighter, a teacher, or nurse. Accounting is also not a standard part of K through 12 curriculum so not all students are exposed through school.

I’m focused on this challenge as the CPA Advisor at Saint Peter’s University and I am a passionate advocate of a profession that I’ve found truly rewarding. So I wanted to share a few thoughts on how we can better expose this exciting, empowering pathway to more youth.

1–Capture the imagination of kids in K-12 about careers in accountancy. Those careers include:

  1. Accountants in private industry, including entertainment, sports, food and fashion, and more. One example I love to share with my students is Shark Tank, and the portion of each pitch when the “sharks” grill the entrepreneurs on the numbers; that’s fantastic insight into the power of knowing your numbers. Obtaining the certified management accountant (CMA) is one credential on this path.
  2. Accountants in law enforcement, helping “follow the money” on criminal investigations for federal agencies like the FBI or IRS. The IRS specifically states ‘as a Special Agent you will combine your accounting skills with law enforcement skills to investigate financial crimes.”
  3. Accountants in public accounting, working as CPAs or Enrolled Agents who help clients with tax, audit, or advisory services; this type of work can often be project-driven and dynamic. It can vary day to day and demand skillsets that stretch outward in 360 degrees, from sales to project management and budgeting to technical analysis of complex laws.
Work in a business of interest
Work for clients in areas of tax, audit
Serve in law enforcement

2–Reach students who may show an early interest and proficiency for algebra.

That can start as early as middle school, where students start to learn pre-algebra concepts (“solving for X”) and quantitative problem solving rooted in logic and sequence (e.g. the order of operations … “PEMDAS” or “BODMAS”)

Here is a quick primer from the NJ Department of Education on how middle and high school math education correlates to NJ’s curriculum standards:

  • Sixth grade includes fractions, decimals, ratios, and proportions.
  • Seventh grade: students “develop fluency with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of rational numbers and to use these skills in a problem solving context.” They also are introduced to linear equations and geometry.
  • Eighth grade: delves further into geometry, equations and problem solving (“solving for X”), and readying kids algebra and geometry.
  • Algebra is 2-unit set of standards that includes linear math, quantitative problem-solving, and connections to geometry.
  • Geometry is also its own unit and helps kids understand math in 2- and 3-dimensions with lines and area, volume, and more.

As it happens, these are skills that accountants use daily. Here are some examples:

  • Tracking value in a business requires adding and subtracting 2-decimal precision numbers related to assets, liabilities, owner’s equity, and more.
  • Estimating target profit for a small business owner requires gathering data and creating cost curves (e.g. Y=a + bX) to understand fixed costs, variable costs, and more.
  • Helping clients comply and plan their annual tax expense requires quantitative modeling that is constantly using “PEMDAS” within a spreadsheet environment.

These are just a few examples. You can see a lot more at the AICPA’s “Career Path” page.

I find that my college students are often surprised – and gratified – to see what they learned in middle and high school coming back full circle in the college classroom as they prepare for their career.

3-Leverage resources that exist to help spread the word about how great a profession accounting can be.

The AICPA has published some fantastic materials at “This Way to the CPA.” This site is geared towards students and I’ve used it my classes, including this summary of state-by-state licensure requirements. I used this site for a classroom exercise in my “Pathway to the CPA” course to help students understand how licensure works generally, but also what is required to obtain a license in NY, NJ, or any other state.

Each state has different requirements to sit for the uniform CPA exam. ThisWayToTheCPA helps summarize it all.

The AICPA also publishes “Start Here, Go Places” which is geared towards both students and teachers. The teacher version includes a host of great content including classroom games, videos, group activities, and more. I particularly appreciate how much content is sitting on a virtual shelf, ready to be used by accounting instructors, including a “CPA Pipeline Kit” which includes specific guidance on talking to students, including middle schoolers.

This is more specific to accounting educators, but there are also some terrific blogs out there focusing on accounting. I recently found “Accounting in the Headlines” which is geared towards those teaching introductory accounting and “Accounting is Analytics” which focuses on teaching analytics in tandem with accounting.

I’ll end with this share — a video below from AICPA that’s as good a summary of what accounting can offer as I’ve seen:

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