KPMG looks to fill the accounting student pipeline in Iowa

KPMG is expanding its efforts to attract more students to the firm and the accounting profession at large, partnering with the University of Northern Iowa to support a new hybrid learning program.

UNI, which is based in Cedar Falls, Iowa, said this month it is expanding its bachelor of arts in accounting program to include a hybrid online and in-person option for students in the Greater Des Moines metropolitan area. Students will be able to attend online business-core and elective courses, while in-person evening accounting courses on the Des Moines Area Community College’s urban campus will begin in August. The Big Four firm hopes the initiative will help bring in more potential students, especially from diverse backgrounds.

“Our profession was certainly not immune to the Great Resignation that was going on across the country, and we saw droves of people leave their jobs,” said Greg Engel, vice chair for tax at KPMG, who is an alumnus of UNI. “A lot of times people leave our firm and they go take an accounting job somewhere else. We were seeing so many people leaving the whole profession.”

He sees a need to increase the number of diverse professionals in the accounting world. “There was a real interest in going to alternative sources of talent, whether that’s going to historically Black colleges and universities, or looking for different universities that might produce more accountants and be more diverse accounts,” said Engel. “We have very actively been exploring ways that we can help make a difference.”

KPMG logo on wall
The offices of KPMG in Chicago

TANNEN MAURY’/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Des Moines and the state of Iowa overall have been seeing a shortage of accountants, particularly from underrepresented communities.

“The university partnered with Urban Community College in Des Moines, which is the largest community college in our region, and the most diverse community college in our region,” said Joe Ugrin, head of the accounting department at UNI. “They partnered on a building that created a shared space that we had access to. The university had launched marketing of some programs, and while I was in Des Moines visiting KPMG and some other firms, doing some networking, I decided to just pop in a building and see what it looked like.”

He noticed all of the advertisements were mostly for existing online programs. They began talking about UNI programs at Des Moines Area Community College, also known as DMACC. He asked the director about the accountant shortage in Iowa and what they could do to alleviate it.

“We’ve got a tremendous shortage in Iowa, particularly in Des Moines, where there’s a large insurance presence and just a dramatic shortage of accounting professionals,” said Ugrin. “What if we were to find a way to deliver our program in person and use this nice new space? It just snowballed from there. We presented it to our advisory council, and then started brainstorming ideas. We had a chance to start engaging with Greg and the DMACC faculty.”

He has been reading about the difficulties faced by students who transfer from community colleges to four-year colleges, and how little community colleges and universities work together. One goal is to make that transition easier by offering both in-person and online components in the courses.

“What the program aims to do is bring a face-to-face element to distance education that’s designed for nontraditional learners that can’t move from wherever they’re based,” said Ugrin. “We focus hard on face-to-face elements and bringing in engagement activities that typically happen in our face-to-face program in Cedar Falls. We want those experiences to happen in Des Moines, but in a way that fits nontraditional learners, and then blend that together with pieces of online education that will be effective. Students will take all of their non-accounting, business core classes online in eight-week segments, and then we’ll deliver our accounting classes in person.”

The university and community college hope to improve the learning environment through this blended approach. Ugrin pointed to findings from the CPA Success Index data which he helped develop in lieu of the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy stopped providing in 2021 (see story). It showed better outcomes on the CPA exam for students who were able to study accounting in person.

“When you look at the outcomes of graduates from purely online programs, even traditional nonprofit university programs, some of them separate out their on-campus students and their online students on their CPA exam results, and the difference is stark,” said Ugrin. “It’s not just a small difference. It’s 100% better. Even though there is a lot of push for accounting education online for accessibility and affordability purposes, we still have to deliver a quality product, and students still have to be able to learn and perform at the end. At the end of the day, accounting is a very personal career. Business choices end up being made by a person, so we felt this would be something that would be potentially appealing. The interest is heightened when students find out they’re going to get the accounting classes in person. They’re still going to have engagement activities with firms like we do on campus, maybe in a different way. We might not have typical traditional events for 20 year olds, but it’s still personal engagement activity. The focus is on getting access and affordability.”

KPMG has been working with other universities as well to attract diverse accounting talent, including earlier this month in New York during an event aimed at historically Black colleges and universities (see story).

“We’ve got any number of universities across the country where we’ve got some scholarship programs in place where people can apply to KPMG to get scholarships, and that could be at any university,” said Engel. “Going after the community college students is a little different because it’s got a little bit longer tail before they’re CPA ready. They’ve not only got to finish community college, but then they have to go on and get incremental hours to be ready to sit for the CPA exam. We’ve got this program, but we also then are going into other universities to help drive more students into the profession as well.”

The firm endows KPMG professorships at a number of schools who help develop the curriculum. “That’s a way for us to have our people not only give back to help students become attracted to accounting, but also selfishly drive the talent to KPMG,” said Engel.

He hopes to attract more students to take up accounting and pursue the CPA certification, even though hiring of non-CPAs has ramped up more over the years at KPMG and other firms. “We have a lot of professionals that are not CPAs and can do OK in our firm,” said Engel. “We have lawyers, economists and a lot of different people in our firm. But having the CPA certification is really a key indicator of success, so we are very actively supporting all of our people to pass the exam and to become certified.”

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