Recession or not, there is a constant need for public accountants. Likewise there is a need for graduate-level accounting programs to fill this demand. Yet, while many of these programs only seek applicants with undergraduate accounting degrees, Vanderbilt’s yearlong Master of Accountancy (MAcc) program takes a decidedly different approach. The high-performing individuals who enroll in the MAcc program come from a variety of academic backgrounds. Many, in fact, have liberal arts degrees. What’s more, the program goes a step further than most by providing not only the technical knowledge to practice accounting—around 90 percent of MAcc graduates pass the certified public accountant (CPA) exam within eight months of graduation—but also the crucial business skills, like teamwork and communication, to succeed professionally.
There were high hopes for the MAcc program when it launched in 2007, but no one quite expected it to come as far as it has in such a short period of time. The program is already attracting the kind of talented applicants it hoped it would. If anyone deserves credit for this rapid success, it is Associate Professor of Management Karl Hackenbrack, who has guided the program from its very beginning.
With an impressive background that includes numerous professional achievements and a long tenure at the University of Florida’s Fisher School of Accounting, Hackenbrack saw a constant demand for entry-level professionals in the audit service line of public accounting firms. But he also noticed that many new hires lacked the so-called “soft skills”—communication, teamwork and leadership—that are needed in today’s clientoriented professional services firms.
Hackenbrack, therefore, designed the MAcc program, along with Dean Jim Bradford and others, as a way to fill both of these needs. The students, who come primarily from liberal arts backgrounds, are selected for their breadth of experience, diversity of interests and people skills.
“We weren’t encumbered by the traditional idea of what an accounting program should look like,” Hackenbrack says. “We were given the freedom to build something that makes sense for the world that we’re facing today. So we leaned heavily on experience and relationships with those in the public accounting profession to spec out what is sensible today.”
The partnerships that Hackenbrack has forged give MAcc graduates a direct path to employment at firms like Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Grant Thornton.
“The Vanderbilt MAcc program has proven to be a great source of new hires for us,” says Sam DeVane, Managing Partner at Ernst & Young’s Nashville office and an advisory board member for the program. “Karl has done an outstanding job in creating the program and preparing students who are truly ready to be successful in our business.”
The faculty members of the MAcc program have expertise in a variety of areas and provide their students with a well-rounded business education. Students have the opportunity to learn the technical side of accounting, auditing and taxation from seasoned instructors, several of whom have years of experience at public accounting firms. Yet students also receive a managerial perspective by taking coursework with MBA students—from managerial economics and business law to information systems and ethics.
Associate Professor of Management Nicole Thorne Jenkins, a CPA and former Big Four auditor who teaches financial reporting, says her MAcc students, most of whom have liberal arts degrees, are as well or better prepared than many undergraduates with accounting or business degrees.
“People think accountants are in an office working by themselves—kind of loners—but when you’re in public accounting you’re consulting as a business professional and interacting with clients,” she says. “The liberal arts exposure that our students have makes them well-suited for the profession.”
William Henderson, Professor of the Practice of Tax Accounting, who spent 37 years with KPMG, is impressed with the MAcc students’ classroom performance. He notes that they are outpacing his MBA students on grades despite generally having no business experience.
“We don’t have a lot of time, and there’s so much to cover,” he says. “The students put a lot into one year’s time. It’s a tremendously intense program.”
Gary Scudder, the Justin Potter Professor of Operations Management, teaches a broad-based class on business fundamentals, such as supply chain management, which is demonstrated through simulations. Such exercises give the students a context for the accounting and auditing work they will be doing for a variety of business clients.
“We get really motivated, smart students,” Scudder says. “They’re taking hard courses and lots of them. If they can handle that pace, they can succeed in a public accounting firm.”
The MAcc program benefits from an advisory board that includes executives from all of the major public accounting firms. Their guidance in shaping the program has resulted in exceptionally high placement rates for the program’s graduates.
The advisers say it is not the technical skills, but rather the interpersonal ones, that make a successful accountant. They have specifically requested that program administrators attract and develop students with the potential for leadership in the profession.
“The technical side is important—you’ve got to have the basics—but we’ll build on that with new employees,” says board member Randy Laszewski, Managing Partner at KPMG in Nashville. He describes his input as “a buyer’s perspective.”
“What we really need are good, mature people who are analytical, business-minded thinkers and who have good communication skills. That’s more important than just being able to cite accounting rules,” he says.
Board member Sam DeVane, who is Managing Partner with Ernst & Young in Nashville, adds, “People have the impression of accountants as backroom types, but you can’t operate behind the scenes and enjoy success in our profession. You’ve got to be on the front line every day interacting with clients. Focused client interaction is the only way we’re successful.”
In just three years the program has far exceeded the advisers’ expectations, says Greg Anglum, BA’92, MBA’93, Partner at Grant Thornton in Raleigh, N.C. The only board member who is an Owen alumnus, Anglum has a unique stake in seeing the MAcc program succeed.
“We’re all big fans of the program,” he says, “and we all say the same thing: Don’t change what you’re doing in terms of developing these students because they’re really top-notch.”
As part of the MAcc program, each student spends 10 weeks interning for a major public accounting firm. Last year Ashley Kushner, BA’09, MAcc’10, and Madison Hampden, MAcc’10, took part in an internship at Deloitte’s office in Hyderabad, India, where they got not only a taste of the auditing work they will be doing as accounting professionals but also a firsthand look at the globalization of business.
“I’ve always wanted to travel abroad and do business,” Hampden says. “India and China are where the big growth is going to happen in the next 20 to 30 years, and it was great to see that myself.”
Deloitte’s 1,000person India office supports American operations by taking up unfinished work after the U.S. workday is done. This 24hour work cycle increases efficiency and provides a competitive advantage, says MAcc advisory board member Jim Brady, CEO of Deloitte’s Assurance & Enterprise Risk Services operation in India.
“It was really telling how important this part of the company is and how important it’s going to become,” Kushner says.
The students worked long hours but fit in sightseeing at the Taj Mahal and in the Golden Triangle region of Agra, Delhi and Jaipur.
“They worked really hard and did good work, and I think both were changed by the experience of living abroad in an emerging market—one of the fastest growing economies in the world,” Brady says of Hampden and Kushner. “It’s life-changing. You realize it’s a global world, not a U.S.-centered world.”
Both Hampden and Kushner accepted full-time jobs with Deloitte. And both plan to work abroad as part of their long-term career plans.
“I’m so glad I went to India because now I know I want to go back,” Kushner says. “Wherever the need is around the globe, if I have the skills, I’ll seek out that opportunity.”
When Katie Appel, BA’08, MAcc’09, chose to enter the MAcc program, no one was more surprised than her father, Steve Appel, Partner in Charge of KPMG’s Southern Coastal Business Unit and a member of the MAcc advisory board.
“I was very happy, but pretty shocked, honestly,” says Steve, who thought she would choose law school. “She’s always been far more verbal, so I thought the law thing made sense.”
After comparing the two career paths, Katie, who majored in communications and Spanish at Vanderbilt, decided the MAcc program was a better fit. She now works at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Nashville.
“I’m just starting to see the takeaways from this career,” Katie says. “With my CPA and work experience at a Big Four, I can set myself up for the same type of job in business I would have wanted with a law degree—and in less time.”
Plus, she says, she will have opportunities to fulfill another dream: working in South America, where she can use her language skills.
“The markets are really ramping up in Brazil. It’s nice to know I could work abroad through my own company,” she says.
Steve says he is thrilled with Katie’s choice—and with Vanderbilt’s MAcc program. His own company hired half a dozen graduates from the Class of 2010.
“You’ve got all these kids with different backgrounds, and in a year they become CPA-eligible, well-rounded professionals who have already done internships with a Big Four accounting firm,” he says. “It puts them in position for all these opportunities. It doesn’t get better than that.”