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Blending Public Administration Education With Accounting

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Carl J. Gabrini
July 31, 2015

PA AccGovernments need accountants and fill that need by hiring graduates with degrees awarded by business programs. Students interested in government careers typically choose to study in the social sciences rather than business. This represents a missed opportunity for master of public administration/public policy (MPA/MPP) programs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth through 2022 for all accountants will be consistent with the overall average job growth. This translates into almost 120,000 positions between 2012 and 2022. MPA/MPP programs will be better positioned to serve the public employment marketplace if they are able to incorporate accounting education within existing programs thereby attracting students interested in pursuing careers in accounting and the public sector.

Students interested in accounting participate in a separate program within the business undergraduate curriculum. Students are trained in financial, cost and tax accounting, as well as in accounting information systems and auditing. A typical undergraduate accounting program includes general business courses in management, marketing, economics, quantitative methods, finance and a core of accounting courses. The typical undergraduate accounting major or concentration requires students to complete two courses in intermediate accounting (although some now require three), one course in taxation, one in cost accounting, one in auditing and one in accounting systems. These programs require students to choose several accounting electives to specialize in a sub-field such as taxation, auditing, fraud, cost or systems. Most programs also offer an elective course in governmental and nonprofit accounting and reporting.

Many accounting students seek graduate education beyond their undergraduate degrees because of each state’s requirements for obtaining a public accounting license. The certified public accountant (CPA) program is regulated by each state through a state board of accountancy. The general requirements to obtain a CPA license to practice in most states includes completing 150 hours of college course work with an accounting major or concentration (most BA/BS programs are 120 hours), one year of full-time experience in a public accounting firm or government auditing agency and passage of the Uniform CPA examination. Specific course requirements vary by state, but most have adopted requirements that are equivalent to Section 23 of the Uniform Accountancy Act to facilitate mobility across state jurisdictions. Students choose to fulfill the 150 credit hour requirement through double majors, additional undergraduate course work or graduate school.

MPA/MPP programs typically offer courses that will prepare students for public sector positions in management, procurement, human resources, systems administration, policy analysis, budgeting and program management. However, these programs do not offer the courses necessary to prepare students to fill the public sectors need for accountants. These graduate programs could be enhanced by adding an accounting specialization that makes it possible for students with an undergraduate degree in accounting to complete their CPA licensure requirements. An example of one school’s effort to combine the two disciplines is Rutgers University’s dual degree program involving the MPA and Master of Accountancy in Governmental Accounting (MAccy). However, it requires that students complete a modified MPA curriculum and the entire MAccy curriculum to earn both degrees.

Enhancing MPA/MPP programs to include an accounting component would require familiarity with the state’s laws and process for CPA licensure. Information about CPA licensure may be found on the websites for each state’s board of accountancy (A listing of all state boards is available through the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy website.)  Enhancing the MPA/MPP programs might also involve networking with faculty in business schools having an interest in government and nonprofit accounting and reporting. Accounting faculty with this interest are typically active in the American Accounting Association (AAA) government and nonprofit section. Competitive pressures between graduate programs may make cooperation difficult but not impossible. This may be achieved through collaborative research, joint student association meetings and more informal networking techniques.

If not already done, MPA/MPP program directors might consider modifying their student public administration organizations to include active support of the Association of Governmental Accountants (AGA), which offers a certification in government financial management (CGFM). This is a professional group of government employees possessing an interest in government finance and accounting. There are local chapters in many areas hosting monthly meetings. These chapters would generally welcome the participation of students interested in public service careers. This would facilitate student networking for possible career opportunities after graduation.

Enhanced MPA/MPP programs will be better positioned to serve the public sector by allowing students to merge their interests in accounting with their desire to consider public service employment. This would also increase program relevancy by increasing the number of students willing to consider these graduate programs in fulfilling their CPA requirements. Ultimately, it would lead to an improved overall post-graduation employment outlook for MPA/MPP graduates by including this group of students with promising employment opportunities. Given the competitive nature of graduate programs and the difficulty of managing today’s education budgets any enhancement that increases relevancy in this way would be useful in further strengthening a program and its future prospects.

Author: Dr. Gabrini currently teaches accounting at Columbus State University. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Administration from Florida State University, a master’s degree in taxation from the University of Central Floridaand an active CPA license issued by the State of Florida. He held various professional positions over 25 years before entering academia. Contact email address [email protected]

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