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The numbers add up for accounting majors

A survey finds that enrollment is up 19% since 2004. Some schools aren't able to keep up with demand.

August 11, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The weather is balmy, the local beaches are inviting, and so, naturally, San Diego State students are thinking about . . . accounting.

Yes, accounting. It's become one of the hot courses on campus.

Enrollment is up, one of the accounting lecturers has twice been named professor of the year, and several dozen students spent their summer mornings in a class poring over a 3-inch-thick tome titled "Federal Taxation."

The class is Accounting 321: Integrative Accounting Topics, chockablock with discussions of interest, dividends, municipal bonds and the perils and joys of partnerships. Informally, it's known as accounting boot camp. There were no spare seats.

Part of the answer to accounting's new popularity may be the inherent romance of business. Then there's this fact: Even in a downish economy, accounting students are finding jobs -- jobs that just might be the first step toward running their own companies, or getting that corner office in an established business.

"People think it's boring, but it's not," said Chris Tartre, 19, of Poway. "It tells you how business actually works. When you deal with numbers, it's either right or it's wrong."

The boom in accounting at San Diego State is part of a national trend. Enrollment in accounting classes is up 19% since 2004, according to a survey by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. The increase in interest has left some campuses unable to accommodate all comers. In fact, the survey found that 13% of campuses had to turn away students who wanted to study accounting because of a lack of adequate classroom space or teachers.

Among other factors leading to the rise, the institute notes, is the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, which requires businesses to make more stringent financial disclosures. Last year, 64,221 students graduated with bachelor's or master's degrees in accounting, the most since the institute began its annual survey in 1970.

Anyone who thinks that an accounting class has to be a notch below a trip to the dentist's office has not met lecturer Will Snyder. In Accounting 321, he radiates excitement for getting the debits and credits straight, for only paying the tax you really owe.

"I think it's important to share the passion," said Snyder, adding that the green eyeshade view of the accountant is old-fashioned.

"The beans still need counting, but counting is not enough. You have to be a global thinker, an economist, somebody with judgment and ethics," he said.

Snyder warns his students that tinkering with numbers, particularly when shareholders and the Internal Revenue Service are watching, is strictly forbidden. Profit and loss are sacred, he said.

"It should be the same at the beginning of the year as at the end of the previous year," Snyder told them. "Creative accounting may come up with something else -- but we don't want to go there."

Snyder is a USC accounting graduate and was on the faculty there from 1992 to 1994. He's been at San Diego State since 1989 and this year was named "Best of State" in a student-run poll for the second year in a row.

The accounting program received a boost this year with a $10-million bequest from Gertrude Lamden, widow of Charles W. Lamden, the first dean of the College of Business Administration. The money will be used for faculty stipends, travel, research and special projects.

The program will be renamed the Charles W. Lamden School of Accountancy, pending approval next month by the California State University trustees. The change will be the first time that a school at San Diego State has been renamed as part of a bequest.

The San Diego State accounting program has not achieved the acclaim of programs at better-known institutions. In the world of accounting, the University of Texas at Austin is king, with its undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs ranked as the best in the country by the Public Accounting Report.

After Austin, among undergraduate programs, comes Brigham Young University, the University of Illinois, Notre Dame and USC.

Still, San Diego State grads have a good record in passing the notoriously difficult test to become a certified public accountant. Some have achieved gold medal status as the best in their testing class.

And they may enjoy a kind of advantage when they go job-hunting that doesn't show up in rankings. The school's alums are sprinkled in a variety of high-level jobs.

Among them is David Down, managing director of the San Diego office of KPMG, one of the nation's largest accounting firms. He's a 1976 accounting graduate of San Diego State. He likes the enthusiasm of graduates of his alma mater.

"They're very passionate about the accounting profession, the academic side and the practical side," he said.

Although the number of accounting majors is growing -- from 70 to 133 in four years -- it's still a small portion of the 6,000 students in the business school at the bluff-top campus.

"It's a lot of reading, but once you get the concepts down, there's a lot of logic in it," said Eric Butler, 22, a junior.

Accounting 321 requires 30 hours of homework a week.

Anyone can take an accounting class, but students have to wait until their junior year and have a 2.9 grade-point average to become accounting majors.

Some will decide later to transfer to something less rigorous -- which is OK with the faculty. "If it were easy," Snyder said, "everybody would be doing it."

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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