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Today’s Graduates and the Pandemic

By Andrew C. Stuart, Ph.D., CPA; Tracey J. Riley, Ph.D., CPA; Stephen H. Fuller, Ph.D.; and Caitlin DeStefano, GCBF
August 1, 2021

Accounting alumni from the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 finished their undergraduate or graduate accounting degrees and prepared to enter the profession after having their education, internships, and lives dramatically disrupted by the COVID-19 global pandemic.

 

The “traditional” students (under 25 years of age) in the 2020 and 2021 graduating classes were born between 1996 and 1999, making them the last of the Millennials and the first of Generation Z to enter the accounting workforce.

 

They are a racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse generation that has experienced immense disruption in their relatively short life spans. They were born into a rapidly evolving digital world where using the internet and owning a cell phone became social norms. They entered preschool just days before the traumatic events of September 11, 2001. While in primary and middle school, they witnessed their parents struggle through the 2008-2009 global financial crisis and the Great Recession. In the United States, they started their accounting studies with a strong economy and low unemployment, believing they were facing a bright future.

 

Yet they completed their educational journey in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, with many having to pivot from their campus-based courses to an online education without warning. All their lives, these graduates have been living a case study we never could have imagined for them. While some have understandably struggled under these challenges, others found ways to thrive and excel in spite (or because) of it.

 

As three accounting professors and an administrator, we have taught and mentored students during the pandemic and witnessed more than a year of disrupted educational and cocurricular opportunities that impacted recent graduates and those approaching graduation in the next year or so. There’s no denying that COVID-19 has presented and continues to present significant challenges for all of us. But important personal growth often comes from living through difficult seasons. Therefore, we want to take a moment to contemplate several ways the COVID-19 pandemic enhanced the personal traits and skills of these accounting graduates, which, in our opinion, make them desirable employees in the short term and potential leaders in the profession in years to come.

 

ADAPTING IN UNCERTAINTY

 

To be fair, this disruption has led to real and ongoing challenges for graduates and the profession, but the positives give us reasons for optimism. We saw many students who used the challenges of the pandemic to find opportunity, reset expectations, and further develop their evolving skill sets. The pandemic has had a host of effects on recent graduates, but the positive impacts on this population leave them poised to make an impact on the future of the accounting profession.

 

Today’s graduates’ resilience was tested. The pandemic imposed enormously difficult conditions on recent graduates. Beginning in March 2020, virtually all higher learning institutions transitioned to online-only course delivery in an effort to safeguard the health and welfare of their communities. While this helped limit the community spread of the virus, students faced a great deal of adversity across many facets of their lives. Uncertainty about how their coursework would be completed compounded other stresses related to employment, personal living, and family-related concerns, and universities started seeing record levels of depression and anxiety among students. To make matters worse, many of the challenges have had a disproportionate effect on certain demographic groups, such as racial and ethnic minority communities and the poor.

 

Students were required to face these adversities while maintaining a focus on their academic work. In some cases, these challenges slowed the path forward for students. But we also witnessed many students handling these conditions with great aplomb, completing their education effectively while facing unprecedented challenges. In some of the very best students, we saw a real desire to be agents of change. The resilience of today’s accounting graduates should be very attractive to hiring organizations. These students have matured and learned through adversity, which gives them a head start on making significant contributions in their first professional positions.

 

Today’s graduates were forced to adapt. Moving to online learning in March 2020 in essence forced on-campus students to adapt how they learned. The pace of the disruptive transition to online learning placed a burden on students to avoid falling behind amid the shifting expectations of their professors, some of whom also struggled to ensure that course rigor was maintained in the transition. In order to be successful, students had to quickly improve their focus and attention. Students struggling with course content couldn’t always rely on traditional classroom interactions and had to develop new ways to address their challenges. They relied to a greater extent on self-guided study and sought information from new sources. In some cases, students struggled adapting to the changing learning environment.

 

We witnessed many students failing to reach out for support when needed and struggling to form virtual study groups that used to organically develop in the group study areas on campus. There also was an overall decrease in students taking advantage of office hours, as they no longer could just drop in when walking by their professor’s office and instead had to make virtual meeting times. We believe students struggling to adapt were provided valuable learning opportunities that will hopefully prevent them from making similar mistakes after graduating. Overall, the adaptability of today’s graduates positions them well for the challenges of the accounting profession. Disruption in the profession is a fact of life, whether it be from evolving accounting, auditing, and tax standards or from the Big Data movement and emerging technologies such as AI.

 

Today’s graduates faced uncertainty. The pandemic created uncertainty at both macro and micro levels. Despite encouraging news regarding vaccination efforts, there continues to be uncertainty about how the pandemic will proceed and when it might finally be resolved. At the macro level, these uncertainties have economic and employment implications that are unpleasant for emerging graduates to confront. For example, students were unsure whether companies would continue recruiting during the pandemic or how virtual interviews would be conducted. Further, they had a much harder time assessing the potential fit with a company when receiving an offer as they didn’t have the opportunity to visit in person.

 

On the micro level, the transition to online learning imposed new and unexpected uncertainties on students who had previously never taken an online course. Students had to plan for and respond to technical issues (e.g., having a hot spot available on their phone in case their internet goes out during an exam). More significant was uncertainty over whether they or their family would become sick and how that would impact their ability to take classes and participate in the recruiting process. In our opinion, this was a difficult but valuable learning experience for our students. Accountants deal with uncertainty every day and must be equipped to calmly make stressful decisions. Today’s graduates are going to emerge from their studies battle-tested in living with greater uncertainty, which gives them practice in confronting professional uncertainty with courage and resolve.

 

NEW SKILL SETS

 

Whether it was conducting a presentation via Zoom, being limited to virtual and online collaboration, studying in a new or different environment, or even simply dealing with new, unimagined situations, students had to develop new skills on the fly.

 

Today’s graduates had to grow emotionally. While emotional intelligence is a skill that can be learned and developed, it isn’t a skill typically taught in an accounting curriculum. But living through a global crisis is certainly a lesson in emotional intelligence. This pandemic took away students’ typical on-campus college experience, their graduation celebrations, and in some cases their internships or jobs. Many moved back home with parents for the first time in years, trying to complete their studies with countless distractions.

 

We experienced a wide range of responses to these challenges. On one hand, we’ve all seen stories of students breaking social distancing rules on and off campus. In addition, some students struggled with their emotional and mental health during this trying time and withdrew from class.

 

On the other hand, many students grew in their emotional intelligence and empathy toward others. As faculty, we witnessed students being patient and fair with each other and us. They took care of themselves and others and displayed solidarity in the face of challenges. The pandemic also gave valuable lessons in the interconnectedness of the world. As the profession is evolving due to rapid technological advances, it’s critical that accountants have skills beyond technical knowledge. For some, living through these times has given them a toolbox of skills that are difficult to replicate. It has made them poised to be able to interact effectively with others, build trust and rapport with their teams and clients, temper their emotions in stressful situations, and manage conflict.

 

Today’s graduates had to effectively communicate across multiple platforms. Many accounting courses have an oral communication learning objective that students still had to satisfy after the shift to online learning. Students were forced to learn how to deliver a group presentation to a professional audience using technology many hadn’t used previously. This required them not only to learn how to use new technology, but also to read nonverbal cues from the audience and other group members remotely. In our experience, the majority of students met this challenge, and the quality of the presentations was enhanced as students gained confidence and experience presenting remotely.

 

But some students really struggled with understanding how to maintain professionalism when presenting remotely. For example, some students didn’t turn on their camera, making it difficult for the audience to connect with the speaker. Others didn’t wear professional work attire that we commonly see in the classroom. Communication is an important part of an accountant’s job, as they must be able to explain their findings to a variety of colleagues and clients as concisely and professionally as possible. Accountants must be able to communicate via email, text, face-to-face, and online. The COVID-19 disruption gave students the opportunity to round out their communication skills portfolio by requiring online communication.

 

Today’s graduates had to work in geographically diverse teams. Teamwork has always been an essential part of the accounting profession and a mainstay in the accounting curriculum. But COVID-19 changed the dynamics of teamwork when students vacated campuses and spread out worldwide.

 

Teamwork was completed remotely with classmates located across the globe, and students learned the importance of adapting meeting times to accommodate members in different time zones. In the successful cases, these students became better partners, learned how to build stronger connections, and learned how to interact with others in ways that are often missing in the campus dynamic.

 

But we also witnessed the opposite. The longer we remained remote, the more isolated students seemed to become. We fielded a larger than normal number of team members complaining about other team members being unreachable, as they no longer were able to connect with their teams a few minutes before or after class when meeting in person. Whether it was “Zoom fatigue” or complicating issues in a student’s personal life, we can’t be sure why this occurred. It provided us an important opportunity to remind students that teamwork in the accounting profession is likely to remain geographically dispersed in the future.

 

NEW WAYS OF THINKING

 

The speed and impact of the pandemic’s onset forced all of us to change and adapt suddenly. Students had to develop new approaches to the challenges they suddenly faced, which sometimes required finding a new perspective on a problem.

 

Today’s graduates were challenged to become organized self-starters. Online learners must know how to organize and optimize their time. Many believe online learning offers students greater flexibility for their busy schedules. What they don’t realize is that with this flexibility comes a shift in responsibility for time management to the student, compared to in-person classes, which provide greater structure. To compound the issue, students had to simultaneously manage the intrusions of the pandemic into their personal lives. This places a strong emphasis on self-motivation and proactivity.

 

In the absence of the more structured classroom experience, they must hold themselves accountable for managing many different deadlines for deliverables. While many students rose to these challenges, we also saw some struggle mightily. Some of these students fell behind, and, as we have read, their performance and learning suffered. It remains to be seen whether the pandemic will have longer-reaching implications for those less able to adapt. For those who found a way to overcome the challenge, this experience has helped equip them for the demands for organization and time management in their professional capacity. This will deliver benefits for both internal and external clients who will enjoy better service from better-organized new hires.

 

Today’s graduates had to critically evaluate their ethical compass. With the sudden pivot to online learning, faculty had to rethink their assessment methods to focus more on higher-order thinking than rote memorization. Nonetheless, there was still a need for traditional examination as part of assessment. Since exams were administered online, students were tempted to cut ethical corners. As many of us have seen reported, some otherwise honest students succumbed to this temptation, and those who have been caught have caused grief and disappointment for their professors, peers, and family. Faculty have found themselves with many teachable moments to talk with students about dishonesty, including facing adverse consequences.

 

Students have also been forced to reckon with the reality that their unethical behavior can have unintended consequences for others, most notably for their classmates. Students are now better able to understand how good people do bad things, and they were forced to evaluate their own ethical compass. Our hope is that the small portion of students experiencing setbacks in this area will have learned crucial lessons about the importance of integrity, particularly given their choice of future profession. In addition, honest students have been shown the importance of reporting unethical behavior and might feel encouraged to do so in the future.

 

Today’s graduates are analytical thinkers. Pedagogical changes were triggered by the move to virtual instruction. To keep students connected, lecturing for the entire time was no longer a viable option. Many faculty used this as an opportunity to embrace the “flipped” classroom, where instructors record their lectures, students watch the recordings prior to coming to class, and class time is spent on problem solving, engaging in group discussions, or working through case studies.

 

In an online course, students spend more time engaged in content. Engaged learners are critical thinkers, and the more they engage with content, the more they ultimately learn. Here the class becomes an active learning environment where faculty can easily identify when students are struggling and clarify misunderstandings, thereby giving students the foundation to move from recognition and recall of information to application, analysis, and evaluation of information. These critical thinking skills will help them as accountants when they are asked to spot trends and irregularities, think through financial strategies, and solve complex accounting and business issues.

 

THE UNIQUE COVID COHORT

 

Attracting top talent is always a priority for businesses and organizations, and we believe the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 will continue to fill this need. These students have had immense disruption at the end of their academic journey, but many of them viewed this opportunity as a chance to learn and grow. To ensure the future of our profession, we strongly encourage organizations to make room for members of this population as their traits and skills have been enhanced by their COVID-19 experiences.

 

Admittedly, some students faced a tremendous amount of adversity during the pandemic and are likely to have gaps in their preparedness for the profession. Companies should be aware that some new employees are likely to need additional support not previously needed and should plan accordingly. But these students still have great potential for positively impacting the profession.

 

While some earlier graduates struggle to adapt, this tech-native population is thriving in remote work environments. Companies are rethinking what “normal” will look like after this pandemic has ended. This new normal will likely see companies encouraging, and clients expecting, more remote interaction. The past two years’ graduating classes have used the COVID-19 disruption as yet another life experience to shape them with the exact abilities needed to move the accounting profession forward.

 

Companies must be prepared to work with graduates to help them be ready to make their contribution. (See “Prepare the Workplace for the COVID Cohort.”) Organizations will need to prioritize identification of any gaps in technical skills and add additional professional development opportunities such as enhanced orientation or new-hire boot camps.

 

 

For graduates seeking professional certifications—e.g., the CMA® (Certified Management Accountant) or CPA (Certified Public Accountant)—companies might need to increase the resources available to help graduates prepare for the examinations. Also, students may have become accustomed to leniency of expectations during the pandemic as colleges and universities relaxed grading policies and professors were flexible with due dates. Organizations may need to remind graduates that expectations, deadlines, and time management are vital for success.

 

The fall 2021 semester likely won’t see higher education completely back to its normal operating rhythms. Many schools have announced mandatory vaccination as a condition for return to campus and will be eliminating or revising rules requiring mask wearing and social distancing. While most universities are preparing for in-person classes this fall, remote and hybrid options will likely be offered as a convenience to students who prefer it or who can’t get to campus. It will be imperative that universities learn from the past year as they navigate the return to school. They will need to consider issues related to both the technical aspects of course delivery as well as student-focused concerns. (See “Maintain High Academic Standards.”)

 

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From our students’ perspective, the continuation of this new educational experience for them provides an opportunity to exhibit resiliency during a unique time that’s full of ambiguity and uncertainty. As the accounting industry is rapidly evolving, we hope companies will make room for these students and graduates who have learned to thrive amidst continuous disruption. Their unique experiences have prepared them to play an integral role in the evolving accounting profession now and into the future.

 

Andrew C. Stuart, Ph.D., CPA, is an assistant professor of accounting at Suffolk University. He can be reached at astuart2@suffolk.edu.
Tracey J. Riley, Ph.D., CPA, is an associate professor of accounting at Suffolk University and associate dean for online programs at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School. She’s a member of IMA’s Boston Chapter. She can be reached at triley@suffolk.edu.
Stephen H. Fuller, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of accounting at Suffolk University. He can be reached at sfuller2@suffolk.edu.
Caitlin DeStefano, GCBF, is the former senior associate director of M.S. programs at Suffolk University. She can be reached at caitlindestefano@gmail.com.
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