The numbers are clear enough: Boston College graduates racked up an overall pass rate of 72 percent, on the CPA exam in 2014. That compares with a little under 50% among those who took the rigorous exam nationally. In addition, 55% of Boston College’s accounting graduates went straight to work at one of the Big 4 accounting firms.
To understand why they do so well, it helps to look at the accounting curriculum at Boston College – and at professors like Billy Soo.
“One of the reasons why firms like our graduates so much is precisely their ability to think about accounting in a very broad way,” says Soo, who chairs the accounting department at the Carroll School of Management. “Any school can teach the technical part of accounting, but understanding the bigger picture, what the business strategy is, what the incentives are for managers, that’s harder.”
For example, Soo points to a class he teaches - Financial Statement Analysis, a required course for those pursuing the Master of Science in Accounting degree. Highly interactive, the class is based largely on case studies and group discussion of questions such as why a given company adopted a particular accounting policy.
Usually, there’s no “exact answer” to questions raised by the case studies, the professor says. And that’s a valuable lesson of its own.
“One of the mistaken understandings of accounting is that it’s just black and white - that there’s only one way to record income, or one way to calculate the value of a firm,” Soo notes. “But in reality, there’s a lot of judgment involved, a lot of assumptions behind every choice a company makes. And there’s a lot of strategy in accounting.”
That’s how Boston College teaches accounting, and the best firms are looking for students who understand accounting in this way, Soo adds.
Of course, accounting students at Boston College also learn the technical stuff. They take classes in which there are, in fact, exact answers to the questions. A case in point is Financial Accounting Practice, which is geared to MSA students whose undergraduate major was not accounting. The two-course sequence deals with such technically complicated topics as pensions, leases, and stock options.
“That’s one thing I like about our program. The classes are very different. They push you in different directions, but give you a very balanced view of accounting,” Soo says.
But the professor adds that what he likes most about the program at Boston College is the way the students “challenge you to be a better teacher.” He explains, “You could push them a lot, and they’ll take it. They’ll push you to do better, to work harder, to challenge them even more.”
Evidently, the top accounting firms like the program too. They hold barbecues and other events on campus as part of their stepped-up recruitment efforts at Boston College.
“Think about a college football program that places half of its players in the National Football League,” Soo suggests. And you’ll get a sense of what it’s like to place at least half of your students in the Big 4 every year, as Boston College does.
The graduates find that they’re well prepared not only for those next steps—but also for the many steps down the road.
Soo points out, for example, that three of the four service lines at Ernst & Young are led by vice chairs who are Boston College accounting graduates. They’re where they are because they understand “the bigger picture.”
Professor Billy Soo is both highly accomplished in the world of accounting and an invaluable member of the Boston College Carroll School of Management community. Prior to his time at BC, Professor Soo worked for the accounting firm SGV & Co. (previously a part of Anderson Worldwide and now a member of Ernst & Young Global). He also earned his CPA in the Philippines. Today, Professor Soo teaches all levels of financial accounting and financial statement analysis to undergraduates, graduates and executives. His research interests include: audit markets and auditor tenure, disclosure incentives, and managers’ and equity market’s responses to financial regulations.