Take the Practicum Plunge

Overcome obstacles to giving students real-world accounting experience.

December 13, 2016

One of the best ways to learn accounting is on the job—which is one reason some faculty members partner with firms and companies to have students learn accounting in a real-world setting. At the University of Kentucky, for example, students conduct internal audits for organizations in partnership with local firms such as Dean Dorton. At North Carolina State University, graduate students taking the Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) practicum course work in small teams to perform risk assessments for organizations.

Yet, as enticing as such real-world projects may sound, the prospect of allowing your students to handle a real organization’s finances and strategic challenges can be daunting. What if they make mistakes or fail to complete tasks? How will you find businesses to partner with? And how will you track their progress and grade the project?

“In a classroom, I have a lot of control,” noted Urton Anderson, Ph.D., director and EY Professor of Accountancy at the University of Kentucky, whose students perform some of the audits under Dean Dorton guidance. “In a practicum, I have to understand I have much less control because I’m much more subject to the client.”

Flexibility is a must in this kind of environment, he said: “Sometimes I learn things I couldn’t have anticipated, and I have to be willing to change on the fly.”

If you’ve been contemplating adding a practicum component to your classes, know that it’s not as challenging as it might sound. Anderson; Bill Kohm, CPA, director of assurance services at Dean Dorton; and Mark Beasley, CPA, Ph.D., director of the ERM initiative and Deloitte Professor of Enterprise Risk Management at N.C. State, offer some advice:

Start small. Prior to creating an independent program, Beasley piloted the idea as part of a class. “It was a way for me to test drive the idea and learn about some of the road bumps,” he said.

Obtain administrative buy-in. Beasley said it’s important to help administrators understand how your program can benefit students and your institution. Explain the benefits of real-world experience for students, how the project can help boost the university’s image in the corporate world, and how it can boost student placement after graduation, he said.

Tap your network to find businesses to work with. Both Anderson and Beasley agree that finding organizations to work with will be the hardest part of initiating your new project. But networking can open doors.

Anderson met Kohm after giving a presentation to the Central Kentucky Chapter of the Institute of Internal Auditors, of which Kohm is a member. Kohm, who also serves as audit committee chair for the YMCA of Central Kentucky, saw how Anderson’s projects could benefit the YMCA. “I pitched the idea to the YMCA, and they loved it,” Kohm recalled.

Kohm said when faculty consider starting up a similar project, they’ll want to get out in the business community and meet people.

“You have to have visibility,” he said. “If Dr. Anderson hadn’t come to speak, we never would’ve met.”

While networking, Beasley keeps a one-pager about the initiative on hand to share with potential clients to help them better understand the concept. Organizations that partner with ERM practicum students are charged a minimal fee, hence the term “clients.” At the University of Kentucky, partner organizations do not pay a fee.

Make sure both parties are clear about expectations. Once an organization is on board, it’s important to set expectations, Beasley said. He does so by providing clients with a one- to two-page scope document outlining both parties’ responsibilities.

Both University of Kentucky and N.C. State students draft engagement letters outlining deadlines and deliverables, which are reviewed and signed by partner organizations.

Designate a point of contact. Beasley recommends choosing one person on the client side to be the point-person responsible for setting up interviews within the organization and responding to requests for information.

Have a backup plan. Give some thought to how you’ll handle students’ grades and assignments if a partner organization backs out of the project midway through the semester. Neither Beasley nor Anderson has had this happen. However, Beasley speculated that if it did, he would see if it would be possible to re-scope the project and have students move forward with a smaller piece of it. In the worst-case scenario, he said, he would likely divert his students to a research-based project involving case studies.

Be legally covered. Be sure to adhere to any confidentiality or legal requirements the organization and your institution may have. In most cases, this simply means students and faculty must sign any nondisclosure forms the partner organization may use, Anderson said.

Both Anderson and Beasley said they’ve encountered very few instances where additional measures were needed beyond the nondisclosure agreement. For instance, Anderson did have a client ask that sensitive information not be presented by a student group to their class, while Beasley recalled one instance where a client asked that all data be stored on one laptop that remained in an office at the university. But both professors said the initial engagement letter and scope documents can outline any restrictions the client wants to put in place.

Plan the projects. Anderson and Beasley both create timelines for the projects in tandem with students, which they then use to grade the students and track their progress. They build in specific milestones students must meet along the way, which often include hosting a kickoff meeting, developing an engagement letter, developing an interview script for the client, setting meetings with the client, and scheduling the final presentation.

Build in flexibility. Beasley and Anderson both suggest creating a project outline with general dates— i.e., “students will be on-site during the third or fourth week of January”—rather than specific deadliness, to allow wiggle room in case the project falls a few days behind.

Communicate with students frequently. In real-world projects, it’s especially important to stay in close contact with students. Beasley meets weekly with his students for updates and stresses the importance of keeping him informed about any problems or setbacks—and even makes such feedback part of students’ grades.

Finally, don’t hesitate to try a practicum. Beasley encourages faculty to not feel overwhelmed and to see it as an opportunity to give students on-the-job experience they’ll take forward with them in the classroom and in their careers.

“Beyond the real-world experience, students gain a lot of knowledge about companies that feeds back into the classroom discussion,” he said. “And it gives students a richer perspective on real-world issues.”

Lea Hart is a Durham, N.C.-based freelance writer. To comment on this story, email lead editor Courtney Vien.

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