For Harvard, No Accounting 101

In Professor Christopher F. Noe’s accounting class at MIT, nearly a third of his students are from out of town—or, well, down the street. Indeed, roughly 45 Harvard students trekked down Mass. Ave. this semester to take “Corporate Financial Accounting and Reporting” at MIT, according to the Harvard Registrar’s Office.

But while this number has held steady over the past few years, Harvard administrators and professors say that an accounting class at the College is not being considered, despite the complaints of some students.

“It would be so much more convenient if Harvard offered an accounting course,” said Nicole M. Evangelista ’06, an economics concentrator who made the trip to Kendall Square twice a week this fall.

Still, the director of undergraduate studies for the economics department, Benjamin M. Friedman, said that an accounting course would not fit into his department. “The simple answer is that accounting is accounting, and that is not economics. And therefore our department does not teach it,” he said.

Other Ivy League schools take a different approach. At Yale and Columbia, accounting is offered to undergraduates through the economics department. Princeton has a certificate program for undergraduates in financial engineering that offers undergraduates upper-level corporate finance courses—including such topics as corporate restructuring and portfolio management—in addition to accounting.

The director of undergraduate studies for Yale’s economics department, Professor Robert E. Evenson, said that demand for their accounting course is high. “If accounting is well-taught,” he said, “it’s as demanding as any other course.”

DOES IT ALL ADD UP?

Samita A. Mannapperuma ’06, a Harvard economics concentrator, said that she decided to take accounting for its practical uses in investment banking.

“Accounting is hands-down the most useful class for my job after graduation,” said Mannapperuma, who is also a Crimson editor.

Noe, who teaches the accounting course at MIT, echoed that sentiment.

“If you go into careers like investment banking, accounting is something you will see on a day-to-day basis,” Noe said. “It is good to have some training in it.”

Mannapperuma said that the opportunity to cross-register at MIT was a good change of pace from Harvard’s liberal arts offerings.

“The way classes are taught at MIT is very different,” she said. “You can engage with the professor in a conversation and debate. At Harvard, economics lectures are PowerPoint, and that’s about it.”

According to Noe, the introductory course at MIT—which is taught through the Sloan School of Management—deals with the basics of financial statements, financial accounting, and basic financial statement analysis. None of those topics are covered in the two finance-related courses offered through Harvard’s economics department, “Capital Markets” and “Corporate Finance.”

Harvard’s Professor Emeritus of Business Administration William J. Bruns Jr. said that the lack of an accounting course at the College raises the question of whether the College does a “disservice to undergraduate students” by not offering the course.

“To not have a course in financial accounting and financial analysis is very seriously wrong for the department of economics because so much of economic data comes through the accounting system,” Bruns said.

Friedman, the director of undergraduate studies for Harvard’s economics department, said that undergraduates could get their accounting fix at the University’s graduate schools.

“The business school offers a perfectly good accounting course, and the people who teach that could potentially teach it for undergraduates as well,” he says. “Or, there could be a group of people offering accounting in a similar way as expository writing.”

Expository writing is currently a requirement for freshmen at the College.

But Williston Professor of Business Administration Paul M. Healy, who teaches accounting at the Business School, said that undergraduates would not fit easily into his class.

“The course here is designed for grad students with experience,” Healy said. “The whole setup here in terms of sections would make it very difficult to fit undergrads into the program.”

ON THE MARKET

Most students say they need accounting skills to compete for jobs with graduates from other schools. But Director of Harvard’s Office of Career Services Bill Wright-Swadel said that the lack of an accounting course at the undergraduate level does not put Harvard students at a disadvantage once they get on the job market.

“I don’t discourage an accounting course, but it needs to fit in with a broader range of academic courses,” he said. “It can be a great credential, but most employers are looking for skills in quantitative analysis and problem-solving. Accounting doesn’t demonstrate that any more effectively than becoming involved as a treasurer of a student organization or a volunteer for a non-profit.”

Andrew B. Paik ’07, an economics concentrator who is enrolled in MIT’s accounting class, said that he doesn’t think that Harvard should offer its own version of the course.

“Harvard has always been about liberal arts and teaching students how to think, and I think it does a good job doing that,” said Paik. “If you offer an accounting class, people are going to want a marketing class. It would be a push toward a business education at Harvard, and I don’t see that happening.”

—Staff writer Kathleen Pond can be reached at kpond@fas.harvard.edu.