For decades, the field of accounting has struggled to attract and retain a diverse workforce. Securing diverse mentorship and generating an early interest in the profession have been barriers to increasing the number of Black accounting professionals, according to The CPA Journal.

Although the number of Asian and Hispanic accountants has increased over the past 20 years, there’s still a disproportionately low number of Black accountants and CPAs. In 2018, only 4% of professional staff accountants and 2% of CPAs were Black, according to a recent report from the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA).

Establishing and maintaining diversity within the greater workforce should start in higher education, where young professionals gain the knowledge — and connections — needed for a successful career trajectory. But, according to a 2019 AICPA report, between 2017 and 2018, only 10% of undergraduate students and 7% of master’s students enrolled in accounting programs were Black.

To help increase these numbers, the SMU Cox School of Business has been involved in a community partnership for several years.

Viewing diversity in graduate programs as essential to producing a forward-thinking, inclusive workforce, the School has long worked to create a more diverse environment on campus, through efforts such as supporting student-led organizations, volunteer work and partnerships with professional organizations.

This year, the School took its efforts a step further in creating the Nora O’Garro/Odell Brown ACAP Scholarship.

From Partnership to Scholarship

One of the University’s most notable initiatives is its 16-year partnership with Dallas Accounting Career Awareness Program (ACAP), a one-week accounting, finance, economics and management residency program for underrepresented high schoolers held on campus every summer. O’Garro and Brown, the scholarship’s namesakes, are the program’s founder/director and executive director, respectively.

The scholarship serves as an extension of SMU Cox’s deep commitment to ACAP. SMU Cox has provided the program’s classrooms, campus instructors and student volunteers since 2004. Since then, Dallas ACAP has grown from 20 student participants to approximately 60 per year. Beyond the weeklong summer session, the School helps host various National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) events and facilitates student networking opportunities.

The purpose of the $10,000 award is to encourage graduate studies while alleviating economic obstacles by making the School’s graduate accounting degree more accessible to low-income students of color who have attended ACAP.

The scholarship has another goal, says Steve Denson, SMU Cox’s Director of Diversity. “We needed to build an incentive into the program,” Denson says, noting that many Dallas ACAP alumni were choosing to enroll in other colleges and universities. “[Since it is] an SMU Cox partnership program, we were hoping that more of these students would come to SMU for their undergraduate degree or come back to SMU Cox for their Master’s in Accounting.”

The new scholarship is awarded to all Dallas ACAP alumni who enroll in SMU Cox’s nine-month Master of Science in Accounting program, regardless of where they completed their undergraduate degree. “It increases our outreach by bringing these students back to SMU, and back to Cox, to participate in our graduate program,” Denson says.

Ashlee Jones, a 2015 and 2016 Dallas ACAP alumna, was named as the new scholarship’s first recipient earlier this summer. “Dallas ACAP was my first time being surrounded by a large amount of minority students who had goals similar to mine,” Jones says. “ACAP helped develop my leadership skills. This scholarship will help alleviate some of my graduate student loans and will help me focus less on working to pay for school and more on excelling in the program.”

Breaking Barriers to Success

So, why aren’t Black students studying accounting?

Socioeconomic status is at times a limitation for some students of color wanting to pursue higher education within disciplines such as accounting — a hurdle that the School’s new scholarship hopes to help clear. But Nora O’Garro and Odell Brown say a lack of mentorship and a failure to generate interest among young Black students are also impediments to encouraging more Black accountants and CPAs.

When O’Garro and Brown started Dallas ACAP in 2001, they hoped to encourage underrepresented high school students to become accountants and CPAs, eventually improving diversity and inclusion within the field. It was a way to give younger generations something they didn’t have prior to entering the accounting profession in the 1970s: mentors, leadership and networking opportunities.

“I never had any Black accounting professors, so my role models in accounting came when I joined NABA back in ’75 and started in public accounting,” Brown says. “That became my passion — to mentor young people and try to steer them toward accounting.”

A first-generation college student, O’Garro realized that Black students weren’t encouraged to pursue “more prominent disciplines” such as accounting. “If they were like me, there was nobody in their circle of influence that was there to tell them that those opportunities existed,” she says. “ACAP was the perfect program for me to champion and really change that.”

With assistance from SMU Cox, other corporate partners, organizations, the community and NABA’s co-sponsorship, Dallas ACAP has proven effective in encouraging more than 900 students to pursue an undergraduate degree. About 80% of participants attend college and major in accounting or other business-related disciplines, which is encouraging news for business schools like SMU Cox that are actively working toward tangible D&I initiatives.

“Black people are historically underrepresented in accounting for many reasons,” says Greg Sommers, accounting professor and director of SMU’s MSA program. “Over my years working with and supporting Dallas ACAP, I have seen Nora’s and Odell’s passion for these students. My idea for the scholarship was to take their efforts a step further and plant a seed while the students are still in high school and not just college. Of course, we want the ACAP alums in our master’s program at SMU Cox, but even if they go somewhere else, it’s a win for the profession.”

How Diversity Can Build a Better Future

A diverse student body gives corporations a robust talent pool from which to hire, strengthening their ability to respond to varying situations and demands, according to Denson. “When you have a diversity of perspectives — a diversity of everything from ethnicity to socioeconomic experiences,” he says, “you have a better ability to problem-solve on a more global scale.”

Denson says diversity within graduate programs has a positive impact on everyone involved. “The presence of a diverse student body helps the majority as well as the minority,” he adds. “Otherwise, you have companies not willing to look at you [for recruiting].”

In the corporate world, there’s potential financial growth when companies make a commitment to D&I efforts. Companies invested in increasing diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns “above their respective national industry medians,” according to McKinsey & Company’s 2015 “Diversity Matters” report.

Investing in diversity and inclusion initiatives within higher education is an ethically sound endeavor. And the empirical impact can positively alter society by leveling the proverbial playing field of opportunities and helping high-potential, low-income students achieve economic equality.

“A lot of times, when you’re helping one student, you’re initiating a sort of domino effect to help an entire family, which in turn has a beneficial ripple effect on society as a whole,” Denson says. “As we recruit in communities of color, we should be mindful to make our footprint a positive one.”

Click here to learn more about the SMU Cox School of Business’ diversity and inclusion initiatives.