It’s Not Just Ledgers and Balance Sheets Anymore: How the Illinois iMSA Program Prepares Students for Modern Accounting

It’s Not Just Ledgers and Balance Sheets Anymore: How the Illinois iMSA Program Prepares Students for Modern Accounting

The evolving field of accounting presents new opportunities for data-savvy students

Data science is changing the skills required to be a successful modern-day accountant. The University of Illinois’ online MSA program (iMSA) helps those interested in an accounting or finance career master new tools and capitalize on the exciting opportunities created by this evolution.

Accounting is rapidly changing as it transitions from measurement and process to playing an exciting and integral role in the world’s top organizations. Accountants are now expected to function as critical decision-makers, leveraging data science tools to inform company direction and overall strategy.

As new technologies enable accountants to expand their impact across organizations, these jobs are expected to grow 10 percent by 2026 — faster than the average for all occupations. The focus is not necessarily to turn accountants into data scientists, but to instead provide them with the ability to work more effectively with highly technical colleagues.

“The analogy is language,” says Robert Brunner, Associate Dean for Innovation and Chief Disruption Officer at Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who is leading a campus-wide effort to integrate data science across curricula. “You could get by speaking English working in a foreign country, but you’d be more productive if you spoke the language.”

By 2020, nearly 60 percent of employers believe data science and analytics skills will be necessary for finance and accounting managers, according to a 2016 survey. Aspiring and current accountants must learn these new tools in order to future-proof themselves and adapt to a changing field. “It’s critically important to realize artificial intelligence and automation are coming,” says Brunner. “You really run the risk of being replaced, or at a minimum having some of your job automated, if you don’t adapt.”

The University of Illinois Master of Science in Accountancy (MSA) program is ranked among the top three accounting programs in the U.S., and it is an affordable way to prepare for the ongoing evolution in accounting and finance. Better yet, the online program — the iMSA — provides students the flexibility to prepare for the future while maintaining their current employment and apply their recent learnings to their job.

The iMSA specifically emphasizes the application of data science to help businesses uncover valuable insights, identify process improvements to increase efficiency, and better manage organizational risk. “Data is disrupting entire industries,” says Brunner. “You can see that we are just at the beginning of this new path, [and data science] is going to be critical going forward.”

Already, the university is hearing from employers about the value the MSA and iMSA programs provide. “Companies are now telling people to do the master’s program and the data science track within it when, before, they were unsure whether it was worth it at all,” Brunner says.

MSA students can anticipate incredible career opportunities upon graduation, as companies are struggling to find talent with the right blend of accounting and technical skills. In fact, CFOs cited hiring among their top three concerns in a recent Deloitte study. “Data science empowers professionals to have a lot more input in the decision-making processes,” says Vinod Bakthavachalam, a senior data scientist at Coursera. “By using data, you can justify and drive better decisions.”

Auditors, for example, can shift from a sample-based model to continuous monitoring of large datasets, thereby decreasing the margin of error and allowing them to make more precise recommendations. Accountants who work as investment advisers can use big data to find behavioral patterns that inform investment decisions, while automation through machine learning can be applied to a wide array of repetitive daily tasks.

A former Illinois student, for example, reported back to Professor Brunner that he was able to automate a large-scale text analysis process that formerly took weeks of human labor using the skills he gained in the iMSA program. In the future, similar projects will take mere days or even hours.

To those familiar with the accounting world, it is no surprise that Illinois is leading the charge to innovate within accounting. The Gies Business Department of Accountancy is one of the largest suppliers of leaders in the accounting profession, and it has consistently been at the forefront of curriculum innovation, design, and advancement. Its focus on data science within accounting is a continuation of this legacy.

iMSA students build expertise in the fundamentals of accounting, such as financial reporting, audit and control, and US federal taxation. They supplement these core studies with classes like data analytics in accountancy and statistical analyses in accountancy. These courses provide the ability to apply domain knowledge and data science tools to practical business applications.

The focus isn’t on producing fully-trained computer scientists, but on giving students exposure to the most important areas. One accounting student took two data science courses as part of her elective choices and then successfully participated in a hackathon with computer science majors, according to Brunner. “She was quite amazed she was able to hold her own with people for whom this is their chosen career,” he says.  

The academic rigor and faculty interactions of the iMSA are the same as what students expect from on-campus programs, but the iMSA caters to learners who need flexibility and convenience in order to balance work and other obligations with academic life.

Starting at $22,000, the cost of the degree is extremely low when you consider the growing importance of the skills developed through the program. “We are trying to future-proof the students we train so they can work in the way the world is now, but also in the way the world will be in the next five to ten years,” says Brunner.