In the 1987 film "The Untouchables," federal agent Elliot Ness rescues gangster Al Capone's accountant, who knows too much, from certain...

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In the 1987 film “The Untouchables,” federal agent Elliot Ness rescues gangster Al Capone’s accountant, who knows too much, from certain death.

The accountant is a mousy little man with glasses, perpetually clutching a thick leather briefcase to his chest.

“I hate that,” said Terrie L. Riportella, director of the accounting and business department at Elizabethtown University. “That image of the pencil-pusher. They’re out there, but they are not the ones moving rapidly along a career path.”

Forget the stereotype.

Accounting is cool, say Riportella and others in the field.

Apparently, a lot of students think so, too.

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants said in May that more than 64,000 students graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting in 2006-07. It was the largest number of graduates in the 36 years the institute has been tracking such data. That figure is 19 percent greater than the one reported in the previous survey, which covered the 2003-04 school year.

At the same time, more than 203,000 students enrolled in accounting programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, a 19 percent increase since 2004.

Demand for people with accounting backgrounds has grown in part out of the Enron, WorldCom and other corporate scandals at the beginning of the decade.

The federal Sarbanes-Oxley law, also known as the Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act of 2002, put more stringent auditing and reporting requirements on publicly held companies.

Those requirements punched up the demand for accountants and auditors of every stripe, Riportella said.

“It is a big item in the corporate world, documenting and testing for control. It’s very costly,” she said.

“I like to think that accounting is a gateway. It gets you in a door,” Riportella said. “You need to be able to understand people and the impact of their decisions.”

Lindsay Crouse, who graduated this year from Penn State University with a degree in accounting, said she became enamored of the subject because she loves solving problems.

She is studying for her CPA exam and is slated to start working for the KPMG accounting firm next month.

Crouse got the accounting bug while in high school in Duncannon, Pa.

“It turned out that I was good at it,” she said. “The little experience I’ve had has shown me the diversity of the work that comes along with accounting. It’s not just bookkeeping and basic accounting. You can have a huge impact … through the consulting you give to the corporations you’re working with.”

Crouse will be an auditor at her new job.

“The job is to look at a business’ statements and controls and test them to see if they’re working properly,” she said. “You can advise them if what they’re doing is the best way to do it. … There are so many interesting things you can specialize in.”

So, what’s to like? Plenty, if you enjoy giving your brain a workout, she said.

“I always liked math. I always liked taking the pieces to a problem, putting them together and solving it. That’s a majority of what we do on a daily basis,” she said. “There are certain things you have to know how to do, and then you’re one of the few people who know how to do them, and that’s kind of neat.”

Wade Becker, 38, is a partner in the audit and accounting services group in the Harrisburg, Pa., office of Beard, Miller Co.

He is also a scuba diver and a pilot who owns shares of two airplanes. Oh, and he is a marathon runner.

Not much of a pencil-pusher.

“I missed qualifying for the Boston Marathon by 58 seconds,” he said, with CPA-like exactitude.

Accounting “is the language of business,” he said. “A lot of people think it’s just numbers, but it’s really a lot more than that. There are a lot of areas outside of numbers that need to be looked at, processes and procedures, what the tone of the company is.”

Accounting will take you in just about any direction in a company, he added.

“If you’re diligent about the profession, it provides you with the financial awards to do things like that. A lot of us work to live, not live to work,” he said.