A Profession? Or a Trade?
Part of the problem lies in the perception of the industry as a trade, rather than a profession. For lack of any other institution granting legitimacy to these programs, the CFP Board is, in a sense, a de facto accreditation group. The curriculum taught at the degree programs must be based, in part, on the CFP exam in order to be registered, so the schools act as a funnel of students to the designation.
“Institutions are looking for third-party validation of their programs of study across all disciplines,” Chaffin says. “This validation, coming from CFP Board as program registration, offers oversight as well as suggestions designed to improve program sustainability and student achievement.”
“The CFP Board is the right sanctioning body for programs that are going to be developing people to take the CFP exam,” Pfeiffer says. “But that’s different than the industry having a consortium of the many stakeholders—an independent body to promote the professional financial advisor performing in any channel—sanction these programs.”
There already is a process for the regulators to supervise the business, he says. Instead, the industry needs a governing organization that is going to educate and attract candidates to the business and condone these programs based on industry-wide standards, Pfeiffer says.
The CFP Board keeps standards admirably high. It requires universities and colleges to provide a four-year program for undergraduate degrees in financial planning, with a minimum of 15 hours worth of coursework. Recommended coursework encompasses 78 topics that are seen as necessary competencies, including financial planning fundamentals, estate planning, taxation, insurance planning and securities analysis, among others.
Faculty should have appropriate graduate degrees or, alternatively, a CFP certification and a bachelor’s degree in a related field, according to the CFP Board registration criteria. Finding advanced degree holders can be difficult: There are only five schools registered with the CFP offering Ph.D.s in financial planning. Schools must submit a 50-page application to the Board for review.
But what if a school fails to requalify and the Board refuses to approve the program? Not much. “When students choose this major, it’s not because it’s a Board-certified program,” says Purdue undergraduate Academic Advisor Margaret Story, noting she suspects student enrollment would not significantly drop as a result. While registering with the Board makes the school accountable to a higher set of standards, Story says that there’s little practical impact on students and their potential job prospects. “They can go on the good graces of Purdue’s name.”
The University of Georgia’s director agrees, saying if it lost its registration with the CFP Board, there wouldn’t be any consequences for students. “They would still be hired with or without it,” Grable says.
Almost 70 percent of students with a bachelor’s or master’s in financial planning had not yet taken the CFP exam, according to an August study conducted by the Board and San Diego State University of over 500 students.
Part of that low percentage may be the $600 cost to take the exam, as well as review courses that cost from $800 to $1,000, and the fact that the students need three years of full-time experience.
“The reality is, Wells Fargo, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, UBS, Edward Jones and Raymond James will hire a student with or without a CFP, so what’s the incentive?” Grable says.
Regardless of where the structure comes from, proponents of advisor education say more attention has to be paid to colleges and universities as a source of educated planners that share a common body of knowledge and standards. “We’re in the very early stages of a dramatic expansion. There’s never been more people, more investors, in need of quality financial advice from a qualified professional,” Pfeiffer says.