The Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards has decided that applicants for the coveted CFP mark must take a controversial 45-hour “capstone” course, starting next year, before being allowed to sit for the certification exam. Now there are signs that applicants for the designation are starting to crowd into the program in order to be grandfathered out of taking the course.

Last month 2,559 applicants took the two-day exam, a 30 percent increase from a year earlier and 19 percent more than those who took the test in March. Some officials at schools that offer the instruction programs that currently are prerequisites for the exam say they are seeing rising enrollments this year as the Jan. 1 deadline approaches. “I would expect that would continue,” says Prof. Michael Snowdon at the College for Financial Planning, who oversaw the design of the institution’s capstone class. “Given the nature of people, December is when everyone enrolls.” A similar spike in test applicants occurred in 2006 before the CFP board began requiring certificants to have a bachelor’s degree.

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The CFP board requires that applicants for the exam complete a minimum of 225 hours of instruction covering a variety of topics, including investing, retirement planning, estate planning, income tax, insurance and employee benefits. More than 200 schools and organizations provide such course work. Last year the board decided to up the requirement by mandating an additional 45-hour Financial Plan Development Course. Among other things, the course requires students to develop an actual financial plan based on a set of facts about a fictional client. The student also will have to prepare and perform an oral presentation of the plan.

Only students who begin their instruction programs after the start of 2012 will have to complete the capstone. “It is certainly difficult, because the student is going to be required to synthesize a lot of different content from across the curriculum,” says Dr. Charles Chaffin, who administers the registered programs for CFP. “They’re going to be thinking about how estate planning interacts with tax, and how tax may interact with investing. It’s kind of a different way of thinking, as opposed to having topics or subject areas in silos.” He likens the course to a student teaching program or a medical residency—“It is the closest thing we can do to imitate the profession in a learning environment.”

Chaffin said it isn’t clear that the enrollment increase and the jump in test-takers this year is an indication that people were trying to dodge the new requirement, although he conceded that some students may want to do so. “I think a lot of people are very excited we’re requiring this course,” he says.

When the CFP board first proposed the capstone several years ago, it drew criticism from some of the instruction providers, including the biggest: College for Financial Planning, The American College, and Kaplan University. All three schools plan to offer the capstone, although one Kaplan official last year estimated it would add another $1,000 to the cost of the program. Others questioned whether students need a practicum when many already were practicing in the financial planning field.

Snowdon, who also practices financial planning as well as teaches it, is still skeptical that the program can measure a student’s ability to practice financial planning. “It does little along the lines of what a practitioner really does,” he says. Most clients come to a planner with a particular need—preparing a savings plan for college, or a retirement plan, for example. A complete financial plan isn’t what they always want, Snowdon says. “As a planner, I need to have a hand on the whole picture, but that’s going to change,” he says. “For me to do a full-blown financial plan for somebody, present it to them, is a waste of time.”

Not everyone among the instruction providers agrees. Joyce Schnur, vice president at Kaplan and the product line leader for CFP instruction, said that having the CFP mark on an advisor’s business card isn’t the only benefit. “Quite frankly, the benefit is the education, because the education can immediately be put into practice. And as soon as you can put it into practice and you can be that most trusted advisor and the go-to person for your client, that’s going to create a sense of confidence in your clients,” she says —confidence that leads to referrals.

Still, enrollment at CFP courses this year is up by double digits over a year ago, she adds.

Just 25 institutions have been certified by CFP to offer the capstone, although Chaffin says that number is about where he expected to be now. CFP has reviewed another 100 institutions’ programs and expects to approve them before year’s end. Since it’s a capstone, there’s no immediate need to have the courses running early in the year. Some schools that offer Web-based CFP instruction are trying to work around the portion of the capstone that requires the student to formally present it to an instructor. Some may schedule special sessions at rented locations, or they may allow the presentation to be made live over the Web itself.

More than 63,000 advisors hold the CFP designation.