At colleges and universities across the country, a pragmatic alliance between professors and advisors is taking shape.

To ensure that their students are receiving the real-life skills they need to succeed, the faculty and administrators in charge of these schools’ financial planning curriculums are working closely with local advisors to repurpose their programs. The mutual objective is to prepare the schools’ graduates to walk out of their classrooms and into jobs at nearby wealth management firms.

“We are always listening,” says Vickie Hampton, chairwoman of the financial planning department at Texas Tech University. To help fine-tune the Lubbock, Texas, school’s coursework, “there are number of ways advisors can be influential,” she says. These include classroom visits and attending school and alumni board events.

Likewise, Ann Coulson is attuned to advisors’ ideas about the planning curriculum at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. “The numbers are the easy part; that’s what advisors tell us,” says Coulson, an assistant professor.

Less technical, softer communication skills have proved more elusive, Coulson says, so practicing advisors have consistently asked her to place greater emphasis on selling and marketing. In response, about 18 months ago, Kansas State began requiring its financial planning students to take a marketing course offered by the business school.

Such requests are coming from advisors like Ray Padrón, president of Brightworth, an Atlanta-based planning firm with $1.3 billion in assets under management. He sees recent planning graduates as deficient in marketing know-how and would like them to have a better grasp “of how to ask — not tell — clients about their financial planning needs,” but to do so in a persuasive manner that “effectively steers them where they need to go.”

Padrón is also critical of recent graduates’ technology skills, perceiving a gap between what universities are teaching and what the industry needs. As technology becomes ever more important to the industry, “that gap,” the advisor says, “is becoming more acute.”

In Padrón’s view, “universities have come a long way in the past 10 years, but there are still weaknesses.” To correct those, he would like to see schools sponsor intramural competitions along the lines of the television series Shark Tank. Students would be presented with a wide range of planning software tools and would then vie to formulate the best possible plan based on an actual case study. Practicing advisors, like the “Sharks” on the reality TV show, would critique the plans and choose a winner.

Laila Pence of Pence Wealth Management in Newport Beach, Calif., agrees that schools need to beef up students’ experiences outside the classroom. The advisor, who has $1.3 billion in assets under management, proposes adding real assets to the mock portfolios that students manage.

How do universities respond to such ideas?

In a word: favorably.

REAL-WORLD EDUCATION

Richard Burnes, the program director for UCLA Extension’s financial management programs, welcomes the idea of going outside the classroom. “We are looking at making changes with a workshop-type model,” he says.

Kristine Beck, program director for financial planning at California State University in Northridge, Calif., also favors exposing students to more real-world experiences. One way is with the campus’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, through which students will offer planning advice and assistance with tax preparation to low-income families.

Universities are also receiving down-to-earth input from recent graduates. Among the practicing advisors whose input Kansas State’s Coulson relies on to revamp her curriculum is Marc Shaffer, who graduated from the university’s planning program 10 years ago and is now a principal at Searcy Financial Services, a $170 million AUM advisory in Overland Park, Kan.

Shaffer recalls, “I was very well-prepared for the CFP exam, but there were things I remember thinking I wish I had learned.” He welcomed Kansas State’s recent decision to add a marketing course requirement to the program. “You need to know how to sell your ideas,” he says.

He has other course requirements he would like to see Kansas State add. Among those: tax courses. After he graduated from Kansas State, Shaffer bolstered his own tax-advising knowledge through further training elsewhere.

Advisors who believe they can positively influence the curriculum of a university’s planning program should take the initiative and reach out to the proper parties.

“We have to know you exist,” Texas Tech’s Hampton says. She notes that when advisors call to tell her their thoughts and ideas, it really does have an impact — particularly when she hears the same criticism repeatedly. 

Cash also speaks volumes. “Some firms will offer scholarships,” Hampton adds. “We always like money.” Advisors may choose to contribute scholarship money in part to get access to hire the best graduates from a planning program.

At least three classes offered at Texas Tech have grown out of practicing advisors’ suggestions, Hampton says. The school has a range of CFP Board-registered programs, from undergraduate diplomas to Ph.Ds.

After advisors suggested that graduates needed better communication and counseling skills, the school created its capstone course, in which each student develops a comprehensive financial plan. In 2005, advisors told faculty members that Texas Tech graduates needed more technological expertise, specifically in financial planning software. Out of those discussions, Texas Tech developed a course to help students acquire that knowledge, Hampton says.

More recently, advisors have asserted that graduates needed better selling skills. “Even though firms aren’t selling products, it takes marketing and sales skills to help clients develop financial planning programs,” Hampton says. Three years ago, Texas Tech began requiring students to take a sales and marketing course.
Change doesn’t come at lightning speed. “It takes six months to a year to get a new course on the books, and getting new faculty takes even more time,” Hampton says.

Two graduates of Texas Tech have joined Abacus Planning Group, says Cheryl Holland, founder of the Columbia, S.C., advisory firm, with $836 million in assets under management. Both have entered the firm’s partnership track.

In general, Holland likes hiring a mix of liberal arts majors and graduates of financial planning programs. Planning program graduates “know what they’re engaging in,” she says. They know how to work as a team, develop analytics and “they’ve had exposure to the soft people skills.” 

Miriam Rozen, a Financial Planning contributing writer, is a staff reporter at Texas Lawyer in Dallas.

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