When it comes to college planning, fund companies and consumers have been heard to utter the same lament: What does it take to find a financial advisor well versed in 529 plans and other college savings vehicles?
Joe Hurley, founder of Savingforcollege.com of Pittsford, N.Y., and College Funding of Plentywood, Mont., have joined forces to create the National Institute of Certified College Planners (NICCP). The institute offers a Certified College Planning Specialist (CCPS) designation, the nation's first professional education and certification program focused exclusively on college financial planning.
"College planning has been the ugly duckling of financial planning," said Rick Darvis, president of College Funding. "Everyone talks about retirement planning and estate planning, but college planning doesn't get the attention it deserves." Paying for college is often the first financial crisis a family faces, Darvis said, and with the cost of college outpacing inflation, it's a crisis many families are likely to face. "The demand for credible advice is stronger than ever," Darvis said.
Darvis expects that the CCPS certification will help to combat the misinformation that persists in the field of college planning. "Earning the CCPS is both a way for advisors to demonstrate their professional commitment to college planning and a road sign for investors trying to distinguish the truly qualified college planner from the novice advisor," he said.
According to Jeffrey Clark, chief operating officer of Savingforcollege.com, the CCPS designation is designed to give advisors the ability to look at a family's overall financial picture and help them save for college without jeopardizing their retirement savings.
"A lot of advisors do college planning and [are familiar with] 529s, but don't have a sense of how college planning fits in with retirement planning," Clark said. "This educational program should provide advisors with the [ability] to look at a client's entire financial picture and decide what products make the most sense." Investors who work with a financial planner who has obtained the CCPS designation can feel comfortable that they are up to date on the latest developments, Clark added.
Ultimately, Clark hopes the CCPS designation will raise the credibility of college financial planning as a specialty within financial planning. "College planning is important enough and there are increasingly more choices, so it makes sense for some advisors to become specialists in this field," he said.
Since NICCP launched the certification program on April 15, more than 50 advisors have enrolled in the program. "It's very much a struggle on the part of financial advisors to maintain a genuine understanding of the great variety of products they are required to sell. College planning is complex. Without solid training and expertise it's easy [to overlook] all the options investors have," Clark said.
How It Works
The CCPS program consists of three modules - Saving for College, Paying for College and Advanced College Funding Strategies. NICCP teaches the classes through a combination of online self-study materials and interactive teleconference training sessions. Testing is handled entirely online.
Once the CCPS designation is awarded, advisors must complete 12 hours of continuing education requirements each year to maintain the designation in good standing.
Candidates must be pre-qualified to enter the CCPS certification program. Minimum requirements include at least one of the following professional financial certification/designations: certified financial planner (CFP), registered financial consultant (RFC), chartered financial consultant (ChFC), chartered life underwriter (CLU), certified estate planner (CEP) or registered investment advisor (RIA). Alternatively, NICCP will consider a license in securities, insurance or accounting. If a candidate does not have any of the above credentials, the NICCP Advisory Council will review his or her education and experience.
Clark hopes that employees of mutual fund companies will also enroll in the CCPS program and possibly serve on the NICCP Advisory Council. Now that the institute has launched the certification program, its next step is to involve investment firms, universities and possibly even regulators.
"Reaching out in this way will raise both our credibility and the public's level of awareness," Clark said. "If this credential is as powerful as we hope it is, input from other industries can only help our cause."
Clark is not at the point of having a short list of potential additions to the council, but he expects to target executives from mutual fund companies that offer 529 plans.
As pleased as Clark and Darvis are with the response to the launch of the CCPS designation, they expect interest to grow once advisors discover that college financial planning is, according to Clark, "the ultimate lead generation tool for financial advisors."
"When it comes to funding college, many baby boomers have put themselves in a crisis situation," Clark said. "They haven't done any financial planning and can often find themselves desperate for an immediate solution. A Certified College Planning Specialist has an incredible opportunity to become the expert in investing for college and ultimately capture market share in the retirement planning market."