As the standard-setting body for CFP professionals, the CFP Board has a critical role in shaping the financial planning profession. Along with the FPA, it has laid the foundation for the past 25 years for the recognition of financial planning and it has worked admirably in enforcing the standards for CFP professionals.

An important part of its charge is regulating the more than 1,200 continuing education providers to ensure quality professional education is offered to the more than 68,000 CFP professionals across the country. FPA, and our 93 chapters, appreciate the CFP Board’s role of keeping CE quality as high as possible through appropriate development and enforcement of rules and standards. It is a vital activity that is needed to keep CFP professionals well-trained for the benefit of the public.

But why would the CFP Board entertain the idea of entering the CE marketplace as a provider themselves?

FPA learned in March 2013 that the CFP Board was contemplating entering the CE provider business to help elevate the overall CE quality in the profession. As the organization that represents and provides a voice to many CFP professionals, FPA has taken on the primary responsibility of addressing this issue to help the CFP Board understand that this potential foray into the CE marketplace is a bad idea that could cause irreparable damage to the CFP designation and the future of the profession.

If the CFP Board were to enter a competitive landscape with more than 1,200 CE providers -- a list that includes the FPA -- it would raise serious conflict-of-interest concerns. The CFP Board must avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest if it is to properly serve the integrity of the designation and, ultimately, protect the public. It’s why other respected professions avoid having the body that creates and regulates rules for CE providers from also becoming a CE provider and competitor. Instead, as the standards-setting body, the board should review its CE criteria, make them more stringent and improving enforcement.

There are many examples of organizations that own a certification and also provide relevant continuing education components in support of that certification; the CFA Institute is one. However, the CFP Board has held itself to a higher standard of integrity over the years in part because the ultimate objective is not just the support of a certification but also the creation of a widely recognized and supremely respected new profession.

Substantiating a profession -- such as medicine, law or accounting -- and not just a certification necessitates a legitimate and clear separation between the licensing authorities that establish the CE guidelines and the CE providers, in order to avoid the impression of a non-level playing field and unfair competitive practices. It is for this reason that state medical boards, state accountancy boards and state supreme courts are reticent to become CE providers themselves.

FPA encourages the CFP Board to examine every reasonable method of raising the quality of CE before becoming a CE provider to avoid even the appearance of a conflict. If there is a perception of a conflict of interest, then there is a conflict of interest. The forces that oppose the creation of the financial planning profession would relish any opportunity, and use any argument, to prevent us from reaching our ultimate goal.

FPA and its leadership represent the core of the profession, the people who have built and protected planning designations for decades. If the issue for the CFP Board is the need to raise the quality of CE, FPA stands ready to support changes in rules and protocols to make that happen for all 1,200 CE providers. 

To this end, FPA has formed the Continuing Education Best Practices Task Force, chaired by former FPA president Dan Moisand, to evaluate the quality and delivery of CE for CFP professionals. While we prefer that the CFP Board to take the lead on raising CE quality for all 1,200 providers -- something it should indeed be focused on -- we want to be sure FPA is doing everything it can to advance the CFP marks through high-quality CE.

The bottom line is that the CFP Board cannot justifiably act as both a regulator for continuing education providers and as a CE provider itself, regardless of the manner or extent to which it becomes a CE provider. We think the CFP Board's entry into any part of the CE provider landscape is ill advised and must be avoided.

Much of the success of the CFP Board, and the CFP mark, is the result of a focus on its core mission -- the protection of the CFP designation -- which necessitates a very deliberate and risk-averse approach to its role as the certifying body for CFP professionals. Absent overwhelmingly compelling evidence that entering the CE provider marketplace is necessary for the protection of the public’s interest -- which cannot be made until all rule-setting possibilities are first developed and implemented for CE providers -- the entry of the CFP Board into this business line is just not worth the risk.

And while we support a financially strong and prominent CFP Board, the appropriate and expeditious building of a financial planning profession based on the standards the CFP marks represent requires a collaborative and coordinated effort from all stakeholders who equate the CFP designation with financial planning professionals.

We hope the CFP Board’s volunteer leadership understands the inherent risks of such an endeavor and does the right thing for the public. Our profession is counting on it.

Michael Branham, CFP, is the 2013 FPA president and a financial planner at Cornerstone Wealth Advisors in Edina, Minn.

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