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Daunting but doable: How to get students to consider a planning career

Up to now, the planning profession has largely been populated by career changers. But if it is to grow as a profession, that has to change. Without intending to slight highly skilled workers in countless industries, true professions, as I see it, are made up of people who have graduated from a specific college curriculum, like doctors.

According to the CFP Board, 136 U.S. universities have baccalaureate programs in financial planning. They still face significant challenges recruiting students to an obscure major, obtaining adequate funding and positioning themselves in the traditional university structure. Recently, I reached out to leading members of the college community to ask how you and I can help them address these challenges. The responses fell into three broad categories.

Raise awareness and correct perceptions
One of the biggest stumbling blocks in recruiting students is a general lack of awareness of how the profession has changed from its “smile-and-dial” roots of the 1980s, says Ruth Lytton, director of the financial planning program at Virginia Tech. “Every year we lose students to the overwhelming opinion that financial planning is all sales,” she says. Her solution: Help students understand a “day in your life” and know why you do what you do.

Start by engaging the high school guidance counselors in your area, suggests Caleb Brown, a CFP certificant at New Planner Recruiting and teacher of the capstone class at the University of Georgia. “They wield lots of influence over graduating seniors’ area of study selection, and right now, most of them are not clear on what real financial planning is,” he says.

Among your sales points: Many planning students already have full-time jobs lined up prior to graduation. A planning degree opens up pathways not only to being a client advisor, but also to working in technology, consulting and recruiting firms.

Financial planning provides many things students are looking for in a long-term career, says Luke Dean, associate professor of personal financial planning at Utah Valley University. Among them: a chance to help people and have a positive impact in their communities, a high income, work flexibility and a job that will be mentally stimulating for 40 years. Plus, Dean says, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, financial planning is the fastest growing occupation in both the accounting and finance fields.

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Go a step further, suggests Ron Rhoades, director of the financial planning program at Western Kentucky University. Ask your local high school counselors to identify a handful of students who have an aptitude for counseling and an interest in investments. You could also invite students to attend an FPA chapter meeting, NAPFA study group meeting or CFA society meeting. “If a local university has a PFP event, or FPA student chapter meeting, sponsor high school students to attend those,” Rhoades adds. “The students will take back to their schools their newfound interest in personal financial advice as a potential career and the word will spread.”

Vickie Hampton, who heads up the financial planning program at Texas Tech University, notes that her school is now managing a money camp for high school students called the Financial Planning Academy which is supported by the Schwab Foundation. The camps will be held in three locations this year and five next year. You can offer to sponsor a few students to attend.

Of course, the university programs also recruit students who are already on campus. Rhoades says that it can be helpful if you organize an on-campus panel discussion about the financial planning career, in coordination with the school’s finance department. “The more interactions between students and practitioners, the greater those experiences are shared with students in other majors,” he says, “which leads to transfers into the program.”

Recruit competitively
Right now, wirehouse programs and call centers are out-recruiting independent planning firms on campus. “Small business owners have not developed the recruiting scale to compete with Wall Street or Big 4 accounting jobs, or built a presence on campus to develop a talent pipeline,” says Lytton. Her solution: Find CFP Board-registered university programs on the CFP Board website and contact the listed program director at your chosen school. This will open the door for campus visits and build a pipeline for internship and position placements. You’ll be able to interact with students before they do those wirehouse interviews right before they graduate.

Hampton adds that a relatively low cost/high value type of support is providing $500+ to help a student attend one of the national conferences. For about the same price, she says, you could also offer a scholarship to pay for the CFP exam and/or a CFP review course for a student. “And if a person wants to donate money directly to a college program, unrestricted educational funds are the most valuable because the programs can use those monies for what they need most,” Hampton adds.

Support the programs
Based on the feedback I received, financial planning programs are playing a long game of catch up when it comes to funding. “Traditional business disciplines are grounded in named, endowed professorships that support the recruitment and retention of the best faculty,” says Lytton. “Financial planning needs the same support to leverage and ensure the future of the curriculum, especially in larger colleges of business where financial planning may not compete well with the traditional big business focus.”

If you and several other members of your local chapter or study group were to make a collaborative contribution, and others were to contribute to these endowments, it would allow programs to hire additional faculty to support program excellence. “But more importantly, it will start to change the perception and even the playing field with more established business disciplines,” says Lytton.

Rhoades suggests that you help your chosen university create a class in personal finance for freshmen as a general education elective. “If the university does not offer the class as a general education elective, then you can work with the program director to propose the course,” he says —and bring with you with a large number of letters of support from practitioners. If you have a master’s degree, consider teaching the course as an adjunct.

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Brown urges advisors to return to their alma maters periodically to speak in the general business classes and other majors about a career in financial planning. You can also to sit in on a capstone class to help assess student projects and presentations, conduct mock interviews and review resumes, Hampton says.

At universities without existing financial planning programs, you can help set the stage for one to launch. Hampton notes that “because many university administrators are not knowledgeable about financial planning and the great career opportunities it provides, it is often difficult to get support for new programs. For advisors and others who have access to university deans, department chairs, etc., make a point to talk with them about the financial planning profession and the need for young financial advisors.” Universities will need to start financial planning programs just to keep up with changes in the job market.

Brown says that your best venue for building influence is to participate in the alumni association to encourage the administration to establish or strengthen a financial planning program. “Higher education institutions are much more receptive to ideas if/when they know that alums might reduce or cease donating funds altogether,” he says.

The sheer magnitude of this task is daunting: We are talking about nothing less than building up an entirely new university curriculum to the status of accounting, general finance, law and medicine, and also educating the public about its existence. The jobs are there, and they’re highly desirable. We just need to get the word out and mobilize across the profession.

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