It's no secret that the current state of CFP Continuing Education (CE) credit is a pretty sorry affair. Financial planners attend sessions just hoping for 1-2 takeaways that they haven't heard a dozen times before - an embarrassingly low bar for "satisfaction" - and conferences struggle to draw attendees. It often seems that planners choose a myriad of free vendor-provided CE options not because the content is good - often, it's still little more than a veiled sales pitch for the company's products or services - but because the paid CE alternatives from conferences aren't much better; if you go into your CE experience assuming you won't hear anything new anyway, there's little reason not to take the free option. And this situation is not new; while the CFP Board has become more aggressive about cracking down on the worst of the CE-as-product-pitch options, there's been little done to elevate the average CE experience.

Yet that doesn't mean the situation is hopeless, as many steps can be taken to improve the quality of CFP continuing education; in fact, the CFP Board, as the keeper of the CFP marks and the continuing education for them, wields a great deal of power to change the system for the better. For instance, the CFP Board could create a ratings clearinghouse so conference organizers can more easily see who's a good speaker and who's not, allowing events to better screen their speakers before putting them on the podium. In addition, the CFP Board could also provide a better database for finding CFP CE providers in the first place, so the majority of events don't have to rely upon random Google searches and scanning the agendas of other conferences! But perhaps the best path to getting better CE credit is simply to lift the number of required CE credits, creating more of a potential CE market that could attract quality providers in the first place!


Ratings Clearinghouse For Speakers (And Content)

One of the fundamental problems for elevating the quality of CFP continuing education is that a good educational experience relies on the speaker as much as the content... yet while the CFP Board at least lightly reviews and vets content before approval, there is no system to vet the speakers. And even after a speaker presents, there is no system to capture the quality of the speaker's presentation (or the content itself) for other organizations to draw upon; while many/most events do circulate evaluation forms, the results are only ever seen by the event organizers and perhaps the speakers themselves. The information never becomes a resource for other events to find the best speakers, and avoid the worst ones; at best, events that find good speakers just keep asking them back, and events who find bad speakers don't invite them again (without doing anything to ensure the bad speaker doesn't just go and speak for another organization instead).

So what's the solution? If the CFP Board truly wants to elevate the quality of continuing education, it should function as a ratings clearinghouse for speakers and their content (an approach I've actually advocated for many years, and wrote about on this blog in 2011 when the CFP Board proposed changes to the CFP Ethics instructor requirements). Develop a standardized series of questions that events are expected to use as a part of their existing evaluation process. The questions wouldn't need to be very plentiful nor very complex; ultimately they just need to cover the basics the speaker's presentation skills, the relevance of the topic, the quality of the presentation materials - all rated on a 1-5 or 1-10 scale - and perhaps a question about whether the speaker refrained from selling his/her products or services. Tabulated results could be reported back to the CFP Board, or even just the average scores in each category. CFP Board could make the submission of evaluation forms mandatory for CFP CE approval - to ensure that it's done - or even just "encourage" organizations by providing easy-to-use templates, and perhaps offering them a small discount off the cost of their applications for CE credits or their CE sponsor renewal form. Alternatively, the CFP Board could leverage available technology by sending surveys directly out to event participants when their CFP CE credit is being reported, and require the participants to complete the survey to receive their credit (although ultimately I suspect it's better to just gather the results through the events themselves, which often - or should - utilize evaluation forms anyway).

Notably, this wouldn't actually put the CFP Board in the business of rating speakers; instead, it would simply rely on a "crowdsourcing" effort where speakers are rated over time by the audiences that see them, which ultimately lets the CFP Board gather FAR more information on speakers than could be determined from a standalone vetting process anyway. Benchmarking results could be provided to show how the speaker's content and ratings compare to the average speaker on that topic or in that category, or to speakers overall. The CFP Board could also tabulate results for speakers across multiple topics, as well as the scores for standalone presentations.

Simply put, there's no reason that conference organizers should have to rely on a speaker's marketing materials and anecdotal evidence - or no evidence at all - of the quality of a speaker, especially when the CFP Board already tabulates so much information about each and every session that's presented for CFP CE credit (and who the participants are). If we want more quality speakers and fewer bad ones, let's use the reporting systems and resources that are already available to shine some transparency on the speaker selection process!

A Better Database As A Conference Resource

The second step the CFP Board could take to improve the quality of CFP continuing education is to craft a (better) resource list of available speakers and continuing education providers. Technically, the CFP Board does currently have a "Find A CE Program" resource on its website, allowing CFPs to try to search out CE providers. However, the organization of the database is clunky at best; although you can screen for online or self-study content as a CFP certification looking for CE, there's no way to screen for - or even see who - the speaker is, as the resources are all organized by the sponsoring CE organization. And given that many/most speakers have their sessions registered by a conference or event organizer, or a large firm/organization, often there's not even a way to track down the speaker if you wanted to. And of course, as noted earlier, even if you do find a speaker, there's still no information on whether the speaker was any good or not, given the aforementioned lack of ratings.

So what would an improved system look like? First of all, every session submitted for CE should include the name of the speaker - ideally with a registered speaker ID number to help with the collation of speaker scores - in addition to the sponsor/provider. There should be an option to search by provider, or speaker, or session. In addition, every session submitted should be tied to the CFP Board's own Principal Topics List (or multiple topics under one presentation), so that conference organizers or CFP certificants themselves can more easily search for CE that's relevant to their needs. without needing to guess the right keyword (since not every presentation title uses the same keywords for sometimes similar content). Notably, the FPA actually tried a version of this in the past, and created the FPA Speaker's Directory. However, the end result is an interminably long pdf document that's not searchable, cumbersome if not impossible to use, and of course doesn't contain any speaker ratings even from the speakers that deliver sessions to the FPA's own chapters! 

The ultimate goal of this process - if a conference organizer wants a speaker on a particular topic like Behavioral Finance, they should be able to simply go to the (CFP Board's) website, do a search for Behavioral Finance (or whatever other topic), and see every speaker who's ever delivered a session on that topic for a CFP certificant audience, along with the aggregated audience results of the speaker for that and any other presentations. New speakers will start out speaking at smaller organizations (who may not always wish to get or be able to afford the best from the speaker database), but any presentation to CFP certificants will get the speaker into the database and the potential for more visibility based on the quality of the speaker's reviews/results.

In the end, the best speakers can rise to the top, and the worst can fall to the bottom... simply by creating a system that uses the information the CFP Board already collects, and evaluations that already occur, to make it easier to separate the wheat from the chaff!

Increasing CE Requirement To Create A Market For CFP CE Providers

Perhaps the single most important step to improving CFP CE providers and content in the long run, though, is that the CFP Board still needs to lift its requirements for the number of CFP CE credits that are required from year to year. 

As you may recall, the CFP Board proposed last year to increase the CE requirement for 30 hours of CE credit every two years, up to 40 hours - a change that I supported simply on the basis that our continuing education requirement as practitioners is woefully below that of most other recognized professions, which is especially unfortunate given how broad and multi-disciplinary the financial planning topic list really is. Unfortunately, though, the CFP Board ultimately declined to implement the CE change.

While the decision not to increase the CE requirement was unfortunate from the perspective of advancing the profession, it was also very unfortunate from the perspective of trying to improve the quality of CFP education. The reason is simply this: the more CE that is required, the more demand there is for CE credit, and therefore the more providers there are willing to enter the marketplace and try to craft quality CE credit. Or viewed another way - it's hard to see why many quality CE providers would try to grow a business providing CE credit when the bar is already so low for practitioners. For instance, with just under 70,000 CFP certificants required to get just 15 hours of CE per year, that means the entire marketplace is "only" about 1,000,000 hours of CE per year, much of which is already consumed by the hundreds of conferences that exist. While that may sound like a large number, the reality is that if a quality CE provider for online content were to launch and managed to capture 2% of the entire marketplace, teaching all 15 hours of CE for 1,400 CFP certificants at a "reasonable" low-price online cost like $5 per CE credit hour (which by comparison is the going rate for volume online CE providers in the CPA space), the entire business would barely generate $100,000 of gross revenue. And that's before the cost of marketing, developing the educational platform, and actually creating the content! The bottom line: there's just not enough opportunity for much business growth and innovation given the small size of the marketplace that results from the CFP Board's relatively low CE requirement.

Of course, this doesn't mean the CFP Board should just establish a higher CE requirement by fiat just to arbitrarily set the CE marketplace to a higher point; after all, more CE requirements, and their associated cost, indirectly become a cost drag (or even a quasi-tax) on practitioners, and that decision should not be taken lightly! But given that arguably the CFP CE requirement already needs to come up further to bring it in line with other professions, and that the current quality of CE is so low right now, perhaps higher CE requirements really do need a greater push, not just for the benefit of practitioners directly, but also to stimulate the educational marketplace to serve them. After all, it's with no small bit of irony that one of the primary objections that came through from the CFP Board's comment period on the proposed increase of CE was that the content quality is already so low, that practitioners didn't want to spend more time sitting through "useless" CE session (although notably, another complaint was that not all CE credit for CFP certification overlaps with other regulatory requirements, but that's a discussion for another day).

Yet it seems that we're now caught in a circular chicken-and-egg argument; the quality of CE won't improve until the marketplace is expanded with a larger CE hour requirement, but practitioners don't want the larger CE hour requirement until there's more quality content to fill it. Arguably the CFP Board could just start creating its own content to break the logjam, but the reality is that this only solves the problem of the underlying content, not the real problem of a lack of quality speakers and educators to deliver it (as anyone who's heard a speaker in the past deliver the CFP Board's canned Ethics content can attest!). But perhaps having the CFP Board implement a speaker rating system and a clearinghouse for finding speakers and relevant CE providers, and subsequently increasing the requirement for CE hours as well, can support a broader marketplace for quality CE education and an better opportunity for good providers to succeed with the existing systems (online delivery, standalone conferences, association events, etc.), and keep the profession moving forward.


  • Larry Frank

    Excellent points Michael. I find that one forum to get good educational content is at the Academy of Financial Services (http://academyfinancial.org/mission.html ) where you can talk with those working on current research in progress before it goes to publication somewhere. No “junk food” there.

  • Tom Davison

    This is a campaign worth supporting! I was at the AICPA financial planning conference for the first time this year (thanks for supporting that one, Michael) and was quite pleased with the quality. They appear to be using the approaches described here. The scope of financial planning continues to expand in a variety of directions, and a fair amount of new/researchy work being done. And great need in the human side as another example of topics and some excellent speakers. But looking at some conference lineups, it is hard to see what one might come away with.

    There seems to be a trend to niche conferences – FPA retreat, Veres Insider Forum, NAPFA regional thematic conferences – which are helping bring new talent and topics. The diversity of conferences or webinars is a healthy element for a fertile field, but can be better leveraged for the profession. The central repository of evaluations can foster tapping the best and help support speakers and topics the specialty conferences bring out.

  • Laurie Bonser

    There are many good points in the article and comments above regarding conferences and speakers. But, for those times when traveling to conferences for a majority of CE credits is not feasible, I believe there should be more approved, easily accessible, solid self-study and testing options available (whether via written materials, pre-recorded webinars, etc.)so that desired topics can be studied in depth and add to our expertise. The “old fashioned” process of concentrating on good resources and updates, and having reference materials on the desk/computer, is still an important part of our professional development in my opinion. And for those of us who have CPA or attorney requirements, some further appropriate coordination and cross-acceptance would be helpful from the practical implementation standpoint.

  • Patricia Potts

    The points that are made are valid only if you beleive that the CE programs are actually worthwhile. How many NAPFA or FPA presentations have you attended only to find that 40 of the 60 minutes was spent getting people seated, material distributed or a pitch being made by the speaker?

    I think that you will find many in the field of education support the notion that very little is learned/retained in these one hour sessions. CE requirements are little more than a money-making opportunity for both the organization and providers.

  • http://www.prosperitycoaching.biz Suzanne

    Michael, Content delivered by a poor speaker can sometimes equal excruciating boredom. Good speakers are not easy to find. Maybe the CFP Board could require Toastmasters experience… Suzanne

  • Patricia Potts

    Michael

    I think that your approach is that a one hour session may actual be educational and my point is that they usually aren’t. Yes, you hear a tidbit which is discussed over coffee between sessions and that is all.

    I look at the disclaimer that you posted and laughed – too bad it is April 2. I dont think that it is because a fund family may speak well of their product that a session on valuations might be poor and non-educational.

    Also, speaking of biases and CE – the CFPBOS does have a history of making their own pitches available as CE credits when Practice Management was not an accepted category. Other organiations made availabe as CE credits pitches to their members to buy Disability Insurance.

    Perhaps the CFP Board should provide 15 hours of quality material each year, via webinars – and use that to ensure that “quality” is presented.

    You also seem to be suggesting that our education comes from CE and I think that is the fallacy to begin with.

  • Dan Moisand

    I like the ratings ideas and the expansion of the number of hours but the CFP Board providing CE itself? Good grief no!!That sounds like a huge conflict of interest to me. They already decide if something qualifies. If they think the offering is weak, they shouldn’t approve it but as the approvers, they should not be a particiant in the marketplace. That’s like giving one team the ability to make all the calls in an anthletic tournament.

  • Patricia Potts

    I see your point but did not mean that the 15 hours provided would be the only choice, merely a very good safe-harbor. The CFPBOS is already in the business of providing CE, through their new book.

    I would hardly call them a charity nor an entity which has a level playing field.

    • Michael Kitces

      Patricia,
      Indeed, the new competency book is eligible for CE, although I don’t know that that’s quite the same thing as having CFP Board delivering ongoing/online educational programs that compete head-to-head with other providers.

      As for them being a charity… they ARE a 501(c)(3) organization. That is their reality! Although it does create a uniquely uneven playing field when non-profits compete with for-profit entities (in point of fact, that distortion is part of why Congress created an Unrelated Business Income Tax for non-profit organizations), aside from the additional conflicts inherent in CFP Board delivering CE while they’re also the organization that grants or revokes the CE Sponsor status for their potenial “competition”.
      – Michael

  • PPotts

    Michael

    If my math is correct, 28 credits for the book and 2 for the ethics = 30 which satisfies the CFP requirement and all provided through CFPBOS created content. It may not be glitzy, but it is certainly the Board providing the content and competeing head on with CE providers. You may feel that there is an inherent conflict and I am not agreeing or disagreeing, the CFPBOS actions are visible. Do you yourself receive any renumeration for providing CE?

    I would prefer to see the CFPBOS allow its licensees to voice opinions through elections rather than through a YELP like rating of CE classes. After all, which do you really think is more important?

    • Michael Kitces

      Patricia,
      I guess I just don’t really see this as a mainstream CE offering. The CFP Board’s goal here was not to write CE materials, it was to write a textbook. They simply acknowledged that if you happen to actually READ the whole textbook from cover to cover, that should be worth a lot of CE, since it’s an absolutely monstrous book.

      Realistically, I don’t see many advisors choosing to satisfy their CE requirements by reading a 735-page textbook (as positive as that would perhaps be). And of course, the textbook is written and doesn’t change, so at the most this is a “once in your lifetime” you can get 28 credits for the book. But once you’ve read it, you’ve read it. And it’s primarily intended for students and instructors in the educational programs anyway.

      That’s entirely different from having the CFP Board craft and deliver ongoing CE content that competes head-to-head with the providers that they approve.
      – Michael

  • P Potts

    When I was editing I seem to have deleted a sentence.

    Do you yourself receive any renumeration for providing CE? Perhaps you could share with us the effort that goes into creating a lecture or course?

  • http://www.coachmaria.com Maria Marsala

    Excellent advice. I would add that credit for practice/business management should be included, too. Often, this is what an CFP need, but doesn’t take at conferences because no credits are usually available for such programs. Whereas, in the CPA field, there are practice/business management classes that do garner credits.

    • Michael Kitces

      Maria,
      I’m actually very much NOT a fan of assigning CE credit to practice management. It should be rewarding for business owners in its own right.

      If the only thing that gets a business owner into a practice management session is the allure of CE, to me that’s a sign the content isn’t useful or relevant, not a “CE problem” itself. And having sat through dozens (hundreds?) of such sessions and worked on a lot of conference task forces, I’ve seen little evidence that the lack of practice management attendance has any real relationship to CE.

      To the contrary, the fact that not every planner is a business owner – but every planner needs to know how the tax system works – is the primary reason that practice management gets a lower turnout. The implication it’s “because of the CE” is an artifact of assumptions and some poorly designed audience surveys.

      Again, this isn’t to say practice management content shouldn’t be included. I think it’s INCREDIBLY valuable. The point is simply that its value should stand on its own, not with a CE crutch.

      Respectfully,
      – Michael

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  • Michael Kitces

    Larry,
    Indeed, I’m familiar with AFS and am a former board member.

    Unfortunately they have shifted lately towards the traditional finance space, and will be running their 2013 national meeting in conjunction with a finance conference and not a financial planning conference.

    But hopefully they’ll regain the focus of their mission next year! :)
    – Michael

  • Michael Kitces

    Patricia,
    But this is the exact point. Because the system is just as rewarding to terrible content/sessions/speakers, these outcomes persist.

    In fact, the problem of speakers selling products/services from the podium is especially exacerbated by the fact that the speakers/companies are never held accountable. At worst, they just move on to another conference and do the same bad thing.

    Imagine the pressure on companies to stop this behavior if they were told “your speaker evaluations will be rated by the CFP Board, and if the evaluation forms show that your presentation was biased towards your products, your CE approval will be revoked.” THEN we might actually see a change, but it starts with a consistent ratings system that can be managed!
    – Michael

  • Michael Kitces

    Patricia,
    The concern I’d have about CFP Board providing webinars is that it’s a pretty scary conflict when the overseer of education providers also goes into the education business. Not to mention the inappropriateness of a non-profit (as they’re a 501(c)(3) charity by charter) competing against for-profit businesses. It’s a messy, messy space. Bear in mind, the ORIGIN of the CFP Board was a spin-off from the College of Financial Planning in the 1980s, because even then they recognized the fundamental conflict of overseeing the marks and education while also being an education provider.

    And as for education from CE… if you’re not feeling that your CE educates you, then it’s bad CE. Which is my point in the first place. I guarantee you there are genuinely education CE sessions out there (obviously we learn in many ways besides “just” CE, but that doesn’t mean all CE shouldn’t be genuinely educational, too!). If they’re not reaching you, that’s a fault of the system around CE, and changing that (broken) system is the whole point of this article.
    – Michael

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