The starting point for earning CFP certification is to complete the Educational requirement, a series of six college-level courses worth 18 credit hours on the various principal topics in the financial planning body of knowledge. The education is intended to prepare future financial planners not only for taking the 6-hour CFP exam, but also the base of knowledge necessary to actually give personal financial planning advice.
Yet the caveat is that with the ongoing growth of financial planning, there are now more than 300 CFP Board Registered Programs available to complete the CFP educational requirement, with costs that range from under $3,000 to nearly $10,000 (or more for CFP programs part of a broader undergraduate or graduate degree!). So which is the best CFP program to choose and provides the best value for its cost?
Given the reality that everyone has a different style of learning, ultimately the truth is that there is no one “best” CFP educational program. Do you want to just complete the certification program as quickly as possible, or do you prefer to do it as part of an undergraduate or graduate-school degree? Do you learn better in a classroom or with an online program? Do you want the structure of a live educational program, or is it preferable (or easier) to manage a less structured CFP self-study format? And in the end, do you plan to finish with your CFP certification, or is that just the first step in your planned pursuit of post-CFP designations as well?
The bottom line: if you want to choose the best CFP educational program, look introspectively at what you think you need in terms of structure and support to get through the CFP curriculum and really learn it… and then do a comparison of the various CFP programs, to figure out which is the best match for you personally.
Completing The CFP Education And Exam Requirements
In order to earn the CFP certification, candidates must complete the “Four E’s” requirements of:
- Education. Complete an educational curriculum that covers the CFP Principal Topics from a CFP Board Registered Program and delivers at least 18 credit hours of educational programming (generally, six college-level courses).
- Examination. Pass the 6-hour CFP exam
- Experience. Complete 3 years of indirect or 2 years of direct financial planning experience.
- Ethics. Agree to abide by the CFP Board’s Code of Ethics and its Standards of Professional Conduct.
Historically, most financial advisors earned their CFP certification by already having years of experience as a financial advisor, and going “back to school” to complete the CFP educational requirement and take the CFP exam, receiving their CFP marks upon completion of the exam and signing of the CFP code of ethics.
In today’s environment, however, an increasing number of prospective advisors are completing the educational and exam requirements first – either as a new student entering the profession, or as a career-changer coming into financial planning – and only then seeking out a job to gain their financial planning experience. In addition, the growth of CFP programs has expanded from what in the past was typically “adult-education” certificate programs, into a wide range of both certificate and also degree-granting undergraduate and graduate school programs.
The end result of these changes is that there are now more choices than ever about how to complete the CFP educational requirement in pursuit of CFP certification. And while more choices is generally good news, the “bad” news is that there are almost an overwhelming number of choices and paths, especially given the rise of the internet and the evolution of education – both online and offline – in the past decade!
Choosing The Best CFP Educational Program… For You
Because of the range of CFP educational programs available today, the reality is that there’s no one single “best” program for anyone/everyone who wants to get their CFP certification. Instead, there’s a best program “for you”, based on your needs and learning style, as well as the type of completion certificate or degree you want to have at the end (and whether/how you might continue your education past “just” getting the CFP designation).
Below are some of the key distinguishing factors to consider between CFP Board Registered Programs.
Online vs In-Person CFP Education
As the labels imply, in-person CFP educational programs entail actually going to sit in a classroom with a live, in-person instructor delivering the educational content. By contrast, participating in an online program means you will be studying from home, the office, or wherever you choose to ‘dial in’ to participate in the online program (see below for further detail of the differences Live vs On-Demand online programs).
If you want to find an in-person educational program, the biggest question will simply be whether there is a program available in your geographic area in the first place. While the number of CFP Board Registered Programs has grown dramatically in recent years (there are now well over 300), there is still a surprising lack of local in-person options for many major metropolitan areas. For some cities, there may be adult-education certificate programs, but no choice if you want to get an undergraduate or graduate degree in financial planning; for other areas, there may be one or several undergraduate programs, but few choices for an adult education certificate program if you’re a career changer or experienced financial advisor already and “just” want to complete the CFP educational curriculum but not go back for an entire degree. You can search for an in-person educational program on a state-by-state basis here on the CFP Board’s website.
With an online program, the geography of the program is irrelevant – as any “distance learning” program is feasible in an online environment – which provides far greater flexibility of program choice compared to being tied to just 1-2 schools in your area. The number of “distance learning” CFP educational programs available, which the CFP Board lists here on their website, far exceeds the number of programs even in cities with a high concentration of CFP programs.
The significant caveat, though, is that ultimately which is “best” depends on your personal learning style. If you’re very inclined towards your own self-study efforts, you may find that an online learning environment works great for yet. However, if the reality is that you’re able to better focus and learn in a classroom environment, where you’re sitting amongst your class peers in front of an instructor teaching you on the spot, then choosing your local in-person program will still be a better choice than the wide range of online distance-learning programs.
Online CFP Education: Live vs On-Demand (Synchronous vs Asynchronous Learning)
In the context of online distance-learning-based programs, it’s also notable that there’s a significant difference between “live” online educational programs, versus those that provide educational materials “on demand”.
An on-demand program essentially means that the course provider will simply give you the requisite educational reading materials to complete, possibly some quizzes for you to take to affirm you’re on track with the material, and then a final exam for each class to confirm you learned the material. Lessons may be entirely self-guided, or may include recordings with professors/educators, but you still complete the material entirely on your own time. Some on-demand programs are purely “self-study” – you’re entirely on your own with the material – while others may provide online access to an educator to ask questions if/when/as you have any. But it’s otherwise a highly unstructured environment.
By contrast, a “live” online educational program typically has classes structured on a set, fixed schedule (e.g., Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7PM to 9PM). This is akin to participating in an “in-person classroom program”, it’s just that the classroom happens to be virtual. Still, you’ll be listening to an instructor teach the material live, in a (virtual) classroom setting with fellow students all participating in the same lesson at the same time, including the ability to ask questions, see the questions of others, and work towards the completion of material together.
These programs are sometimes called “synchronous” learning programs (since all the students are synchronized in going through the classes in the same structured manner), as contrasted with the “asynchronous” approach where every student just self-studies the material on their own in an on-demand approach.
As with the distinction between live versus online, there is no universal “best” here, as it depends entirely on your own individual learning style. For those who find that the structured educational program helps them to learn and stay on track, the synchronous learning environment will be preferable (especially if there’s no local in-person programs that are appealing). The online live approach can also be appealing for those who want the structured “classroom” setting, but simply need courses at a different time than what their 1-2 local programs may offer (e.g., if your only local classroom provider does classes on Tuesday nights and you just cannot do Tuesday nights due to a personal obligation, an online live provider with non-Tuesday classes may be appealing). Alternatively, for those who are more inclined towards self-study, or have a personal schedule of commitments that make it impossible to regularly attend live classes on a fixed schedule (e.g., if you have heavy travel commitments if your current role?), the asynchronous approach that allows you to set your own schedule and structure may be preferable.
Pace And Timing Of CFP Classes, And How Long It Takes To Complete The CFP Education
Another distinction of educational programs, often related to whether the curriculum is delivered live (in person or online) or as an on-demand CFP self-study program, is the time it takes to go through the curriculum.
Live classes are generally constrained by the time it takes to teach the class (and the fact that most educational programs are built for those who are already working, so they are ‘limited’ part-time programs). As a result, it’s common for most live educational programs to schedule classes to be offered over a 2-3 month time frame, which means it usually takes 12-18 months to move through the curriculum. If you have time to take more than one class at a time – and the education provider even offers it – you can potentially cut that time down.
By contrast, enrolling in a self-study-driven on-demand program gives the potential to accelerate the timeline further, for those who want/need to do so (and are able to be focused self-study learners to get through the material in an unstructured environment). Some CFP candidates who have the time, and are highly motivated and able to focus, can get through the CFP coursework in under six months, in a manner that’s just not possible for most live (online or in-classroom) settings because the courses just aren’t offered fast enough or frequently enough.
Ultimately, as with most of the other aspects of selecting a CFP program, there’s no “right” or “wrong” answer to the timing and pacing of courses, except to recognize that it needs to fit your learning style and structure, and your timeline. If you don’t have a lot of time, doing a “faster” self-study approach may not be helpful. If you do have a lot of time, and work well in an unstructured setting though, the self-study approach may be appealing as a means to get through the program faster. Of course, be cognizant that going through the classes faster may mean you have to make the tuition payments faster and more frequently as well, so be prepared from a cash flow perspective too!
Certificate Vs Degree-Granting CFP Programs And Post-CFP Educational Choices
Another notable distinction amongst CFP educational programs is what you “get” at the end of the program, and the (educational) doors it opens next.
While by definition, a CFP Board Registered program is going to cover the requisite 18 credit hours of content necessary to complete the educational requirement – typically in the form of five core classes on the technical topics, and a 6th “capstone” course where you learn to coalesce that information in the creation of an actual financial plan – in addition to getting credit with the CFP Board for completing the educational requirement, you also get “something” from the educational program.
In the case of an adult certificate educational program, you get a completion certificate. If you do your educational coursework with a degree-granting institution, you may be able to get an outright undergraduate or graduate degree.
Of course, the caveat to the latter is that a typical undergraduate degree program requires 120 credit hours, and many graduate-level Master’s programs require at least 30 credit hours. So at best, the CFP educational requirements might fulfill a little more than half of a Master’s degree, and only a small fraction of an undergraduate degree. Which means if your goal is to get a degree of some sort, expect to take some (or a lot) of additional classes beyond just the CFP educational curriculum.
Nonetheless, if your plan or desire up front is to follow all the way through for a degree, it’s important to enroll in a CFP program based in a degree-granting institution in the first place, or you risk that the credits you get in a certificate program might not transfer (fully or at all) to where you subsequently get your degree.
Similarly, if your goal is not to get a full degree after your CFP certification, but you do want to at least leave the door open for additional “post-CFP” certifications or designations as you go deeper towards a niche or specialization, it may be especially desirable to complete your CFP educational program at an institution that grants a number of other programs, such as the College for Financial Planning or the American College. Notably, most of these programs will accept credit from other bona fide programs towards their own designations (where applicable in the first place), so a prospective advisor might do the Dalton or Kaplan CFP programs and then try to transfer, but it’s often easier to just plan to do all your education under one program, especially if you are planning from the start to pursue post-CFP education.
How Much Does It Cost To Complete The CFP Educational Requirement?
The last key driver in the decision-making process of what CFP Board Registered Program to select is simply the cost. For some this factor may be a constraint – where only certain programs are affordable enough to fit the budget – while for others, it’s more of a trade-off decision. For instance, many CFP educational programs offer a range of the educational options as noted above, with separate price tiers – for instance, there might be a lower-cost self-study option, or a live-instructor online program for a higher cost, or a live in-person offering (if you happen to be geographically local) for yet another price.
That aside, when assessing the cost of a CFP Board Registered Program, though, it’s important to consider the full cost to complete the educational curriculum, and not all providers structure their fees and costs in the same way. Issues to consider include:
- Tuition And Textbooks. Some programs have a base cost for “tuition” and charge separately for CFP textbooks, while others have a bundled fee that includes tuition and the books that go with it.
- Bundled Or Per-Course Pricing. Some education providers charge for the entire program with all courses included, while others just charge per course, so you have to multiply the course cost by six to estimate the total cost. (Notably, while most CFP programs have six courses, some spread out the education across seven or more courses, or provide additional electives, which may enrich the educational process but also increase the total cost when priced on a per-course basis).
- Program Enrollment/Application Fee. Some educational programs, particularly with degree-granting institutions, may have a separate enrollment fee up front, in addition to their bundled or per-course costs.
- Exam Prep. Beyond the core educational curriculum itself, some CFP programs offer a separate Exam Prep course (an optional add-on you can take after completing the educational requirement and before taking the exam, specifically to help you prepare for the test), which may be bundled into the total course cost, offered separately for a standalone fee, or offered separately but available at a discounted fee for those in the main educational program (or you can simply take a separate exam prep course from a provider that specializes in live review exam prep).
A Comparison Of CFP Board Registered Program Education Providers
In a world where virtually everyone only goes through the CFP educational program once, it’s hard to directly compare the “quality” of the leading CFP educational providers (since no one ever takes more than one to compare them directly). Nonetheless, the growth of some of the largest education providers arguably speaks to their implied quality (or they wouldn’t be referred to other CFP students that have fueled their growth).
Notably, most of the largest CFP education providers are also the largest simply because they have long-standing distance-based programs, which tend to be the largest simply because any local in-person programs are limited to the number of potential students in their area.
Notwithstanding these challenges, there are a number of educational programs that are especially large and popular, including: the American College (the first distance-based professional education provider for financial advisors, with a nearly-100-year pedigree) and the College for Financial Planning (the original educator and provider of the CFP marks until the CFP Board was split off from the College in 1985); certificate and degree-granting programs that started out in-person but have gone online as well, including the Boston University CFP program, Kansas State University, and the graduate certificate or CFP-in-a-Master’s degree program at Golden Gate University; and certificate education programs (with accompanying exam prep live review programs) specifically for advisors like Dalton Education and Kaplan Financial. And again, this is just a small subset of the much larger total list of distance-based CFP Registered Programs!
Of course, as noted earlier, those who strongly prefer an in-person local option will still need to research the local CFP Registered Programs in your state (geographic area), but the CFP educational providers above can hopefully at least provide some comparison points as well!
Additional Resources For Those Making A Decision About CFP Education Providers
So what do you think? Where did you complete your CFP educational requirement? What did you think of the program, the resources, and the instructors? Would you recommend your CFP Board Registered Program to others? Or do you want to warn them away from your bad experience?!