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School's out: Making the case for a financial planning degree

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Every Friday, adviser and principal Jennifer Ellison has a casual lunch with six or seven colleagues in Bingham, Osborn & Scarborough’s Silicon Valley office — a weekly ritual that allows for comfortable and open conversation.

At one of these gatherings in the summer of 2015, Ellison saw a fresh face. Tom Annin, a rising senior at Virginia Tech, had just signed on with the team as an intern. The then 21-year-old impressed Ellison right away.

“I remember just being astonished by his level of maturity,” Ellison says. I remember thinking, ‘This kid is wise beyond his years.’ ”

Ellison’s instincts proved to be prescient. Due in part to his academic training, the aspiring planner blew through every assignment thrown at him during his internship.

“It put the onus on us to make sure we had enough for him to do,” she says. “He was eager to come up with things he could do on his own.”

At the end of his internship, Annin was offered a staff position at B|O|S as a paraplanner. Having graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in finance and a concentration in financial planning the following year, Annin moved to San Francisco from his hometown in Medford Lakes, N.J., for the job. To begin, Annin will help with financial planning projects for individual clients, Ellison says. He will sit for the CFP exam in November and he says he hopes to fulfill the work requirement within the next two years, making him eligible to begin using the mark in August 2018.


Annin is one of hundreds of young graduates coming out of CFP Board-approved degree-granting programs. The CFP Board says the number of total registered baccalaureate programs has grown 60% between 2010 and 2015. Of the 42 programs currently in development, over 75% are baccalaureate degree programs.

For a program to qualify, all educational requirements for the exam must be met by the coursework.

But why a degree in financial planning when hundreds of certificate programs exist to help individuals meet the exam’s educational requirements? A four-year degree program can serve as a great test of a student’s aptitude and resolve, according to Virginia Tech Financial Planning Program Director Ruth Lytton. The school’s program is among the country’s largest.

Find out where our annual list of financial planning degree programs at colleges and universities fall on the map.
July 26

“Students have an opportunity to determine whether this is really what their life’s work or initial career is going to be,” Lytton says. “They develop that passion; they have a more comprehensive understanding of what financial planning is by having a full-scale undergraduate degree program.”

While certificate programs may also provide great opportunities, there are clear benefits to a four-year degree, proponents say.

“That’s not to say that someone who is a career changer or in the field and does a certificate program isn’t equally as excited or committed to the career,” Lytton says. “But having a full-fledged, comprehensive, four-year degree clearly prepares these kids to be professionals.”

There are other benefits, as well. Hiring a young adviser directly out of college allows firms to ingrain their company culture directly into new employees right away, Ellison says. “Planning is an industry where you think a little gray hair and time in another career would serve you well, but it doesn’t,” she contends. “The energy of younger people is unique. They’re much less set in their ways. They’re sponges.”


As with many students, Annin’s planning degree wasn’t always in his plans. “Going into college, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do,” he says.

Annin had initially entered Blacksburg, Va.-based Virginia Tech’s marketing program, but found it wanting. In his second year, Annin wandered into a meeting outlining the school’s six finance program offerings and found that planning appealed to him the most since he liked the idea of working with numbers and helping people.

“I took it from there and I haven’t looked back since,” Annin says.

One of the most valuable courses Annin took — for his own professional development and for future employers — was the program’s senior capstone class. With a team of three other students, Annin worked on a case study and drafted a 170-page financial plan. Though enlightening, he says it was one of the biggest challenges he experienced at school.

“It really grounded it,” Annin says. “It made it way more real than just answering questions on a test.”

Experiences like these are part of what makes students coming out of these programs desirable, Ellison says.

“They know what’s going on in the planning industry and what’s important,” she says.
According to data from research firm Cerulli Associates, clients are most worried about how their advisers plan to transfer their accounts when it comes to succession concerns. Only 3.8% of CFPs are between the ages of 20 and 29, according to the CFP Board.

Four-year degree programs can also be a boon for firms that want to hire younger planners for fresh ideas, and to groom possible successors.

The average age of advisers in 2015 was 50, according to Cerulli, putting pressure on firms to find new talent. About 36% of advisers plan to retire in 14 years.

“I’m hopeful and eager to see more and more students come out of these programs,” Ellison says. “I think it’s a new recruiting opportunity for everyone in this industry.”

That said, some personality traits must be innate, she adds.

“The maturity level is critical, regardless of how much you know. That’s something that most people know on the job or as they’re maturing in their career,” Ellison says. “It’s not something that’s taught in college.”


Zac Ritchey’s degree in financial planning from Western Kentucky University was a plus for Ron Carson, the founder and CEO of Carson Wealth, a $6.5 billion RIA. And, when Carson — one of the industry’s highest-profile executives — heard how well Ritchey spoke on a panel at an industry conference, it sealed the deal.

“I knew he had a bit of a background coming out of Western Kentucky’s planning program,” Carson says. “I got to know him and said, ‘Once you graduate, I’d love you to move to Omaha and take a position with the firm.’ ”

Ritchey joined Omaha, Neb.-based Carson Wealth in January 2015.

Carson says degree programs are integral to recruiting new talent as the industry shifts.
“I think our profession has changed,” he says. “I came up when anybody could get into this business; if you had a good personality, you’d be successful — thank goodness for me. But the service model is changing. People are really looking for deliverables to where you’re adding value beyond a doubt. This is where having a strong financial planning and holistic view of everything you’re doing comes into play.”

Carson says he would encourage young advisers to look into financial planning degree programs if they want to jumpstart their careers. His experience with Ritchey provides a solid example.

“When he started with our firm, he was several years ahead of an adviser who I would have brought in with a simple finance or accounting degree. He got the terminology, he got the basics,” Carson says.

“Zac accelerated at a much faster pace. Truly, he wasn’t a trainee. He was doing real work for us.”

Ritchey passed the CFP exam, and is already in a client-facing role.
As for Annin, he hopes to rise through the ranks within the next five years and become a portfolio manager. Someday, he hopes to be a principal.

“That’s how I feel like I can help the most people,” he says. “That’s what my ultimate goal would be.”

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