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CFP Board’s CE Plan Would Set Financial Planning Back 30 Years

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You may have heard about the ongoing CFP Board controversy over its consideration of entering the CFP continuing education business. The Board announced it was looking into its own CE programs last March, but wouldn’t make a final decision until its fall board meeting which takes place later this week, so things have been heating up of late.

The FPA leadership voiced its opposition to the idea at its annual convention a couple weeks ago in Orlando (see John Sullivan’s Oct. 20 “FPA Addresses CFP Board Controversies” article), and recently released a letter to the Board spelling out its concerns. While the Board has stated it’s concerned about the current quality of existing CFP continuing ed programs, the real reasoning behind such a backward step is far from clear. 

If nothing else, the timing is a bit suspect. Usually, the first question asked by the CFPs I’ve talked to about the Board’s offering CE credits is: “Is this really the most important thing on the CFP Board’s plate right now?” A good question it is. With another shoe seeming to drop every week in the Board’s fee-only-gate (the resignation of three senior Board members, the Camarda lawsuit, the resignation of the recently hired director of investigations, the listing of hundreds of brokers on the CFP website as “fee-only”), one might think concerns over low-quality CE programs would be pretty far down the Board’s list.  

What’s more, continuing ed seems to be pretty far down most CFPs’ lists, too. In a survey conducted this summer of some 1229 of its members who are CFPs, the FPA found that 71% believe there are enough high-quality CE opportunities, and 72.5% said quality CE programs are easy to find, while only 16.4% agreed that the CFP Board should “develop/deliver/sell CE programs directly to CFP Certificants.”

When asked if they believe it is a conflict of interest for the CFP Board to enter the CE provider marketplace, 53.6% of CFP respondents said yes, with only 23.5% saying no: a ratio of 2.3 to 1. 

Perhaps those CFPs remember what the Board seems to have forgotten: The CFP Board was created in 1985 (called the IBCFP back then), when leaders from the old IAFP and ICFP (which later combined to form the FPA) and NAPFA convinced Dr. Bill Anthes (founder of the College for Financial Planning, which owned the CFP mark) that financial planning would never become a profession as long as the CFP mark and the education of CFPs were overseen by the same organization. 

Here’s how the FPA described this conflict in its recent letter to the Board: “We are acutely concerned that the CFP Board becoming a CE provider is a solution to an issue that creates more problems…than it solves. Specifically, the conflict of interest perception that would be created would impede the development of the financial planning profession…The notion that the CFP Board would now set the rules in a highly competitive CE provider environment with over 1200 accredited providers and simultaneously become a player in that environment crosses a line of integrity and impartiality…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[which] necessitates a legitimate and clear separation between the licensing authorities that establish the CE guidelines from the providers of CE to avoid the impression of a non-level playing field and unfair competitive practices.” 

As the Board already approves all the CFP CE programs, isn’t it just a bit disingenuous to be lamenting the current state of continuing ed? Wouldn’t the obvious solution be for the Board to simply beef up its standards for CE approval?

That raises the question of why the Board really wants to get into the CE biz. Is it for the money? With its CFP base presumably tapped out over its multi-million dollar “Public Awareness Campaign,” revenue growth has to come from somewhere. Or is the CE idea simply a bargaining chip to be traded for concessions from other industry players such as the FPA?

Or as mentioned earlier, is the whole ridiculous notion simply an attempt to distract attention from the Board’s other public problems? At this point, we just don’t know. But we do know that if the Board follows through on its plan to offer CE programs, it will be a major step backward for a financial planning profession, a major loss for both CFPs and financial consumers—and probably the end of the Board’s ongoing bid to become the regulator of financial planning.