Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. (CFP Board) was founded in 1985 as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that serves the public interest by promoting the value of professional, competent and ethical financial planning services, as represented by those who have attained CFP® certification. CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ certification is held out to the public as the standard of excellence in financial planning. But did you know that there's an even higher level of financial planning knowledge that can be achieved by practicing financial advisors?
The CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ (CFP®) mark enables finance professionals to help individual clients create comprehensive plans for meeting their long-term financial goals, such as retirement, college tuition, business start-up, a home, and so on. Its governing body, CFP Board, administers the credential. To earn the CFP® certification, one needs to complete a 7-course undergraduate-level CFP® certification program to be eligible to sit for the exam.
Offered three times a year, the CFP® exam is a computer-based examination that takes six hours to complete and consists of 170 multiple-choice questions. The six hours are divided into two 3-hour sessions. Focused on testing one's financial planning knowledge in client situations, the topics covered include professional conduct and regulation, general financial planning principles, risk management and insurance planning, tax planning, retirement savings and income planning, and estate planning.
Offered by colleges and universities (such as the College for Financial Planning), Master's degree programs go deeper into personal financial planning subject matter. These programs cater to those interested in expanding their knowledge beyond typical financial licensing and credentials. Also, for those interested in becoming financial planning educators, the MS is the next step on that career path.
Compared to CFP® certificants, Master's degree students are exposed to the greater impact that finance has on an organization. Participants often gain a deeper grasp of the processes used by firms to maximize shareholder wealth, analyze financial statements, and hold management or C-level positions in financial institutions.
For an MS in Financial Planning/Financial Services, the college or university is the governing board, although many are registered with CFP Board. Like any degree program, and unlike CFP® certification, it does not all hinge on one exam. One will take individual classes and be expected to pass the exams for each. The common curriculum will include some required and some elective courses in international finance, corporate finance, financial institutions, money and markets, risk management, and investment theory.
Master's degrees awarded by The American College of Financial Services include graduate-level core courses Introduction of Financial Planning, Fundamentals of Estate Planning, Behavioral Finance, Capstone Case Development, and six in-depth graduate-level courses in either the Financial Planning, Retirement Planning, or Legacy Planning concentrations. By completing the Retirement Planning concentration, one can earn the Retirement Income Certified Professional® (RICP®) designation, and the Legacy Planning concentration makes you eligible to earn the Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy® (CAP®) designation. Both of these concentrations also satisfy the educational requirements to earn the Accredited Estate Planner® (AEP®) designation.2
It should also be noted that there are far fewer practicing advisors that have met the requirements to earn an MS in Financial Planning/Financial Services than have obtained a CFP® designation. In Ohio, for example, there are nearly 3,500 CFP® designees but less than 120 people hold an MSFP/MSFS degree. Of these, roughly half are in the 9 most populous counties with the other half being spread out over the remaining 79 counties. Nationally, there were roughly 5,300 new CFP® designees in 2021 while there were less than 200 MSFP/MSFS degrees awarded, many to those who were already CFP® designees and some of whom are not practicing advisors (i.e. academics or corporate-level employees). A practicing advisor that has earned an MSFP/MSFS degree has placed themselves in a very elite company of knowledge and skill within the industry and is one of the most highly sought-after practitioners by affluent and emerging affluent clients.
"What's the difference between getting a graduate degree in financial planning and "just" the CFP® cerfication? Simply put, the Master's degree programs go deeper into the subject matter (even for those who already have the CFP® marks, as in the end CFP® classes are the equivalent of "just" undergraduate-level coursework)."3
-Michael Kitces, Head of Planning Strategy at Buckingham Strategic Wealth, co-founder of the XY Planning Network, AdvicePay, fpPathfinder, and New Planner Recruiting, former Practitioner Editor of the Journal of Financial Planning, host of the Financial Advisor Success podcast, publisher of the popular financial planning industry blog Nerd's Eye View through his website Kitces.com, dedicated to advancing knowledge in financial planning, and 2010 recipient of the FPA's "Heart of Financial Planning" award for his dedication and work in advancing the profession.
1 Kaplan Financial Education, CFP Certification vs. MS in Personal Financial Planning: Everything You Need to Decide, March 31, 2021.
2 The American College of Financial Services, Master of Science in Financial Planning (MSFP)
3 Kitces, Michael, What Comes After CFP Certification? Finding Your Niche Or Specialization With Post-CFP Designations, March 24,2014.