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There’s a reason that the number of universities offering degrees in financial planning has surged over the past decade: as many financial planners hit retirement age, vacancies in the field are predicted to skyrocket.

While the coming dearth of experienced fiscal-planning experts may sound like a bleak prospect from the client end, it could be a boon for college students or career changers with an interest in finance. The trend towards financial planning education has been strengthened by another unlikely force: college students and recent graduates who, in the wake of the 2008-2009 financial crisis and its general cynicism towards the corporate and investment banking industry, sought to practice other finance-related professions where their economics, business and finance degrees would be valued. (For related reading, see: Want to Be a Financial Planner? Click Here.)

Know Your Degrees

Before you wade through the statistics and expert advice on the best schools for financial planning, it’s helpful to know what a degree in financial planning is — and, more importantly, what it is not. Degrees in finance-related subjects have evolved dramatically over the last 25 years, with a growing number of universities offering curriculum outside of the traditional theoretically based courses of study that a typical economics or finance degree offers. (For related reading, see: An Introduction to Financial Planning Organizations.)

A Difference of Degree: Economics, Finance, and Financial Planning

It helps to remember that while economics degrees may be heavily quantitative in nature — requiring advanced levels of mathematics — that economics is ultimately a social science that focuses on human behavior. Unlike sociology and psychology, however, economics attempts to analyze aspects of human behavior that are strictly quantifiable. A degree in economics will teach you to understand not only markets, but also the relationships of market forces on individuals, society, and governments. Economics provides a strong background in how taxation and government regulations and spending affects the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, as well as the behavior of individuals in the marketplace. (For related reading, see: Financial Planning: It's About More than Money.)

Conversely, finance degrees, which focus more on practical applications of economics, have a professional rather than a theoretical bent that prepares students to work in real estate, investment firms, or corporate finance. Such programs focus more on financial issues in relation to individuals and corporations rather than governments. (For more, see: Want a Career in Asset Management? Read This First.)

Financial planning degrees and certificates are similar to finance programs, yet with a narrowed focus on the individual: investments, tax, estate and retirement planning, risk management, insurance and other financial planning subjects as related to individual investors. (For related reading, see: Financial Planning for Veterans.)

Recent History

It wasn’t until 1969 that the discipline and practice of financial planning began to gain footing in the academy. At that time, zero degree professional degree programs for the subject existed. Since that year, when the College for Financial Planning was established, more than 330 CFP board-registered certificate and degree-granting programs were founded. While the majority of such programs grant professional certificates or undergraduate degrees, more than 45 Master’s and PhD level programs now exist — solidifying the field of financial planning not only in the business world, but also in the academy. (For related reading, see: Trends Challenging Financial Advisors.)

Best of the Bunch

As financial planning degree programs grow each year, it’s becoming trickier to sort out the best from the simply adequate. Here are a handful of top-notch programs you may want to consider:

The University of Georgia

Location: Athens, Ga.

Website: www.financialplanning.uga.edu

Since this highly ranked public university added an undergraduate major in financial planning nearly a decade ago, enrollment in the program has surged. That may be due to several unique aspects of the program that offer unparalleled hands-on experience for future financial planners. At the university’s own financial planning clinic, called Aspire, students have the opportunity to work under the supervision of faculty in providing financial advice to clients from the community.  Required community service hours — where students can practice their tax knowledge while preparing returns for low-income families — provide the kind of practical experience that financial institutions ultimately seek in new hires.

Boston University

Location: Boston, Mass.

Website: www.professional.bu.edu/programs/financial-planning/

Founded more than 25 years ago, this highly respected financial planning program is housed within the university’s Center for Professional Education. The top-notch faculty, who brings an impressively rich level of professional experience to the classroom, is arguably this program's greatest asset. Strengths in financial planning, wealth management, business development, law, investment, retirement planning, financial advisory services and insurance rank among faculty backgrounds.

The College of Financial Planning

Location: Greenwood Village, Colo.

Website: www.cffpinfo.com

The birthright of Certified Financial Planning sits at the College of Financial Planning, which was founded in 1972 by a group of advisors who dreamed that financial planning would be recognized as an independent, universally recognized profession. In addition to undergraduate and certificate programs, the college also offers Master of Science degrees in finance, financial analysis, and personal financial planning. The focus on preparing students for hands-on, real-world situations has clearly paid off: graduates can brag about the 75% average passing rate on the notoriously tough CFP exams.

Texas Tech University

Location: Lubbock, Texas

Website: www.pfp.ttu.edu

This public institution deep in the heart of Texas features 11 CFP board-registered programs, from undergraduate to doctoral level. The program benefits not only from a nearly $2 million dollar grant for graduate education in financial planning, but also a faculty whose deep practical experience prepares students to work in the field.

San Diego State University

Website: www.sdsu.edu/finplan

Location: San Diego, California

This illustrious program has been going strong since 1980, with the founding of a master’s level financial planning degree program housed within the university’s business school. That environment continues to benefit the financial planning programs — which now include a B.S. in Financial Services with certificate in personal financial planning, an M.S. in Business Administration with a concentration in financial and tax planning, and a graduate credit certificate in executive financial planner advanced certificate. SDSU’s graduate students benefit from a rich business curriculum, with required courses in statistics, business law and economics.

The Bottom Line

If you’ve decided that a degree in the growing field of financial planning might suit your interests and skills, you’ll want to do careful research on the best programs currently available. While every program will prepare you to work as a certified financial planner, the courses of study vary enough that you’ll want to investigate what kind of curriculum best suits your goals. Do you want to study in a business school environment? Is it important to you to receive hands-on experience in the community? Make sure to check out the faculty roster: do faculty members have professional backgrounds in the type of financial planning position you ultimately seek to obtain? (For related reading, see: CPA, CFA or CFP - Pick Your Abbreviation Carefully.)

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