Marcela Michel had nearly finished her degree in finance at the University of Georgia when she discovered the personal financial planning program. She quickly switched majors.

“It was the best decision I ever made,” says Michel, who is interning at Homrich Berg in Atlanta this summer.

Unlike Texas Tech’s program, well-known among those drawn to financial planning, Georgia’s program is only a few years old and few students even know about it when they apply to the university. “Almost everyone in the major just found it randomly,” says Michel.  But once they discover it, she says, “they become obsessed with it. There are so many routes to take with this degree.”

Matthew Riggins happened upon the financial planning program after he had completed all the course work for a degree in sociology, a major he’d selected because he was interested in urban poverty and wanted to find a way to help people climb out of it. But in his sociology classes, he says, “We just talked about how bad big corporations are. It seemed they were afraid of capitalism.”

Riggins was a regular listener of Clark Howard, the consumer activist radio host. “Howard always said you have to find a CFP to get advice,” Riggins says. So Riggins looked into the CFP designation and learned that the planning program at Georgia would prepare him to take the exam.

Both Michel and Riggins aim to gain experience and then set up their own practices.

Unlike many college financial planning programs, the one at UGA is not housed in the business school. “We were originally going to be put in the Kerry College of Business, but [the business school] didn’t want it because they couldn’t make enough money on it,” Riggins says.

Atlanta houses big corporations like Coca-Cola that contribute to business programs, he says. Personal finance has been tucked away in the College of Family and Consumer Services, along with majors such as human development, food and nutrition, textiles, merchandising and interior design. This is one reason that students often have a tough time finding it.

One of the professors in the program, John Grable, who joined the faculty in July 2012, is interested particularly in behavioral finance research and the human body’s reaction to the stress of receiving financial planning assistance. His research looks at factors such as increased heart rate and sweat production in financial planning clients. “There is a physiological change,” he says. “The client is often so stressed” that it affects the quality of the planning process.

Grable, too, followed a circuitous route to UGA and his journeys illustrate the problems that would-be financial planners have finding guidance in academia. He grew up in Reno, Nev., where he was always passionate about investing, and graduated from the University of Nevada in 1987 with a B.S. in economics and business administration, then completed an MBA at Clarkson University. But college in no way prepared him to become a financial planner. “Never in a single course did we talk about household income.”

After spending a few years in Boston as a benefits administrator, he returned to Reno and set up his own financial planning firm. Although he had a degree in economics and an MBA, “no one ever talked about clients or how they make decisions,” he says. “I was young and naïve and it didn’t occur to me that being young was a disadvantage and that I could do things to hurt people.”

A couple came to him in 1994 wanting help creating a portfolio. When the market tanked, they sold: They bought high and sold low. “That was a trigger point for me,” he says. “I decided I had to go to Virginia Tech and get a Ph.D. so I could teach planning students.”

After he completed his Ph.D., he went briefly to Texas Tech and then was recruited by Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., in August 1999. That program had 12 students at the time and was in danger of shutting down. But by the time he left last year, it had a healthy number of 75 undergrads and 100 gradu­ate students.

He says the advantage for the students in the Georgia program is that they are constantly exposed to client practice.  “What we had to learn by experience, they can learn in the classroom,” he says. The program requires students to complete at least one internship and the Atlanta area is populated with numerous thriving advisory firms.

Grable’s interests include what he calls “financial therapy,” which he defines as a blend of social work, marriage and family therapy, and financial planning, and he says UGA is at the forefront of the field. He considers it a model for training financial planners. “The vast majority of planners see that what we teach has less to do with asset allocation and more to do with dealing with emotions,” he says.

Riggins (who asked me to give the keynote speech to UGA financial planning graduates in April of this year) has so far served an internship with a financial advisor at First Citizens Securities Bank and Trust in Columbia, S.C. He aspires one day to “adopt a community” as Harris Rosen, a multimillionaire hotel owner in Orlando, did in Tangelo Park, Fla., funding free day care, scholarship programs, community centers, etc.

Riggins particularly likes the UGA program’s emphasis on community. The Aspire Clinic, where he is working this summer, offers free financial advice to the Athens/Clarke County community of 100,000.  “We have the most racially diverse and economically diverse county in the U.S.,” says Grable.

It is also the second poorest community in the U.S. “The general population is very poor. We can get someone making $250,000 and someone who hasn’t had a job in 20 years.”

Many UGA students also participate in the free tax preparation service, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance or VITA. For the 2012 tax year, the VITA program helped keep more than $5 million in the local community, mostly by finding ways to reduce residents’ tax liabilities, Riggins says.

His first client earned $18,000 in 2012 and expected to get a $500 tax refund. By using various tax credits, Riggins was able to turn that refund into $7,000.
Grable says that kind of spirit was the sort that helped save the program in Kansas. “If you empower undergrads and give them support and get out of the way, they are amazing,” he says.

Mary Rowland can be reached at She has been a business and personal finance journalist for 30 years and has written two books for financial advisors: Best Practices and In Search of the Perfect Model.