When financial planner Beth Walker’s son was born in 2002, she used the College Board’s cost calculator to project how much it would cost to send him to college. “I was literally blown away,” she says, by the $250,000 estimate. She was sure there had to be a better way to plan for college.

Walker, an advisor with the Las Vegas-based Wealth Consulting Group, first earned a designation as a certified college planning specialist. But she was disappointed she couldn’t find more formal education on college planning through the profession’s main credentialing channels.

“This niche is the stepchild of the industry,” says Walker, who is based in Colorado Springs. So she started developing her own resources, then eventually her own specialty firm, now known as the Center for College Solutions (it was first called College Funding Coaches).

Other financial advisors have tried to fill the industry void as well. Joe Messinger was at a loss more than a decade ago when his friends leaving graduate school asked him how to manage their student loan debt.

“I had to say, ‘I don’t know anything about that stuff,’” he says. “I started poking around but couldn’t do anything in my big broker-dealer firm and I found no good advice out there.” His initial thoughts about how to pay off education debt evolved into, “How do we stop this now before we get in over our heads?” he says.

Messinger and his colleague Ryan Sheppard were young and looking for an underserved market for which they could build a practice, he says. In 2009, they co-founded Dublin, Ohio-based Capstone Wealth Partners, a fee-only planning firm with an emphasis on college planning and a target market of dual-income, mass-affluent families. Messinger runs the college planning side; Sheppard focuses on investments and clients’ other planning needs. Early this year, they launched Capstone College Partners, which offers videos and other resources to teach other advisors how to do college planning and market a practice.

Beatrice Schultz, co-founder of Vancouver, Wash.-based Westface College Planning, first heard about the subject in 2010 while attending an industry conference. To learn more, the former chemical engineer, who spent 20 years in the semiconductor industry before becoming a CFP in 2007, joined a couple of organizations and met Walker. She learned a lot about the academic side of college planning from the National College Advocacy Group (NCAG).

When advisors reach out to Schultz to ask about building a college planning practice, she stresses the importance of really understanding the specialty and being passionate about it. It’s easy to enter the field as an “expert,” she says, but harder to actually be an expert.

Developing A Focus
Like students searching for colleges, financial advisors also need to “find the right fit” when determining the scope of their practice as college planning practitioners.

Walker has found that most advisors get into college planning to discuss cash flow with parents and don’t think they’ll have to actually talk to students—because that’s what guidance counselors and consultants do. But from her vantage point, as a parent and a planner, she says, “You can’t unbundle this process.” 

She had this epiphany when the child of one of her clients, upon arriving at college, “had a complete meltdown,” she says, and had to be taken home. “I never asked if he’d spent time away from home or what he wanted to major in,” she says. “He wasn’t emotionally ready [for college],” she says. An extreme case, she says, “but it was so telling to me.”

After meeting with parents and kids, Walker comes up with a specific “prescription” detailing what the family must do to succeed in the college planning process. During this process, they can opt to be do-it-yourselfers or choose her services à la carte. She doesn’t personally tackle everything related to college.

“The job I’m applying for is like a contractor on a kitchen remodel,” she says. “I know your time and budget, and I have excellent subcontractors.”

Her subcontractors, experts in their fields, help kids figure out things such as suitable majors and careers, how to get recruited for college sports and land athletic scholarships and how to organize college applications and essays. The subcontractors also help families file financial aid forms, find the schools that offer the most need- or merit-based aid and appeal for a more generous financial aid package from a college. Walker also works with a CPA who specializes in tax planning for clients during the college years and works with a coach who helps high schoolers get the mind set to succeed in college.

To keep things simple, the Center for College Solutions does all the billing for clients and pays each subcontractor. If clients want financial planning beyond the cash flow piece for college, Walker provides this through her RIA firm, the Wealth Consulting Group.

She also serves as a subcontractor for other advisors on the college-planning piece (test prep, etc.) while those advisors handle the financial side of college for their clients. Last year, she tried to work as a paraplanner or back office for advisors on all college matters but decided not to pursue this business model. It was extremely complicated and required “too much time herding cats,” she says—particularly if an advisor who wanted to use her services had a different broker-dealer, different regulatory structure and different licensing.

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