by Melissa Klein

A new set of letters has been added to the alphabet soup of credentials - the newly launched Certified College Planning Specialist.

The credential, aimed at advisors who specialize in college planning, is the brainchild of Pittsford, N.Y.-based Savingforcollege.com and Plentywood, Mont.-based College Funding, who teamed up to form the National Institute of Certified College Planners.

"The idea grew out of suggestions by planners who had developed a specialty in college planning and recognized a need for serious education around that body of knowledge," said Jeffrey Clark, chief operating officer of Savingforcollege.com and a member of the NICCP advisory council.

With an increasing array of college planning vehicles available, such as Coverdell education savings accounts, 529 plans, and qualified savings bonds, to name a few, and a maze of financial aid information to wade through, Clark said both firms, which offer college planning training courses, had been contacted by advisors asking for training to show clients that they had specialized knowledge in college planning.

While financial planning and other professional credentials abound, the NICCP hopes to make its mark through specialization. "What will distinguish us is our narrow focus. We don’t want to be a generalist credentialing program," Clarke said. "This is strictly for advisors who are building a college planning practice."

"From an advisor perspective and a professional perspective, there are enough folks expressing interest in the program to fill the void that exists in the marketplace," Clark said, adding that the credential serves to give the public "a comfort level that the advisor is qualified and trained to provide these services."

In addition to offering the certification to individuals, Clark said the NICCP also hopes to build ties with broker-dealers who want their reps to get certified.

Candidates for the designation must possess a certification or designation within the financial services industry, such as a CFP, CLU or RIA; be a licensed professional (such as an attorney or CPA); or be approved by the NICCP advisory council based on education, experience and credentials.

Since its launch in April, Clark said 71 people, including 10 CPAs, have earned the designation, another hundred are enrolled in the program, and more than 1,400 have registered online at www.niccp.com, the NICCP’s Web site.

The curriculum, which is a synthesis of materials from both College Funding and Savingforcollege.com, is comprised of three self-study modules that can be completed online or in hard copy. Advisors must also pass an online exam after each module. The exams, which must be completed in 30 minutes, are compromised of 40 multiple choice and true/false questions randomly selected by computer from 200 questions developed by the NICCP’s eight-member advisory council.

In addition to Clark, the other members of the advisory council are: Savingforcollege.com founder Joseph Hurley; College Funding principals Rick Darvis and Ron Them; Stephen Capizzi, principal of CORE Financial Advisors; Lloyd Paradiso, founder of the Independent Educational Consultants Association; Kris Schaeffer, president of Kris Schaeffer & Associates; and Kaye Thomas, president of Fairmark Press Inc.

The first module, "Paying for College," focuses on identifying short-term strategies (for clients with five years or less to plan) that can help clients improve financial aid eligibility and limit their reliance on student loans.

The second module, "Saving for College," covers longer term planning strategies, such as life insurance, tax efficient mutual funds, Coverdell education savings accounts, and 529 plans, as well as estate and tax planning issues.

The third module, "Advanced College Funding Strategy," deals with implementing a plan, tying in tax incentives, creative borrowing strategies, and coordinating investment withdrawals.

The average person takes 30 to 60 days to complete the curriculum and earn the designation, according to Clark.

The cost for the online materials is $1,185, which includes the testing fees and the first year membership fee to the NICCP. Hard copy materials cost $1,275 plus shipping.

After the first year, members pay an annual membership fee of $95 per year and must complete 12 hours of continuing professional education to keep their certification.

The institute has already established reciprocity with the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards so CFPs can receive 16 CPE hours for earning the certification. Clark said NICCP is working with the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy to establish a benchmark of CPE for state CPA societies.

The NICCP will offer members discounts on software and training and products from Savingforcollege.com and College Funding. The group plans to hold an annual meeting for members during the second quarter of next year.

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