Making Sense Out of Dollars

October 7th, 2013

As the sun starts to set on a steamy July evening, 17 financial planners are sitting around patio tables in the courtyard of the Georgia Center, taking notes and strategizing with their teams about how to question clients who are reluctant to discuss money. A nearby bar beckons, but the long day continues at the first-ever Financial Planning Association Residency Program at UGA.

Finally, the groups start to break apart. Five top financial planners from around the country, who serve as mentors and role-play as the “clients,” and the professionals (typically with one to five years of experience) are prepared to meet again in the morning. That’s when the teams will be prepared to ask questions that encourage clients to open up about their financial habits and aspirations. Later in the week they’ll develop and present a financial plan for their clients.

“It’s definitely been more intense than I was expecting, but it’s been great. It’s having to think quickly and having to be on your toes all day, but that’s what you need to do with clients,” says Alden Mergenthal, CFP®, a 2010 graduate of FACS.

The weeklong summer program is one of the ways in which FACS is expanding its experiential learning opportunities in family financial planning – one of the nation’s fastest growing careers – for students, alumni and professionals. The experiential case study learning experience came with a bonus: Participants earned three months toward the CFP® work experience requirement, in just one week.

Family financial planning was introduced as part of the FACS curriculum in 2006, and milestones include the summer residency program and the country’s first clinical practicum in financial planning – at the ASPIRE Clinic on campus – in 2010. The family financial planning faculty in FACS’ Department of Housing and Consumer Economics also is expanding, with the addition this fall of Ann Sanders Woodyard, CFP®, as an assistant professor.

FACS seeks to help students apply concepts taught in courses to real-life situations, and in doing so, UGA is creating one of the most intensive experiential learning programs in the country for undergraduates, graduate students and professionals, says Sheri Lokken Worthy, professor and head of FACS’ Department of Housing and Consumer Economics.

At most universities with financial planning programs, students have little interaction with real people, says John Grable CFP®, Athletic Association Professor of Financial Planning who joined the faculty in 2012.

“Georgia is totally different,” he says. “From Day One, what Georgia has tried to do is to incorporate what students are doing in class into public service.”

That’s not all.

The first online course in financial planning was offered this past summer (taught by Grable), and the College plans to launch an online master’s degree in financial planning in 2014. The master’s degree will appeal to financial planners, career changers, stay-at-home parents and members of the military, Grable says, who need the freedom and flexibility of online learning but want to earn a degree from UGA.

ASPIRE Clinic: Attracting Attention

In the ASPIRE Clinic, which is in a two-story brick building next to the McPhaul Child Development Lab, student “financial planning service providers” offer counseling services at no cost to low- and middle-income local residents, students, faculty and staff throughout the year, says Megan Ford, ASPIRE Clinic coordinator.

“It gives the students the opportunity to meet directly with clients who are in true need of financial help,” says Joseph Goetz, associate professor in FACS’ family financial planning program and director of the clinical practicum in financial planning. “They’re trying to help the client build skills and be self sufficient in managing their financial lives.”

The number of individuals and families served by the ASPIRE Clinic continues to grow. In 2012, ASPIRE reached 750 households through financial education community outreach programming (150 households) and the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (600 households), and student “financial planning service providers” served about 50 individuals, couples and families within the ASPIRE Clinic.

“These are real people with real issues,” Ford says. “What we see the client taking away from the experience is generally a decrease in stress and pressure. They are more empowered to deal with their financial situation that seems so overwhelming in the beginning.”

In the first six months of 2013, ASPIRE provided help to about 900 families through its outreach programs, including the IRS-sponsored Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA). During the 2013 spring and summer semesters, student “financial planning service providers” assisted more than 50 individuals, couples and families.

“The impact on the financial planning students is really profound. They have the opportunity to work in a setting that helps people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to access these services elsewhere,” Ford says. “It’s a huge growth experience for them to begin applying their education and skills in a supportive training environment.”

In the ASPIRE Clinic, individuals often are having discussions for the first time about their money, says Chase Burkhart, an undergraduate financial planning student and officer with the UGA chapter of the Student Financial Planning Association. The students, working pro bono, educate clients about how to start investing and manage debt, analyze employee benefit options related to health plans and retirement savings, and show them how to work with a financial planner. In each session, the students learn how to improve their eye contact and body language and how to ask the right questions and use professional language.

“It builds their confidence in working with clients directly and it builds their communication skills in a much safer environment,” Goetz says. “They’re being observed and receiving feedback, and they’re not going to lose their jobs.”

The five to 10 students per semester who typically meet with multiple clients per semester (from one meeting to multiple appointments), receive feedback from faculty supervisors and peers. The ASPIRE Clinic’s high-quality video recording system enables students and professors to review the sessions.

“It’s a privilege for the students to participate in ASPIRE,” Grable says. “They’re able to do it in an educational environment and a supervised environment. When I graduated college and went into financial planning, there was nobody with a Ph.D. looking over my shoulder and helping me. Here, the students are light years ahead of other people their age. Probably what makes UGA most unique is the ASPIRE Clinic.”

The ASPIRE Clinic provides counseling and financial literacy education in a multi-disciplinary setting, where family financial planning students collaborate with peers studying marriage/family therapy, law, nutrition, and home environment and design. “The students are able to become more well-rounded professionals and take into the real world additional knowledge of relationships, nutrition, the legal system, the home environment and how all of those things impact individuals, couples and families,” Ford says. \

The real-life work conducted in the ASPIRE Clinic garnered a $35,000 donation from the SunTrust Foundation, to fund furniture, computers, new software and technology, and other items for a financial literacy lab. The lab is a multi-functional space for meeting with clients and collaborating with other service providers, says Megan Ford, ASPIRE Clinic Coordinator.

The SunTrust Foundation seeks to support efforts that help improve the financial well-being of communities, and the focus of the ASPIRE Clinic and its capital needs were a natural fit, says Kirby Thompson, senior vice president of Community and Government Affairs with SunTrust Bank.

“You have the students that are actually being trained and learning, and they’re going to move into this discipline when they graduate,” Thompson says. “We’re helping the university invest in the professional development of those students ... and helping the clients that come to the ASPIRE Clinic benefit from those services.”

Clinical research – rarely done in the financial planning field – also is under way in the ASPIRE Clinic. This summer, students supervised by Grable conducted a financial experiment that measured physiological stress when clients meet with a financial planner, which some equate to the pain of visiting the dentist.

“Almost all of the research we’ve done so far shows that financial planning is creating stress among clients, and that’s the last thing you want. Stress creates panic,” Grable says. “We’re doing basic research trying to figure out, is there something that’s causing this stress, and if there is, can we counteract it?”

Placing real people with a financial planning student and measuring their responses is groundbreaking, and it’s connected to experiential learning, he says. “The students are getting the experience, but the research is informing how the students are being taught.”

Hands-On Help

During tax season, family financial planning students provide free income tax assistance to Athens- Clarke County residents and UGA employees through VITA. Thousands of returns have been filed over the years for individuals through the program, which requires the students to undergo training and pass a test before preparing the taxes on a volunteer basis. Under the direction of Lance Palmer, associate professor, the VITA program improves students’ confidence in an area they may be reluctant to work in – taxes – and gives experiential learning by taking them out of their comfort zone.

“It was my first exposure to actually working with someone else’s money and seeing the interactions and emotions that come along with that, and doing it in a safe learning environment, too,” says Nolan McClure, a FACS master’s student in financial planning who earned his bachelor’s degree from the Terry College of Business in 2012.

The hands-on learning that the 2013 summer residency program offered professionals like Mergenthal helped her reframe her thought process as she works with each individual client. The weeklong program attracted professionals from across the country to UGA, seeking to grow their knowledge and advance their careers by networking with peers and mentors.

“I’m already taking notes about how I want to say this in meetings,” Mergenthal says, after the night session in Georgia Center’s courtyard ends. “I’m really enjoying the process, but I’m anxious to get back to work.”

Categories: Financial Planning, Housing and Consumer EconomicsFinancial Planning


In this category: Financial Planning