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Becoming a pro: MBA vs. CFP, CPA or CFA?

Business woman in front crowd
  • A CFP is designed for people who want to help individuals make investment decisions.
  • The CPA license requires that you pass the four-part Uniform CPA Exam.
  • The CFA, like the CFP, can't replicate the MBA's networking pool.

When Jaime Campbell comes to the table to help a client business boost its revenue and market share, she brings an accounting and tax background plus a broad understanding of financial services and corporate acumen.

Campbell, director of specialized services for Bartolomei Pucciarelli, a New Jersey accounting firm, has that scope of knowledge because she's a certified public accountant, or CPA, and holds a Master of Business Administration, or MBA, from Rutgers University.

"The CPA gave me access to my firm, my golden ticket in," Campbell says. "My MBA helps me work with and understand my clients, and work with them to help grow their business."

However, Campbell is more unique than commonplace. Many financial-services professionals choose to advance their careers with a certification or head back to college for a master's degree.

Keith Hickerson, senior strategy consultant for The American College in Philadelphia, says often the decision comes down to what point you are in your career. "Either way, I think you need to continue learning," Hickerson says.

This article examines three well-known certifications in financial services and compares the value and cost of each to a master's degree.

Certified Financial Planner

Training for this certification zeroes in on learning how to advise individuals about investments, and financial and estate planning.

It's a self-study program that requires most people to take six courses online or in the classroom, then pass a 10-hour, two-day final exam.

Jeff Nauta, a principal with Henrickson Nauta Wealth Advisors near Grand Rapids, Mich., says this is the premier certification to be able to guide people along the spectrum of financial planning decisions, including investing to pay for college and retirement.

"Even as an MBA who goes into financial planning ... you are going to need the CFP for financial planning and advising," says Nauta, who has CFP and CFA, or chartered financial analyst, certifications.

The cost of prep courses for the CFP credential is $4,500 to $5,000, Nauta says, unless you already have a law degree, or CPA or CFA certifications. That enables you to skip the six courses and go to the final exam. The exam, administered several times a year nationwide, carries a $595 fee.

Hickerson, who also holds the CFP designation, says the certification training is much more focused on financial planning than an MBA student would get in graduate school. It's primarily designed for people who want to help individuals make investment decisions.

"If you want to provide investment advice or market investment products to individuals, either through an independent investment adviser, an insurance company or retail bank, this is the credential that separates the dilettantes from the experts," says Roy Cohen, career coach and author of "The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide."

Nauta says the biggest disadvantage for people with a CFP rather than an MBA is they don't have "the networking value of the MBA," meaning they can't tap a university's vast network of business school alumni to help advance their careers.

Certified public accountant

For accountants and auditors looking to climb the corporate ladder, securing the CPA license is one way to do it. The CPA gives you more specific training in accounting, auditing and taxation than an MBA degree, says Campbell.


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